The Secret to a Successful Pastoral Ministry

As a pastor and missionary for some 30 years now, I think the key to having a successful pastoral ministry. I want to present some thoughts on this to you here.

Bathing all you do in Prayer, as well as seeking guidance by prayer

One of the keys to having a successful ministry is understanding how all of the individual puzzle pieces fit together. Somethings can fit one jigsaw puzzle piece into another, but it doesn’t really go that way when you get to looking at the big picture. You can get people to church by giving them freebies, but you cannot get those kinds of people to financially support your church. Prayer is a joke for them. They just want more stuff.

Jesus shows us the pattern by focusing on prayer. I read somewhere in a book on prayer that prayer is the ministry itself. Actually standing to preach and talk is just what comes after prayer. In Christ’s most difficult times, he spent the night in prayer, like before he went to the cross. This is contrary to normal thinking, that we need to get a good night’s rest before a big day. Rather we need to do the work on our knees before we actually “do the work” physically.

So spending time in prayer before witnessing, for example, is exactly on target. Doors to people’s hearts won’t open because you knock, but because many are praying. Spurgeon was once asked what was the secret of his ministry and he pointed down. (He was on the pulpit.) The person was shocked! “You attribute Satan as your success?” No, and he walked around to a part behind the pulpit platform and opened a door going down, and there were a great number of men praying under the pulpit during his sermon. That is how these sermons reach hearts, not because of me, I am just a lowly instrument of God.

A successful pastor will have a group of men and women who pray forcefully through his ministry, and they labor to make it successful. The minister himself must also be a man of prayer.

Bathing everything in prayer means that activities are first prayed over before performed, but more than that, a successful ministry “plots his course” by the compass of prayer. What he does and the decisions that he makes are based on how God guides him in the prayer closet.

Clarity and Focus needs to saturate what you do

As I observe different ministers, pastors, and missionaries in my own ministry, I think one of the key problems most have is simply not being clear and focused on what is essential and important. They have good hearts actually, but they just simply cannot interact with their own ministry in a detached, aloof way to observe what they are doing wrong. If they would only record their own sermons and teachings, and then let them get cold for a few weeks, and then listen to them, to what they actually said, they would see that their words are confusing, they ramble, they beat around the bush, etc. So many pastors take up precious pulpit time with sick personal jokes and personal opinions, personal incidents. In eternity, nobody cares that somebody had road rage against you coming to church this morning. Keep it out of the pulpit time.

Some preachers have “gone down the rabbit hole” of rabbit trails. By this I mean they want to follow and explore every reference of everything they can possibly come up with in a sermon. I heard a sermon on Romans 12:1-2. The preacher got stuck on “therefore” about 10 minutes recounting all the places the word “therefore” occurs in Romans. Doubtless the word “therefore” is important, but that is a rabbit trail that leads nowhere important for a sermon on Romans 12:1-2.

Preach to Needs

Another great evil I see are pastors that preach up a storm, but what they preach rarely is used by the majority of people listening to them. Yes, by all means, preach the Old Testament. But we do not need to know all the intricate details of the Temple, and how they reveal God to us. One sermon, okay. But a whole ministry filled with these kinds of esoteric “wisdom” is sure to kill a church.

Preachers should analyze what are the spiritual needs of the people sitting in front of them every week, and preach to those needs. Do you want to run through the whole Bible? Fine, do it. But find practice applications to will help your people. Preaching on Moses’ confrontation with Pharoah, or Daniel with the King is fine, but don’t leave that sermon without making a practical application that people can “take home with them”. The famous “take aways” are what I am referring to. A concise, clear, scriptural principle that people can remember to bless their lives. This is so often missing, and successful preachers go from one take away to another, always trying to apply and make practice whatever topic they are preaching on.

Don’t preach like a High School Bible Class

The problem with most “Bible classes” like in a Christian High School is that they take a book, make 1000 fact points, makeup 500-1000 fill in the blanks questions, and slowly work their way through them so that at the end of the course, they can give the students a grade. “You learned 495 out of 500 points.”  Unfortunately, many churches have glorified Bible classes instead of preaching. (In themselves, this form of teaching is poor, because it doesn’t communicate and focus on understanding happening in the Christian teens’ lives, but rather focuses on rote repetition looking forward to the test. It is very easy to give grades this way, but when these teens get out into life, they have little comprehension of Christian principles, and live hardly a thing as a Christian.).

Success for us as a preacher is to form Christ within our congregation. This starts with rote facts and knowledge, but it must be explained such that application can be made by the teen to change their spiritual essence, and thus change their conduct. You can “convince” a teenager that drinking is damaging to their health, and that God doesn’t like it, but then on Saturday night they go out and get drunk. Convincing is never about just facts, but a change in character and attitude towards something. To do this effectively you need to start out with iron-clad, unbreakable, unbeatable factual and logical arguments, but then you need to jump from that base into an emotional argument for personal integration and adoption by the individual.

This means you get personal, and you get emotional. Cold facts convince very few people. Being moved emotionally does. These are twin elements of good preaching, and without the double whammy of both the sermon is cold and dead. There will be no success in your ministry.

Accept and Effectively Treat Criticism

One of the “banes” of most pastoral ministries is criticism. Both destructive and constructive criticism are not usually well received. To be successful, you need to “get out of yourself” and look at what you do and say from a non-interested perspective. Other people can give you this view if you let them.

Unfortunately, every time you do, you give influence and power to the person you ask their opinion of towards your ministry. So you cannot just ask anybody, but people that are themselves mature Christians.

The most effective pastor can learn and change his course from destructive criticism, and yet not let that destroy his ministry. He is ever listening, analyzing, observing, and changing.

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Your personal Calling

One of the keys to “completing the task” is endurance. So many pastors face problems (all of them really), and their solution to problems that are excessive is to bail out, go somewhere else, and let those people contend on their own with their own problems.

So we need to start with your personal salvation. God saved you, right? If this is not firmly in place, nothing else will make any sense. Being saved, God saves people for His purposes. What is God’s purpose for your life? Is it the ministry? Then you must complete the ministry. But you must see dealing with problems as much a part of your pastoral ministry as prayer, Bible study, and preaching is. It is just what you are going to have to contend with.

The process of solving church problems is like solving life’s problems

Next, understand that it is like life. Who never has physical problems? Realistically, who never has financial problems? Never has relational problems with other people? We all do. So we need to get out of a mindset of only “bad pastors” have problems in their churches and understand that all pastors do. The issue is not having problems, but what is your strategy and practice in dealing with these problems? Do you take them to the Lord in prayer? Do you analyze Scripture for guidance on how to deal with these problems?

Problems are there for your benefit. When you can go through a serious problem and work through it, and come to a successful conclusion, and you do this constantly, you are going to be an expert counselor to your people on how to solve problems in their personal lives. It is homework that God gives you so that you can show and tell people how to deal with their own problems.

Giving up is not in a pastor’s playbook. We pray through things until something gives, and if nothing gives, then we go back to the drawing board and then rethink our views to see if we are pressing towards something that is not God’s will.

Discouragement is a puzzle piece in this work. We go forward and are met with a brick wall, get discouraged, and need to throw ourselves on the altar of God’s grace and mercy to find success. Giving up is never God’s will. It is Satan’s temptation, give in and take the easy route out of your problems. A bad decision will haunt you for the rest of the ministries you enter.

Calling means a person is dedicated to what God has told him to do (his call), and that person confronts all opposition in biblical ways.

Devotion and commitment to the Work

It is remarkable to me to see how many people in the ministry are “trying this out” “to see if it works for them.” That kind attitude will condemn the person to failure. This is war, and those who go to the battlefield without a commitment to do what it takes to win usually end up as a dead casualty.

Devotion and commitment speak of how you do what you do, and how long you continue to pursue these things when opposition presents itself.

Understanding your functioning as a part of the Body of Christ

The work you are doing is not your personal church. It is part of a bigger thing, the body of Christ. God wants you to do this work such that as many of God’s people as possible will participate in it. It is not sufficient that you personally go out and win 500 people to the Lord and build the church. This is just wrong, even if you could actually do it. God wants you to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. This means that you must understand the community that you are working in.

Community awareness means you use people for the work of God. So many false prophets have entered churches to use people for their own personal benefit that it makes me sick. They are excellent motivators, but all that talent is wasted on being glorious in themselves. They build monuments to themselves, great buildings with many people, but in the end, the “work of God” there among them only focuses on personalities, and when those personalities die or leave or fall, the work falls. This is a failure, not a success. A leader must build other leaders and individual Christians so that they will function well as they are supposed to even when that particular ministry closes down, or they move away.

Prioritize essentials, and deflect distractions

If ever there was a reason why ministries fail is that their “hobby horses” or distractions from the main thing. What is the main thing then?

The work of God is the presentation of the gospel in your area, in your country, to disaffected peoples, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. (Acts 1:8). Salvation, true salvation that transforms lives, is the goal of the work of God.

God saves people and then organizes into local churches. They then study the Word of God which equips them to do the work of the ministry themselves. This is to imitate the moral pattern of Jesus Christ in their own life and ministry and carry forward the work of God.

Missions, evangelism, prayer and Bible teaching are all essential parts of the work of God. The key elements of the work of God are preaching against sin, and the exaltation and practice of a holy, pious, righteous lifestyle. Disciple-making is a key component of this process. This is where others enter into the work of God we are doing because our character speaks to them, and they want to do what we are doing. A great testimony and attitude are essential elements in enlisting others into the ministry.

Concentration on fun stuff, on entertainment, on enjoying things are not the work of God. God calls soldiers to hardship and suffering, not beds of leisure and pleasure. When we speak of personal sacrifice, most Christians run the other way. This shows how off base most churches are. They “do the work of the ministry” supposedly without any of the essential elements of it. How is that?

Honor God in everything, especially in how you do the ministry.

The ministry is “caught” by others (they enter into it with us) because of what they see us doing. If we cheat, lie, and steal in doing God’s work, that strikes against what we are saying, and we are just hypocrites, and nobody likes a hypocrite. Ethics in the ministry are extremely important. It is not just what you do, but why and for what motive you do it.

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Pastor David Cox is a missionary. See my ministry updates here.