Recently, I retired for the third time. The first time I retired from the International Mission Board; the second time I retired from Mid-America Seminary, and the third time I retired from Central Baptist Church in Crandall, Texas, where I served as teaching pastor. The other day, I reflected on my years of ministry (53 years), and I asked myself if my ministry was successful. (At Least it was long!) Of course, that is for the Lord and others to say, but that reflection made me wonder—How do you define success in ministry? A missionary might focus on the number of folks baptized and churches planted. A seminary professor might point to years taught, books written, and students trained. For sure, in past times pastors pointed to churches served, buildings constructed, and offices held in the association, state convention, and SBC. Those measurements, though common, do not speak to what the Bible says.
The Bible evaluates success in terms of faithfulness. Matthew 25:21 says,
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (ESV)
This verse comes from the parable of the talents. In the parable, the master evaluated his servants according to the responsibility he gave them. From the third servant, he expected little, but got nothing. He praised the first two but condemned the third. I believe one lesson here is that God just expects us to use what we’ve been given. He does not expect us to achieve like others do. The three servants received different resources with which to work, but the master held all three accountable.
Another passage speaks to faithfulness in service. In 1 Corinthians 4:2 the Apostle Paul writes,
“Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” (ESV)
Warren Wiersbe comments on this verse:
The responsibility of the steward is to be faithful to his master. A steward may not please the members of the household; he may not even please some of the other servants; but if he pleases his own master, he is a good steward. This same idea is expressed in Romans 14:4.
So, the main issue is not, “Is Paul popular?” or, “Is Apollos a better preacher than Paul?” The main issue is, “Have Paul, Apollos, and Peter been faithful to do the work God assigned to them?” Jesus had this same test in mind when He told the parable recorded in Luke 12:41-48. If a servant of God is faithful in his personal life, in his home, and in his ministry of the Word, then he is a good steward and will be adequately rewarded. (Bible Exposition Commentary)
The point I’m trying to make is that God measures success differently than we do. I’ve known faithful missionaries to Muslim countries who made only a handful of converts in a four-year term overseas. They serve in a “resistant” culture, where converts are few. When we served in the southern Philippines, we baptized more people in one two-week evangelistic campaign than all the missionaries in Thailand had in total in twenty-five years. So, which group of missionaries was more faithful? William Carey, the Father of the Modern Missions Movement, labored in India for seven years before he made his first convert. I’ve known seminary professors who taught and mentored their students well, but they never wrote a lauded book. Most pastors minister in obscurity. They never serve in a megachurch, nor are they elected to an office in the state or national convention. No, they just preach the gospel weekly and shepherd their flocks as best they can.
I remember a conversation I had with a deacon years ago. He told me that he played defensive end on his high school football team. The coach told him one day, “You might play a whole game and never make a tackle. Still, you would still grade perfect for the game because you did your job on every play.” Surely, that applies to success in ministry, also. What did God assign you to do? Did you do that faithfully?
So, here is my answer–in the end, success in ministry is to “bloom where God plants you.”