As a pastor, I often think about what it means for me to be successful. Some would say that I have led a “successful” student ministry and pastored two “successful” churches in my career. But how do you define success in ministry? Is it simply numerical growth and baptisms? Is it building bigger buildings? Does it mean more popularity and influence? What does a successful pastor really look like? I don’t have all the answers to those questions, but I recently caught a glimpse of success that I want to model.
On August 7th, 2016, my father, Ron Stewart, retired from ministry. He pastored for over 40 years and served at Grace Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, for 28 years. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well, be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Double honor should be given to a man who labors in preaching and teaching faithfully, and I would add especially if he does it for 40 years. There are many things I could say to honor my dad because his career is impressive. Every church he pastored grew numerically. Thousands of people were saved and baptized under his leadership. He lead construction projects at almost every church because of the growth that was experienced. Ministries were created to meet needs and lives were changed. He started at Grace Baptist in 1988 with two hundred people, and the church grew to three thousand people. He raised millions of dollars to build multiple buildings including a school and a massive auditorium. He counseled thousands of people, preached thousands of sermons, and personally led many people to Christ. I could continue, but you get the point. By all standards, he was successful.
One of my mentors, Shawn Lovejoy, is the founding pastor of Mountain Lake Church in Cumming, Georgia. For sixteen years he served as the lead pastor. After stepping away as pastor and selecting his successor, he wrote a book entitled Be Mean About the Vision. He explains in his book, “I can say that I am most proud of three things: my wife still likes me; my kids love the church; and during my entire tenure, our church stayed true to its original vision.” Lovejoy’s statement impacted me, and it confirmed what I knew about my dad all along.
After 40 years in ministry and 28 unbelievable years at Grace Baptist Church, here’s what I’m most proud of and why I consider my father a successful pastor.
1. My mom still loves him.
Dad’s relationship with mom over the years and today is truly an inspiration. They serve together as a team. Mom serves and leads various ministries. She has supported dad every step of the way. They have each other’s backs and are best friends. Some pastors crave success at the expense of their family. Dad was able to lead the church and meet the needs of his family well. After thirty-five years of marriage, they haven’t simply survived…they have truly thrived.
2. His kids and grandchildren love the church.
All my siblings are actively serving in a church. We love God’s church. My brother and I are both pastors, and my nephew is pursuing ministry as well. We love being in ministry. Believe it or not, there are a lot of mean-spirited church members. Despite all the drama we experienced through the years, my dad taught us that the church is the hope of the world and the bride of Christ. He taught me how to love her and serve her despite the attacks from insiders. We have been hurt by church members numerous times over the years, but we realize that the mission of Christ is too important to be distracted.
3. He stayed true to the Word of God and the Great Commission.
Dad stayed true to the Word of God and the Great Commission. He is passionate about God’s Word, understanding it, and teaching it for God’s glory. He is passionate about evangelism and committed to helping people grow closer to Christ.
Jonathan Edwards is one of my heroes. He pastored a church in New England in the 1700’s and was a catalyst in the first Great Awakening in America. Writing to pastors, he wrote, “He who will sets the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ, must himself burn with love.” Dad’s heart burned with love for Christ, and he loved his people.
He burned with love on Sunday mornings as he preached his guts out week in and week out. He loved by actively leading a Sunday School class or small group his entire career. He loved by counseling, casting vision, and caring for the needs of others.
Many times dad was supposed to be on a vacation but ended up going late or leaving early because a church member had lost a loved one or was going through a crisis. The hours he counseled, the people he shared his faith with, and the hours he put into his personal study of God’s word show a love for his people that most churches never experience.
I am very grateful that I have witnessed dad’s love for the church. I’m grateful that dad even showed love and grace to the unregenerate church members over the years that caused him pain. There were people who fought against him from time to time. Despite the opposition, he demonstrated bold leadership and focused on the mission of Christ.
At this time I have been in ministry for seventeen years. I planted my current church seven years ago, and we have grown to 1200 in attendance. I hope we grow even more. I hope we plant many churches and start multiple campuses. But I’ve had a front row seat to success in ministry. My dad has taught me that numbers, buildings, and popularity do not equal success. In fact, those things can actually prevent you from being successful. My focus as a pastor should be to put in the hard work of preaching and leading and realize the fruit is up to the Lord. I want to model my father’s ministry and focus on my heart for my wife, my children, and the mission of making disciples of Christ. At the end of the day, if I can say I did that, I’ll retire as a successful pastor.