Have you ever read a book and thought, “Man! I would’ve done a lot of things differently had I read this book years ago!”? Well, that’s exactly how I feel after having completed Kent and Barbara Hughes’ amazing work, Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome. (Except that I’m also thinking, “I will be doing a lot of things differently after reading that book!”)
Originally published in the 70’s, this work has now been republished by Crossway, to whom I offer thanks!
The book comes out of the Hughes’ early ministry experience when Kent was the pastor of a fledgling church plant that seemed to be withering on the vine. In his struggles and frustrations over this fact, it became clear to Kent and Barbara both that they had adopted a very modern-American, corporate, and unbiblical view of “success” and were judging themselves by this false standard. Kent realized that he was viewing the ministry in terms of crass, secular career advancement instead of in the more biblical terms of “calling” and “faithfulness.” So the Hughes went on a journey to discover how exactly the Bible defines “success.” This book is the fruit of their labors, and readers will find themselves richer for their experiences.
On a personal note, this book could not have come at a better time in my own life. I picked it up a few weeks ago from the Beeson Divinity School bookstore while there for my brother Condy’s DMin. graduation. It is the right word at the right time for this pastor, and my wife, to whom I read a great deal of it, concurs wholeheartedly. We both found ourselves time and again coming under deep conviction over our own view of ministry and success. In truth, without wanting to lapse into overstatement, I believe that I came across this book providentially. There are few works I’ve read in the last few years that have upset my apple cart quite like this book.
Hughes came to see that he was judging success almost completely by the size of his church. He came to see the emptiness and shallowness of this standard, concluding instead that success in ministry is judged by faithfulness to God and the call that He places on our lives. Hughes would go on to pastor a large church and have a tremendous ministry at College Church in Wheaton, but this in no way negates what he’s written here. On the contrary, R. Kent Hughes (now retired) has modeled the kind of life and ministry that reveals his wholehearted commitment to judging “success” on God’s terms. (As an aside, listen to Mark Dever’s interview with Hughes here.)
Over the years, R. Kent Hughes’ writings have been a staple for me. His Disciplines of a Godly Man is a frankly overwhelming call for men to be men of God, and his commentaries are, bar none, the best homiletical commentaries I think I’ve ever seen. His work is God-honoring and church-edifying and I daresay there are few voices out there today as steady as his.
Let me also digress a bit and give a nod to Hughes’ writing style as well. He seems to have the right balance between being accessible but not being shallow, betwen holding the reader’s interest without trying to entertain, and between being confessional without being inappropriately so. Those who read often know that some authors just click with them where they are. Hughes clicks with me and I never read his work without profiting.
This book should, I believe, be put in the hands of every beginning seminary student as well as every seasoned pastor. It is amazing how subtly (and not-so-subtly) “career-istic” evangelical ministry has become. The assumptions that one should “climb the ladder” and that success is found in doing so effectively are all around us. I daresay these mindsets are in the very ecclesiastical air we breathe.
What the book revealed to me was that even those of us who have convinced ourselves that we are principled churchmen for whom the size of the church isn’t key and for whom the visibiltiy and enviability of our positions isn’t even on our radar screen can, in fact, be drinking from this poison well at the same time we’re projecting this pious facade. Everybody is principled until that bigger church comes along, aren’t they? Everybody likes to convince themselves that they’re at peace leading, say, 30 people…until somebody else gets the church with 100 people (or whatever).
Hughes gives a very convicting story about spending some time with a pastor of a church of something like 30 people. The guy lived in a small trailer with his family and pastored this small church. Hughes made a comment to him along the lines of, “It must be tough for you guys.” To which the young pastor asks why he would say such a thing when God had given him the amazing privelege of being able to shepherd thirty of his saints.
Put that kind of talk beside the fake, absurd, bravado of the loud-talking ministers at the Convention meetings and see how it compares. Even more painful, put that kind of talk beside the secret desires of your own ministerial ambition and see how you feel. I did, and I didn’t like what it revealed.
What would ministry be like if we could come to judge success in terms of faithfulness and obedienceinstead of numbers and so-called advancement? I daresay it would revolutionize ministry. (Speaking as a Southern Baptist, I know it would revolutionize much of ministry as we’ve come to define it.)
Bottom line: if you are a minister in any capacity, you should click the link, buy this book, and drink deeply from this well. I’m still trying to nurse the wounds from reading this thing, and I’ve never been happier to be so wounded.