There is perhaps no job that more fully defies the American dream than that of pastor. The idea lives deep within us that if we just work hard good things will come to us, but that is not always the case. A priest could do nothing at all and see his parish grow. He could work like a dog, putting in seventy or eighty hours a week, and watch his congregation dwindle. We often assume that if a parish is filled to the brim and hopping with activity, that pastor must be good at what he does, whereas if the parish is five minutes away from boarding up the windows, that pastor must be a disaster. In fact though, it is possible for the opposite to be true. The pastor of the small church may be slowly building a loving, sustainable, Christ centered community, while the pastor of the large church may be whipping up a cult of personality that will evaporate as soon as he moves on.
Pastoring is relational work. As such, it is not easily quantifiable. A quick look at a parish’s finances or membership rolls will tell you something about the health of the parish, but it may not tell you anything at all about how well the priest is doing. Yet if ever there was a profession in which we need accountability, it is pastoral work. Parishes need to be able to assess the job that a pastor is doing, as do the dioceses and bishops (or other adjudicatory bodies) who oversee them.
Far too often in the modern Church, our answer has been to borrow our methods of evaluating the success of our ministries from the corporate world or from therapeutic disciplines. I submit that there is a better model available to us in the pages of Scripture. The pastoral epistles — 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon — contain within them measurable standards by which pastoral work can be judged. The following list of marks of a good pastoral ministry are all gleaned from the first three pastoral epistles and each one can be used as a diagnostic tool.
Successful pastors are faithful teachers
According to Paul, faithfulness is the absolute key to successful ministry. If you are faithful as a pastor, your ministry will be a success, regardless of what the immediate outcomes appear to be.
Of course, a word like faithfulness is easy to interpret so widely as to be practically meaningless, but Paul is very specific about what faithfulness means. It is absolute fidelity to the gospel.
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying ) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Tim. 1:5-8)
The heart of pastoral ministry for Paul is preaching the gospel. As pastors know, this comes about in a variety of settings, including not just the pulpit but also in the celebration of the liturgy; in Bible studies; in the education of children; in preparation for baptisms, weddings, first Communions, and funerals; in hearing confessions; and in making pastoral visits with people in their homes, at their hospital beds, or any other place they might be.
This is not an abstract matter for Paul. He is clear that the gospel we are to teach is that which has been handed on to us by those who came before. “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). For Paul, this means the whole doctrine of Christ as the Church has preserved it, particularly in the Scriptures. Paul even gives examples of how those who either change or subtract from that doctrine run aground, such as Hymenaeus and Philetus who taught that the resurrection of the faithful had already happened, by which they “upset the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:16-18).
Paul knows that the temptation to avoid teaching parts of the faith will be great. “The time will come,” he says, when people “will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Our job when that happens is to “preach the word in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:1). This means that we have to trust in the power of the gospel to do its job. We cannot rely on other measures of success. Our job is to trust that the word we have been given to share is powerful and that God is at work in it even when we are not able to see it.
The evaluative tools for this are manifold: Is the pastor preaching and teaching the full doctrine of the faith without addition or subtraction? Is the pastor’s teaching grounded in Holy Scripture and the sacred tradition of the Church? Is the pastor utilizing every opportunity to share the Gospel in the community? How much of the pastor’s time is spent in this work as opposed to other types of activities?
Successful pastors are living examples
In 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul lays out in detail the requirements for someone to be eligible to be a bishop, priest, or deacon (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). Though the work of each of these offices differ from one another, the standards are very similar. A minister of the Gospel must be the husband of only one wife, sober, hospitable, kind, devout, and willing to show through the management of his own household that he believes the gospel is true. “For if a man does not know how to manage his own household,” says Paul, “how can he care for God’s Church?” (1 Tim. 3:5)
If they are anything like me, many of my fellow pastors may bristle at the idea that how we manage our family lives affects how we act in the pastoral office. After all, family life is messy and unpredictable even under the best of circumstances. I do not think that Paul is saying that pastors ought to be perfect people with perfect lives. Rather, his point is that we are to be living icons of Christ in our communities. When we step into a room with a clerical collar on, we become reminders of God’s presence. As such, we are to conduct our lives in such a way that the iconography is not destroyed. How many people have been driven from the Church because a priest or minister acted hypocritically or inappropriately?
The point then is that we priests are to face the difficulties and struggles of our lives always bearing in mind our calling as ambassadors for Christ. Ordained ministry is not simply a job but a calling. How is the priest approaching his family life? Is he modeling Christian discipleship both on and off the clock? How much time does he spend in personal prayer, piety, and study?
Successful pastors avoid wasting time arguing
Churches attract all kind of personalities, including those who are there primarily to pick fights. Church is where the trolls used to go before there was an Internet. Pastors sometimes feel powerless to avoid standing up to such people. Paul is clear that they should not be. “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law,” he says, “for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Tit. 3:9). In other words, do not let yourself get bogged down in trying to sort out people’s baggage. Your job is to be a pastor, not a life coach. You do not need to solve the fight over whether the door should be painted green or red. You should not allow yourself to be baited into an argument about minutia. And when you are standing on Gospel principles, there is no reason to continue to put up with a disruptive person who assumes that you have to be nice to them because that is what priests do. “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). There is no need to argue and re-argue settled matters, especially if some principle of core doctrine is at stake.
This does not mean, however, that you have license to run roughshod over people. We are to correct others kindly and patiently, always leaving open the possibility for people who have rejected the Gospel to turn towards it and live (2 Timothy 2:23-26). Nonetheless, the wise pastor learns quickly that there is a difference between the genuine searching heart of a person struggling with the faith and the neediness of a person whose only interest is to take up your time for their own enjoyment or self aggrandizement.
When evaluating for this mark, the main question to ask is who the pastor spends his time with and how he discerns that? Where does the pastor’s energy go? How does he exercise his authority in the community? Many pastors, when they stop and look, are amazed at how much of their time is being monopolized by interactions that will never bear fruit. Rearranging one’s schedule and availability is one of the best things a pastor can do in order to work towards a more fruitful ministry.
Successful pastors endure suffering
Far fewer people would probably study for ordained ministry if the call to suffering was more emphasized, but pastoral ministry is clearly meant to be a path of suffering. There is no way around this. “All who desire to live godly in Christ will be persecuted,” Paul says (2 Tim. 3:12). This is especially true for pastors since our calling requires us to speak uncomfortable truths, to stand out distinctly from the surrounding culture at times, and to stand in solidarity with the people we serve as they suffer, offering to them the comfort of the gospel even at the most painful and tragic moments of life. “Suffer hardship with me,” Paul says, not only to Timothy but to all those whom Timothy will raise up into pastoral ministry. “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Of course, no one should go out looking for suffering. It is inevitable, however, that the suffering will come. The pastor needs to ask and to be asked how his ministry is causing him to suffer. The devil loves nothing more than to attack priests so as to try to deny the gifts of the Word and the sacraments to God’s people. How is this manifesting in the pastor’s life? Where are the marks of his suffering? How does his suffering affect the community he serves? How does he approach ministering to the suffering of others?
These are only some of the marks of successful parish ministry that can be discerned from the pastoral epistles. Many others could be highlighted. These epistles are a potent source of information on how ordained leaders are to live out their callings faithfully. Following their principles may not fill the pews every Sunday. In fact, at times it may cause them to shrink even more. Yet if we believe that our Lord is true to his Word, then we can trust that if we are being faithful in our ministry, he will act faithfully through us for the sake of his people. To each parish priest out there today, struggling with how to know if they are doing any good, Paul says, “Be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). In so doing, we plant seeds that we may never see grow to fruition, but that our Lord will continue to water and prepare for the day of the harvest.