?“My son breaks my heart,” he said. His words stunned me for I knew his son, albeit vaguely, and was impressed by the son’s reports of successful pastoral ministry of many years. Then, this godly father enlarged on his startling statement.
“I was thrilled when he first told his mother and me that he was planning to become a preacher, but it seems that somewhere along the way he lost focus and started doing things on his own steam. Now he is as bottom line-oriented as the manager of the local department store. His measure of success is all about numbers and money.”
It was not long after when I first heard reports of that son’s heavy drinking. Soon after there were rumors of inappropriate relationships, followed by a divorce and removal from ministry under dishonorable circumstances by his ordaining body. The behavior that brought about the action compounded his father’s heartbreak.
Jim was a good guy and a caring pastor. We attended seminary together. An e-mail contact announcing Jim’s suicide stunned me, as I feel sure it did many others who knew him. My seminary memories of Jim would never have made me suspect that such a thing might happen to him.
The stories about Jim in the days and weeks following the discovery of his body in a cheap apartment complex just did not fit the memories I had carried since our days together in seminary. Years of nagging by a wife who was never satisfied with Jim’s ministry had driven him first to a nervous breakdown, heavy drinking, and stress on his marriage that simply brought him to a place where-to use the words of another-“Jim ran away from home.”
The work of a preaching pastor is altogether too difficult for any one human being. We are usually a driven people. For many of us, our sense of having been called by God brings with it a great awareness and the fear that we might fail and bring upon ourselves some kind of professional and personal shame.
If we are not careful, we can resort to shallow measures of success in ministry: the kind of quick-fix and inflated numbers that have brought our country to an era of financial collapse. We need to realize that God’s measure of success for pastors is not bigger congregations and budgets. If that were the measure, then Sun Myung Moon is one of the most successful pastors in our generation and some of those organizations we list as cults are flourishing far more than most of us.
The “nickels and noses” measure of success that drives Wall Street must never be ours. Successive analyses of the causes of the current worldwide economic crisis often point to people who fell for that “bigger-is-always-better” lie. Nor is God’s measure of successful ministry measured by our outreach to the rich and famous in our various towns. If that is success, then Jesus was less than stellar.
For God, the measure of success is different. It is possible to work far beyond the normal strength of the human constitution, be a part of great things happening and still experience little or no fatigue because our energy for the work is provided not by the burning up of human tissue and falling for the world’s standards of success, but by the indwelling Spirit of power. This has been the discovery of a few unusual pastors. The pity is that they are indeed unusual.
“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
Attention recently has focused on the fact that pastors suffer a disproportionately high number of nervous breakdowns compared with people in other vocations and professions. The reasons are many, and for the most part they reflect credit on the servants of God. We sometimes try too hard and end up relying on our own strength and schemes.
I wonder whether we who claim to be children of the new creation are allowing ourselves to be cheated out of our heritage. Surely it should not be necessary to do spiritual work with the strength of natural human talents. God has promised to provide supernatural energies for supernatural tasks. The attempt to do the work of the Spirit without the Spirit’s enabling may explain the propensity to nervous collapse on the part of Christian ministers.
Just whose strength are you ministering in anyway? Is it yours or God’s?
Earlier in Isaiah’s prophecy, he tells of his personal spiritual renewal. He was ministering to the high and mighty, so much so that he measures the date by the death of his friend King Uzziah. It was around that time that he returned to the temple for a mighty new encounter with the Lord God and realized that his mouth was as dirty as that of the rest of his society. “I am a man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
If the standard of success for ministry is the same for you and me as it is for the rest of our world, then we would be a lot better off to just go and live as they live. The strength in which we minister is a higher strength. It does not make us better but it surely makes us different. 

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About The Author


The Rev. Dr. Leslie Holmes is professor of ministry and preaching at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia and Due West, SC. A Presbyterian minister, he was most recently senior pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA. Dr. Holmes has served churches in six states, including Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, and First Presbyterian Church in Pascagoula, MS. He has taught preaching, worship, and pastoral leadership on six continents and throughout North America. He is the author of several books.

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