I once heard Andy Stanley say that he loves hiring preachers' kids. Here's one reason: the old-but-true cliché that "truths are caught, not taught."

I grew up in a double-barrel ministry family, my grandpa and dad both serving as senior pastors. Combined, their legacy includes multiple congregations served and thousands of lives touched. But they are men from a different time. They would never use the word "success" to describe themselves—or even accept it being thrust upon them.

When I think of my grandpa, I picture his open Bible on the checkered tablecloth at the summer cottage. His long legs crossed comfortably while he poured God's Word into his thirsty soul. At meals he would have all of us—grandparents, parents, cousins—recite Psalm 1 together, complete with hand actions.

He was a tall man. I can still see his lanky pointer and middle fingers walking like two legs up his outstretched forearm as he recited, "Blessed is the man who walketh not in the council of the ungodly …"

Withering Pastors

The point of Psalm 1 is that the "blessed" man is a man who loves God's Word, who "meditates on it day and night." That person, God tells us, "will be like a tree planted by streams of water." That person's "leaf does not wither."

And yet, in pastoral ministry I often feel like I am withering. I don't know an honest pastor who does not sometimes feel like this. Under the heat, the constant pressure, the impossible expectations, we wither.

For more than 40 years of ministry, my grandpa never withered. I'm sure he felt like withering some days, but he never did. My dad, now in his 44th year of vocational ministry, remains a branch stocked with green leaves and heavy fruit. I do not have to ask my dad what the secret is because I grew up seeing what the secret is.

The definition of success for both my grandpa and my dad was never what another church was doing. It was never the size of their attendance. It was never the effectiveness of an outreach, a number on a page, or a comparison with another pastor. The measure of success always was, and to this day is, to know God by obeying him.

I've heard people say that "success is being obedient to God, regardless of the consequences." The problem for most of us is with the latter part: "regardless of the consequences." Our well-intentioned desire to shape the consequences for God, to produce the fruit we want for his kingdom, that's what lures us to lesser definitions of success. We rarely realize we have lost God's definition of success. Until we wither.

Default Definitions

I do not know what definition of success you default to. Mine is a high-bar that Billy Graham probably wouldn't have cleared. These stifling expectations come from four sources. Can you relate to any of them?

  1. Self-imposed expectations. I must have all the gifts of the body, can never make a mistake, should preach a "Grand slam" every weekend, or look like some other gifted minister.
  2. People's unrealistic expectations. I should be at every church event, to always be available and yet always well-rested and well-prepared, to adopt their personal agenda, to heal their personal wounds, to boldly declare the truth without offending.
  3. Expectations of modern evangelical culture. Your church doesn't matter if it's not a mega, that you don't matter as a pastor unless you're a celebrity with a massive blog readership or radio ministry, that "you're either growing or dying," that you have to be a Podcast quality preacher, conference-speaking teacher, and a visionary organization-building leader.
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