The Recipe for a Successful Pastor

I am convinced that many of the problems in pastoral culture result from an unbiblical definition of the essential ingredients of ministry success. Sure, most candidate profiles expect a “vibrant walk with the Lord,” but these words are often weakened by a process that asks few questions in this area and makes grand assumptions. We’re really interested in knowledge (right theology), skill (good preacher), ministry philosophy (will build the church), and experience (isn’t cutting his pastoral teeth in this new place of ministry). I have heard church leaders, in moments of pastoral crisis, say many times, “We didn’t know the man we hired.”

What does knowing the man entail? It means knowing the true condition of his heart—as far as such is possible. What does he really love, and what does he despise? What are his hopes, dreams, and fears? What are the deep desires that fuel and shape the way he does ministry? What anxieties have the potential to derail or paralyze him? How accurate is his view of himself? How open is he to confrontation, critique, and encouragement? How committed is he to his own sanctification?

How open is he about his own temptations, weaknesses, and failures? How ready is he to listen to and defer to the wisdom of others? Is pastoral ministry a community project to him? Does he have a tender, nurturing heart? Is he warm and hospitable, a shepherd and champion to those who are suffering? What character qualities would his wife and children use to describe him? Does he sit under his own preaching? Is his heart broken and his conscience regularly grieved as he looks at himself in the mirror of the Word? How robust, consistent, joyful, and vibrant is his devotional life?

Does his ministry to others flow out of the vibrancy of his devotional communion with the Lord? Does he hold himself to high standards, or does he settle for mediocrity? Is he sensitive to the experience and needs of those who minister alongside him? Does he embody the love and grace of the Redeemer? Does he overlook minor offenses? Is he ready and willing to forgive? Is he critical and judgmental? How does the public pastor differ from the private husband and dad? Does he take care of his physical self? Does he numb himself with too much social media or television? How would he fill in this blank: “If only I had ________”? How successful has he been in pastoring the congregation that is his family?

True Condition of the Pastor’s Heart

A pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his experience, knowledge, and skill. It is also always shaped by the true condition of his heart. In fact, if his heart is not in the right place, knowledge and skill can make him dangerous.

Pastors often struggle to find living, humble, needy, celebratory, worshipful, meditative communion with Christ. It is as if Jesus has left the building. There is all kinds of ministry knowledge and skill, but it seems divorced from a living communion with a living and ever-present Christ. All this activity, knowledge, and skill seems to be fueled by something else. Ministry becomes shockingly impersonal. Then it’s about theological content, exegetical rightness, ecclesiastical commitments, and institutional advancement. It’s about preparing for the next sermon, getting the next meeting agenda straight, and filling the requisite leadership openings. It’s about budgets, strategic plans, and ministry partnerships.

None of these things is wrong in itself. Many of them are essential. But they must never be ends in themselves. They must never be the engine that propels the vehicle. They must all express something deeper in the pastor’s heart.

The pastor must be enthralled by, in awe of, and in love with his Redeemer so that everything he thinks, desires, chooses, decides, says, and does is propelled by love for Christ and the security of rest in the love of Christ. He must be regularly exposed by, humbled by, assured by, and given rest by the grace of his Redeemer. His heart needs to be tenderized day after day by his communion with Christ so that he becomes a loving, patient, forgiving, encouraging, and giving servant-leader. His meditation on Christ, his presence, his promises, and his provisions must not be overwhelmed by his meditation on how to make his ministry work.

Protection Against All Other Loves

Only love for Christ can defend the heart of the pastor against all other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry. Only worship of Christ has the power to protect him from all the seductive idols of ministry that will whisper in his ear. Only the glory of the risen Christ will guard him against the self-glory that tempts all and destroys the ministry of so many.

Only Christ can turn an arrogant, “bring on the world” seminary graduate into a patient, humble giver of grace. Only deep gratitude for a suffering Savior can make a man willing to suffer in ministry. Only in brokenness before your own sin can you give grace to fellow rebels among whom God has called you to minister. Only when your identity is firmly rooted in Christ will you find freedom from seeking to get your identity out of your ministry.

We must be careful how we define ministry readiness and spiritual maturity. There is a danger in thinking that the well-educated and well-trained seminary graduate is ministry ready or to mistake ministry knowledge, busyness, and skill with personal spiritual maturity. Maturity is a vertical thing that will have a wide variety of horizontal expressions. Maturity is about relationship to God that results in wise and humble living. Maturity of love for Christ expresses itself in love for other.

Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving of others. Your daily experience of the rescue of the gospel gives you a passion for people experiencing the same rescue. This is the soil in which true ministry success grows.

  • Paul P

    This is very very challenging. Not sure if this is a question to be asked, but at what point, if any, would one be disqualified (or qualified) for pastorship using the criterion of our enthrallment of the Redeemer?

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  • Bo

    Thanks for this reminder, Dr. Tripp. I am grateful for your ministry.

  • Robert Barnes

    There is much of value here, as is in much of Dr. Tripp’s material. But while I’m challenged and blessed by the article, I don’t think the thesis is actually proven. If a successful pastor is one whose heart is being changed by the Gospel, then a successful car is one whose oil is being changed regularly. If a successful pastor is one who is enthralled by the Redeemer, then a successful president is one who is passionate about George Washington.

    Again, I’m in Dr. Tripp’s debt a thousand times over and thankful for his ministry and open to correction in this mildest of concerns.

  • Walt W

    I want to write humbly here, as Prof. Tripp has a greater grasp of ministry than I do (with only a seminary degree and five years’ experience). That said, I can’t help but come away from this article disappointed. I believe what Prof. Tripp was meaning to say through this article is that a pastors’ first priority should be his “first love,” and I would agree. That imperative seems to get lost in this article, though.

    A growing and vital relationship with Christ should result in greater spiritual maturity which will be lived out in my interactions with my family, my congregation and with those in the community. The description Prof. Tripp provides, however, sounds nearly unattainable (at least in this lifetime), and is therefore not very helpful because it perpetuates the expectation for a “perfect pastor” for both those in the pastorate and those who hire them.

    Also, I was chagrined at Prof. Tripp’s statement regarding church leaders’ exclamation about not knowing the person they hired. How many pastors might say something similar about the churches who hired them? It is hardly uncommon for pastors to be misled about the spiritual state of the prospective congregation, to their later heartbreak.

    In any event, I’m not sure what Prof. Tripp offers here is a “recipe for success.” In some ways, it sounds like the “same old slop.” I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all, but I do think we need to come up with better ways of outlining what should be expected of pastors, while not neglecting the expectations pastors should have for congregations.

  • Jason

    I appreciate your article, brother, and wish we would see more of this. However, and I mean no disrespect, but I don’t think it is grounded well enough in the Word. The Bible gives us the qualifications for pastors/elders (same thing), and how they should and should not behave (1&2Tim, Titus, 1Pet5, etc.). This is the only recipe we need. The problem is that we have ignored these teachings and replaced them with our own ideas in many cases. We want a preacher with a degree who is a charismatic speaker who can entertain us, cast vision, and grow the church (in numbers). What we really need is a shepherd who is called to the work and faithfully feeds and tends the sheep (John 21:15-19), and helps the church grow in godliness, by preaching the Word faithfully (1Tim4, 2Tim4:1-5). If he does this, I could care less if he has a degree or is charismatic. And these men, as you alluded to, should not domineer over the flock (1Pet 5:3, Mark10:42-45), as too many do, but rather they should lay down their lives for the sheep as a good shepherd does (John 10).

    There are two things I think you left out of your article as well: plurality of elders and congregational accountability. Some may not agree with this, but I believe the Bible teaches us to have a plurality of elders leading our churches (Act 14:23, Tit 1:5), even though we have largely been ignoring it for hundreds of years. Churches function better with a *true* plurality of elders (*equal in authority*, even if not equal in giftedness, knowledge, or experience), rather than a CEO style government with one man leading. Plurality distributes the load among many qualified brothers as well as allows for some checks and balances at the leadership level. This level of accountability is sorely needed in our churches.

    I also believe that the fact that churches have been given qualifications for elders implies that elders are also supposed to be held accountable by the congregations they lead. Elders can’t be allowed to have complete autonomy, or be only self-accountable as a body, even if there is a plurality. Unchecked power is never a good thing for any man or group of men. The elder body, to remain healthy, must know that they will be held to the biblical standard for elders, with love and grace, by their congregation, via Matt 18 and 1 Tim 5. The congregation also needs to have the knowledge and courage to do this, which means their elders need to be teaching these things, and charging them to take on this responsibility (with love and grace, knowing that no man is perfect).

    Again, I do appreciate you bringing up this subject, and I largely agree with you. I just think the Bible has a lot to say about it, so we should be sure to speak to this issue directly from the Scriptures. God bless, and thank you for your efforts and many great posts!

  • Brandon

    I couldn’t agree more with Walt. Some search committees post an opening at their church that reads as if only Jesus himself could fill the position. They might find well-meaning people to interview well and accept the call, but I wonder how quickly before they get burned out by striving to be the perfect pastor.

  • Michael

    Dr. Tripp, I really appreciate your article. It is helping me think through a ministry position we just filled and the process we went through as a pastoral staff to determine if that person was the right fit. I think I’ll save bits and pieces from your article for future use.

    I do have a question as I read the other comments: If I have positive or negative feedback in the future, how do you best receive it?

  • Brian

    I thought this article was excellent. While some of the challenges raised in the comments are legitimate, overall I appreciate the message of the article. I can’t help but wonder if something is wrong with the pastoral interview processes at many churches if, as Tripp says, churches realize they don’t know the man they hired, and, to paraphrase Walt’s comment, many pastors could say the same thing. I can’t help but think implementing many of Tripp’s suggestions in this article would lead to more “successful” placement of candidates in churches where they fit.

    • Tom Brainerd

      Thinking out loud…maybe the way to avoid the ‘We didn’t know him…I didn’t know them’ is to identify and raise up pastors from within the church, as opposed to identifying gifted men who go to seminary to become some other church’s pastor.

      • Jamie Soles

        I, too, am bothered by the whole idea of “pastor as commodity”; that there are a pool of men out there ready to serve as pastors, wherever. How can that way of finding a pastor ever fulfill requirements such as that a man needs to be of good reputation, especially with those outside. How do you know this if you have not watched him up close for a long time? How do you know about his relationship with his wife and children? You can tell a few things by having him visit to preach, but you can’t tell much about family issues until he is here among you. Pastors raised up from within the body should be our first goal and priority, and only secondarily should you go shopping at the general store for one.

  • brooks hanes

    To some of the commenters, I say, “This is an article, not a thesis statement.”

    Dr. Tripp gave an incredible amount of insight into horribly latent pastoral concerns.

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  • Matt Connally

    Wonderful article, thank you, Pastor Tripp. It reminds me of a message Dawson Trotman gave in which he talked about asking missionary candidates if their devotional life was where it should be. He said out of 29 candidates only one person answered yes. And that reminded me of how in high school our track coach expected us to give 100%. It was not important to him whether we won meets; it was important to him that we gave our best. Just as an athlete can know after each day’s practice whether he gave what he should (100$), so also can a Christian in our daily personal walks as we strive to know Christ and make him known (Phil 3:12-16).
    BTW, here’s Trotman’s message:

  • Shelton Brown

    I’m 19 years old, and while I feel the calling of Pastoral Servant-hood in my life, I feel the weight of my disqualification because of my rebellion against God. This is a humbling thing, but it deeply troubles my soul to pursue biblical teaching.

    While I don’t feel that I’m to be the “bring on the world” Seminary graduate, I do feel that my greatest experience in the glory of God comes from my obedience to his Word.

    Thank you, pastor Tripp!

  • Charley Blom

    thanks for the great ideas and questions. We work with pastors and I spend a lot of time thinking about what a “healthy pastor” is, and thus your comments on being a ‘successful pastor’ fits into that thinking.
    We are so focused on all other areas of success and forgot about the issues of the heart.

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  • Beth

    i’m frustrated with those who have so many criticisms of this short, very specific article. the article was not meant to be about plurality of eldership or the prescribed PASTOR-SPECIFIC qualifications for pastors set forth in 1 and 2 Timothy. i believe dr. tripp is alluding to the fact that pastors are first and foremost Christians like the rest of us, and need to have a personal, passionate relationship with Christ before looking to see if all of the extra qualifications fit. i think his point is that there are more foundational, Christ-likeness qualifications that are sometimes assumed, but that will make or break a man’s ministry regardless of the more outward, pastor-specific signs of his devotion to God such as having only one wife, not given to drunkenness, and being a seminary graduate, etc. we are first and foremost to model ourselves after Jesus Himself before trying to attain any position of leadership through adhering to that position’s particular qualifications. any adherence to those qualifications without “the root of the matter”, no matter how impressive, does not a pastor make.

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