QUALITIES OF SUCCESSFUL PASTORS
By R. S. Taylor
Certain qualities are almost universally found in pastors who are highly successful (and whose success is bona fide in God’s sight).
Perhaps the following can serve as a benchmark for self-study.
QUALITIES OF PROFESSIONAL PROFICIENCY
No pastor will do more than limp through his ministerial life who is overly solicitous about his comforts and pleasures. The man who succeeds in this day is the man with a one-track mind. His enthusiasm for the ministry is so strong and steady that he feels no need to find secondary excitements to make life interesting. To him nothing could possibly be so fascinating as his everyday work as a pastor. The satisfaction of being a pastor is infinitely deeper and more rewarding than that of a good golf score. Hobbies that would keep him from his people hold little interest for him. He knows nothing of emotional boredom. Some pastors take too many days off and too many trips for them ever to enjoy large success in the ministry. In some cases their observing laymen wonder what they are resting from (or running from?).
The man who succeeds is about half-crazy in his determination to win souls, care for his flock, and build his church. His people, his sermons, his plans, his problems consume his attention day and night. His work dominates his conversation-as his wife very well knows.
This intensity should not be confused with tension. Pastors may be intense without being uptight. Uptightness kills. Such persons “break down not because they are run-down but because they are wound-up.” Ajoyous spirit with plenty of laughter is not incompatible with the kind of intensity which marks the successful pastor.
To give oneself to the ministry with that dedication which the work demands requires a high level of physical energy. The very nature of the work makes it emotionally and physically draining. Counseling, calling, praying, preaching are high-energy activities. If one is fatigued when counseling, the counselee may get the impression of disinterest. As for preaching, sermons flounder when energy flags. And an exhausted pastor is in no state to conduct board or council meetings.
Some pastors are blessed with seemingly endless reserves of physical energy. They can follow hours at their desk with hours at the hospital and further hours in business meetings and then on Sunday preach with drive and verve. In all the functions of the week their enthusiasm and warmth never seem to flag. They are alive and buoyant. They thrive on work. The pace is a tonic to them.
The danger these persons face is presumption. The adage that a candle burned at both ends is consumed twice as fast may be trite but it is still true. If these men and women do not build into their lifestyle some checks and balances, some ways of daily and weekly renewal, they are in danger of peaking too soon. It is sad when a man begins to drag and finds his energy sputtering just when in mid-life he should be at the zenith of his powers. For a few years the pastor may have had phenomenal success, but suddenly he or she is burned out.
Some pastors are handicapped with a chronic energy shortage from youth. This may be the legacy of an illness or it may be congenital; regardless of the reason, everything they do is a struggle. After preaching they are almost too exhausted to greet the people. Frequent days of rest, perhaps even in bed, are a necessity. Some strenuous activities normally enjoyed by other preachers must be avoided. There will always be those who say that the cure is more exercise, not less. In some cases this may be true, but in others it is not, for some constitutions function on different metabolic patterns. Increasing exercise only hastens the depletion, it does not produce renewal.
Occasionally-better say rarely-these pastors, by the careful conservation of what energy they do have, by concentrating on the
things they do best, and by sheer dint of will power, develop and serve large churches. But they spend their lives forcing themselves to their duties. In most cases such energy-starved pastors are compelled to fulfill their calling in small churches. Some major on their studies and become useful writers. In any case, these pastors who stick with it in spite of weariness, even pain, are worthy of highest admiration and commendation. Opprobrium should never be heaped on them, even by innuendo, for not turning their little world upside down.
Successful pastors can at times utilize plans and aids from their church headquarters; but more often they devise their own. They are able to use to the full the resources they have. These are days when to succeed the pastor must be creative and innovative. He must be innovative in finding the right ways and times to be with his people, to attract community attention, to promote revival, to improve organizational and office systems, to enlist and train workers, to improve discipling and teaching methods. The resourceful pastor will find ways to meet these demands.
A successful pastor has a high level of frustration tolerance. His poise is maintained under intense pressure. Furthermore, he exhibits a better-than-average capacity for detail. This is well, for more than many understand a pastor’s capacity for detail may prove to be the quality which sets the ceiling of his opportunities. He may not govern every detail; but neither does he miss them. But a tough-minded pastor’s capacity for detail is perfected by his capacity for complexity. For in the pastorate there are many different kinds of operations which must be understood and grasped. No one has more irons in the fire. This goes with the territory.
A further facet of tough-mindedness is a high degree of objectivity. A church leader observed once about a clergyman who had held several important positions, only to end them in a storm, “He has excellent judgment except when he becomes personally involved.” He could not maintain his objectivity. A successful pastor learns to avoid becoming emotionally subjective, and to be able to perceive the best thing for the church in complete detachment from the preferred thing for himself. He seeks to be objective with himself, his friends, and his critics.
This involves the ability to see the whole as well as the parts and to maintain perspective. As an artist backs off from his painting and studies it thoughtfully as a whole, so must a pastor frequently disentangle himself from petty details that loom large, and realign and rebalance his view. Thus he can avoid the myopia which results in missing the forest for the trees. He does not permit his capacity for detail to become a pit in which he buries himself.
Maintaining perspective will prompt us to practice the maxims of John R. Mott, the great missionary statesman: “In a life that is lived economically, the major issue must always receive priority”; and “We must act at the point of maximum strategy; life is too short to do anything else.” These principles will enable us to stay out of the trap of perfectionism that says, “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” True, if not taken too seriously. Everything in the ministry is worth doing, but not everything can be done so well as we would like, if the primary things are going to be done well. Even good things must be graded by a sliding scale of priority. A famous painter of sunsets was coaching a student who was absorbed in getting just right the detail of the shingles on the barn in the foreground while the beautiful sunset in the background was gradually fading. In disgust the master said, “You are going to have to make up your mind whether you are going to be a great painter of shingles or a great painter of sunsets.”
A successful pastor does not embarrass his people by bungling. He is capable. He compares favorably in the pulpit with the speakers his people have already heard on radio or TV before coming to church. He conducts a funeral or a wedding with competence and finesse. In a secular community situation, when asked to emcee, give an invocation, introduce a speaker, or express an opinion, he is adept in saying the right things and doing it the right way. He is neither combative nor fawning, but straightforward, poised, courteous, and helpful.
This public proficiency includes superior skill with words. The successful pastor communicates well. He is constantly alert to possible breakdowns in communication, which can be the monkey wrench in otherwise good churches. His ideas are clearly and persuasively expressed, with the result that his associates are not left guessing. Yet he does not drown his ideas with floods of verbiage. He does not talk an idea to death.
Nowhere is the ability to articulate well more vital than in the pulpit. This involves many related skills, but at least one is the
ability to use words correctly. Just as the surgeon must know which instrument to use, so must a preacher know which word to use. Failure here hangs around the pastor’s neck the albatross of apparent illiteracy. He may not be illiterate, but carelessness in the use of words will result in his being so tagged. While the best of preachers may have an occasional slip of the tongue, it had better be occasional rather than habitual.
QUALITIES OF PERSONAL CHARACTER
When we speak of highly successful pastors, we mean pastors whose success is not just a splashy spurt but a steady and growing reality over many years. But only a disciplined person will achieve this. Undisciplined pastors-undisciplined in appetites and in time management-will become mentally and morally flabby, and will have diminishing returns until the returns disappear altogether.
The disciplined man or woman learns to control his moods, his desires, his tongue, and his time. He learns to say no to himself, and he learns to do what he knows he should be doing when he knows he should be doing it. Charles Lindbergh’s advice to his sons is sound: “Do the toughest things first.” And author James Newton observes that that was “a rule [Lindbergh] always applied to himself.”
The moral pressures on a pastor are enormous. Only a deep devotional life and disciplined living on every front will put sufficient iron in his moral fiber to protect him. The Holy Spirit is his enabling power, but the Spirit must be obeyed in daily disciplines, not grieved; otherwise in the moment of temptation he will be a modern Samson, shorn of his power, unaware that the Lord has “left him” (Judg. 16:20).
Insincerity cannot long be hid. The moment people begin to sense it, they inwardly withdraw. A sincere man or woman means what he/she says, both in the pulpit and out. A young man who was a skillful debater in college prided himself on his ability to debate either side of a question with equal persuasiveness. But in his first pastorate his wife kept asking, “Did you mean what you said in your sermon? Were you really sincere?” Her insistent probing led to his deep heart-searching and, as a result, his entire sanctification. The secret falseness was cleansed.
Sincerity makes one transparent. Nothing is mere window dressing, grandstanding, or cunning. There are no hidden agendas or ultimate motives. The sincere person feels what he says he feels and believes what he says he believes. His warm friendliness is not a practiced art camouflaging a cold heart, but the natural expression of the real person. The sincere man is bona fide in his piety, in his love for people, and in his desire to serve. Sincerity is never seasonal or opportunistic. It is not an occasional happening. It is a quality of the soul which defines the person. To be sincere at all is to be sincere all the time, in all places, and about everything. People will respect a pastor whose sincerity is unquestioned, and they will be more inclined to follow him.
A highly successful pastor exudes faith and reassurance. He is not a pessimist. His approach is positive, inspiring, and uplifting rather than negative and depressing. He is this way in the office, in his home, in business meetings, and in the pulpit. Not that he carries no crushing burdens, or that his sermons have no stern prophetic note in them. But even in preaching against sin he lifts up Christ as the answer. He scatters encouragement, affirmation, and hope rather than gloom and despair.
Even though the word is worn thin by overuse, care still denotes a universal quality of outstandingly successful pastors. They are “people persons.” While they may also be goal-oriented, their drive to reach specific objectives is not at the expense of the personal touch. They like people. They are at home with people and people are at ease with them. Their true concern shows in everything they do. Children are drawn to them, as they were to Jesus. It is easy to confide in these pastors. But it is possible to be a strong preacher and a fairly good administrator without this quality of personal warmth and compassion.
Care is much deeper than charisma. Some preachers have affable and gifted personalities whose caring is only skin-deep. Therefore, they have to advertise themselves as caring- Real caring needs no trumpets sounding before it. It is obvious. It is the kind that carries people on one’s mind. It remembers Mrs. Brown’s rheumatism and Joe’s unemployment; Mary’s broken love affair; Molly and Fred’ s worry over their son in the military. These pastors can say with Paul, “I have you in my heart” (Phil. 1:7).
While the quality of caring is more vital than charisma, charisma is not to be deprecated as unimportant. Most successful pastors have that mysterious, undefinable magnetic appeal which draws people to them. It may include physical attractiveness, but not necessarily. The apostle Paul was not physically attractive; nevertheless he had a powerful personality. Without contriving to get attention, some persons unconsciously draw it. Their very presence is a focal point in any gathering. One either has this “presence” or he does not. If he does not, trying to achieve it by gimmicks of flashy dress or smart talk will repel rather than attract.
The Spirit-filled man or woman will worry very little over this quality of personal magnetism, but will yield to the Spirit’s operation through him or her. The Holy Spirit is able to create a holy magnetism in a pastor who does not have it naturally. And like the new wine at Cana, this is better (John 2:10).
“They are very stable,” writes Laura Ost of the top corporate executives in America. ” That’ s the way they got to the top. Likewise,
a successful pastor carries through. He avoids frequent flip-flops and sudden changes of direction. He knows where he is going and keeps a steady hand on the wheel. The stands he takes today will be the stands he takes tomorrow. His people learn they can count on this. This makes for stability and a feeling of security.
Not that he is rigidly hidebound and inflexible or impervious to persuasion. He will change when it is time to change. If one plan does not work, he will try another. But he is not hopping from one idea to another before any of them has had a fair chance. Some pastors keep their people dizzy by their changeable, impulsive, and unpredictable operating style.
Successful pastors recover their equilibrium quickly. They bounce back. They roll with the punches. With Paul they can testify to being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; Perplexed but not despairing; struck down [by bad votes?] but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9, NASB). Or, as J- B. Phillips puts it, “we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out.”
These pastors are like Paul at Lystra. There they “stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” (Acts 14:19-20). Perhaps this was sheer miracle. But the resilience of Philip the evangelist was sheer grace. After the great crowds and excitement in Samaria he found himself on a desert road being directed to one man. From the city to the desert! He didn’t whine in self-pity but ran to obey when the Spirit said, “Go to that chariot and stay near it” (Acts 8:29). Resilient persons can handle both deflation and inflation, both criticism and praise, both bad votes and good votes. They don’t roll over dead when reverses come; they look around for a new approach. Rather than capsizing they tack into contrary winds.
This quality belongs both to the category of “professional proficiency” and to the category of “personal character.” It is the merging and fulfillment of both.
The first element of wisdom is common sense. The successful pastor knows where the borderline is between effective innovation and foolish stunts. He is courageous, sometimes daring, but never loses his head. He refuses to be pushed into harebrained schemes in the name of faith. He has a sense of propriety. He is aware of the eternal fitness of things. Some men so disregard protocol and convention that the public is repelled, and their churches and their religion become laughing stocks. They become notorious rather than respectably well known.
But wisdom is more than common sense. It is uncommon insight. It is the ability to sort primary ends from secondary and then to match means to ends. It is the understanding which senses moods and needs, and the sagacity to shape administrative policies to these moods and needs. It is the ability to draw together the disparate opinions and temperaments into a common phalanx of march.
Wisdom is a sense of timing and strategy. It is not to be confused with the cleverness which merely outwits the opposition. That borders too closely to the wisdom of “envying and strife” which is not “from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” (James 3:14-15). The true wisdom begins with love, proceeds with understanding, and ends with God-honoring solutions. It is marked by patience. It is the child of knowledge and faith. It is wise enough to be humble, and humility is wise enough to pray. Through prayer it gains insight and knows what to do and the right way to do it.
Wisdom is the good sense not to allow oneself to be stampeded and monopolized by one’s obsessions. Pastors are human, and like everyone else occasionally get bees in their bonnet. One becomes obsessed with the need for a bus ministry, another becomes obsessed with two Sunday morning services, another obsessed with the need for enlarged staff, another obsessed with an obstruction in church affairs which seems to demand immediate removal. These obsessions can become so preoccupying that attention is distracted from everything else. Nothing else gets done until the pastor is able to work out his obsession. He needs the
wisdom to refuse to allow his obsessions to distort his daily schedule and get out of proportion to the whole. He can learn to make haste slowly, and achieve the desired ends without sinking the ship.
This is the character quality which crowns all the others. Without it one’s showy success will sooner or later turn sour. The pastor’s vaunted kingdom will collapse around him. A man with integrity is like Barnabas-“a good man” (Acts 11:24). Such a person is a safe risk in any home. He is a man of his word. Money is safe in his hands.
Integrity will not compromise principle for personal advantage. It will not sell out for votes. It scorns checking the direction of the
wind to see which causes are safe. One pastor vigorously and boldly championed the “in” concerns-for a while wife abuse, then child abuse, then something else. But he never touched abortion. Though he was personally opposed to it, he left the issue alone: it was too “hot.” This is the expediency of the politician, not the prophet. To let public opinion dictate our crusades casts a very long shadow over both one’s sincerity and one’s integrity.
Integrity is unflinching in its loyalty to commitments and obligations, whether marriage vows, church vows, or ordination vows. At this point there is no more subtle test of a pastor’s integrity than the contemporary push for church growth. I say this with trepidation because these days raising one tiny question about church growth is like knocking motherhood. We are all for church growth as a matter of course; in fact, many of us need to be far more enthusiastic about it than we are. But church growth with integrity? Is this important? A little fudging here and there, a little discreet silence, a little overlooking of doctrinal distinctions can promote a show of growth more rapidly. In the end the pastor’s soul will be corroded, and the Holy Spirit will be grieved. “Success” at the expense of integrity is success at too high a price.
These are the primary qualities of character and mind which characterize strong pastors. While there may be built-in limitations of energy and endowment in some cases, most of these qualities can be acquired. Intentional self-improvement can turn a pastor threatened with mediocrity, even failure, into the Lord’s “mighty man of valor”-which, being translated, means an outstandingly successful pastor.
(The above information is from the Principles of Pastoral Success)
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