Church Leadership
The Main Reason Pastors Count People Is Not as Noble (or Sinister) as You Think
Pastoral ministry has plenty of challenges with very few immediate rewards. But seeking affirmation through numbers is a dangerous game.

It’s one of the mantras of the church growth movement. "We count people because people count."

It also happens to be true. Most of the time.

But that that’s not the only reason pastors count people.

As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, some pastors count people because it’s in their nature. They’re numbers-oriented. It’s how they make sense of the world around them. And they're not wrong to do so.

Keeping accurate numbers is important. When we track the right metrics and use that information well, we can do better ministry. The larger the scale of the ministry, the more the numbers matter. So the church needs some numbers-oriented people.

But I’ve discovered another reason why many pastors pay such close attention to attendance records and offering amounts. In fact, I think it's the main reason.

We don't like to admit it, even to ourselves, because it's not quite as noble as we'd like. It’s not sinister, either. Perhaps it’s just a little embarrassing.

Sometimes pastors count people to assure ourselves that we count. That our efforts matter.

Pastors don’t just count people because people count. Sometimes pastors count people to assure ourselves that we count. That our efforts matter.

Sometimes it’s less for their benefit and more for our often-bruised ego.

Ministry Without Reward

In most other aspects of life, we receive much more immediate and obvious rewards for our hard work.

  • A student works harder and gets better grades
  • A salesperson gets more commissions
  • An hourly employee gets time-and-a-half pay
  • An athlete scores goals and wins games
  • and so on

Even the blogging I’m doing right now has immediate, visible rewards. Within minutes of posting this article, I will see a spike in my readership. Page views could be in the thousands by the end of the day. That’s a truckload of affirmation.

Not so in pastoral ministry.

When you’re a pastor and you

  • Work extra hours
  • Prepare and preach your best sermon ever
  • Help a couple save their marriage
  • Lead people to Jesus

what’s the immediate, visible reward?

Usually, nothing.

For example, I'm writing this post during the week following the last Sunday in October. So, most of the pastors reading this have just seen another Pastor Appreciation Month go by without any acknowledgment from your church.

You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. But it does. You know it’s an artificial month, designed to sell greeting cards, but it still hurts.

Why We Count

This is one of the main reasons pastors can become obsessed with numbers.

In the absence of verifiable feedback, pastors find affirmation in the easiest place we can. We count butts in the seats and bucks in the offering.

In the absence of verifiable feedback, pastors find affirmation in the easiest place we can. We count butts in the seats and bucks in the offering.

Again, keeping track of those numbers isn't wrong. It’s good stewardship.

But when we get obsessed with those numbers – when we live and die every Monday according to those numbers – we become inflated when they're up and devastated when they're down. Then we get tempted to do things we shouldn’t do in order to get or keep those numbers up.

Ministry is not about numbers. They are at best, a tool, not a goal. Never a goal.

And they should never be used to feed or undercut our self-worth.

How to Stay Motivated In Ministry

So, how do we stay motivated in ministry when the immediate rewards are so few and the challenges are so big?

Over my three-plus decades of pastoral ministry, I’ve discovered three principles that work for me. When I remember to do them.

1. Realize that the Ministry Is Its Own Reward

Pastors don’t do what we do for the money. (Yes, I can hear your laughter from here.) Or for any other kind of praise. We do ministry because, as I described recently in So Many Wrong Reasons to Become a Pastor, “Despite how hard it is to be a pastor, it’s harder for you not to be a pastor.”

2. Direct All the Glory to Jesus

We forget this too easily. It's very dangerous, for us and the church, when we keep the glory that only Jesus deserves.

3. Think Long-Term (Really Long-Term)

Employees get paid bi-weekly, salespeople get commissions monthly, students get grades quarterly, executives get bonuses annually.

Pastors need to wait even longer than that. Our rewards are eternal.

We’ll never know the true impact of most of what we do, this side of heaven.

“Well done, good and faithful servant” may be a long way off, but hearing Jesus say that will be worth it all.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

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