What makes a pastor successful?
Is it church size? Is it leading a church to accomplish a specific vision? Is it more like faithfulness or spiritual maturity?
Mark Brooks says, “Success is being where God wants you to be, doing what He wants you to do, when He wants you to do it.”
Thom Rainer points out the congregational view in this article, noting a successful pastor loves the church, preaches good sermons, and leads in a healthy way.
Brian Dodd says successful pastors love people, and because of that, they pray for people, serve people, and are generous with their time.
Paul Tripp cautions against using the word, saying an unbiblical definition of success can actually make a pastor dangerous.
Truly, the word success can mean different things to different people.
But are there any common denominators? Are there some behaviors to be modeled?
As I look to the lives of pastors I would consider successful, they are serving in all types of churches. There are successful pastors leading small churches and big churches. There are successful pastors in traditional churches and churches with modern styles. There are successful pastors in every denomination.
But there are five behaviors I see no matter the church and no matter the setting.
Five Behaviors of Successful Pastors
#1 – Successful pastors manage their schedule.
Social Media is full of busy, tired people. There are plenty of complaints about weather and traffic. And there's no shortage of people who don't seem to have any time spending their time talking about how little time they have.
Just scroll through the average timeline, and you’ll find people that are working late to get it all done. It seems like everybody is busy online.
But you rarely hear great leaders complain on social media about their busy schedule. When is the last time you saw a trusted, respected pastor tweet about how many meetings they had to attend or how many messages they had to write? That’s not because these pastors have teams of people doing stuff for them, it’s because they have figured out how to manage their schedule.
This isn’t to say that successful pastors don’t have a lot on their plate. There’s a good chance the pastors you admire have a great deal of responsibility. It’s just they have found a way to manage their schedule and do what truly needs to be done.
You don’t need a complicated system or a new app to manage your schedule, you just need to own your time. Just like we should be good stewards with our money, we need to be good stewards with our time.
#2 – Successful pastors are always learning.
The pastors I know and respect never act like they know everything. In fact, they are far more likely to listen than speak. They know learning is a key to growth.
One leader I greatly admire is Jeff Henderson. Jeff is always learning from people. He learns from the corporate world and from the church world. He goes and meets with people and brings people in to talk to his staff. Jeff is a great leader partly because he is a great learner.
Another leader I admire is Carey Nieuwhof. Carey has one of the best leadership podcasts (well worth your time), but Carey is also learning as well. When you listen to Carey’s podcast, you can tell that he’s learning, not just interviewing.
Both of these leaders know that if they are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to go into a different room.
If you’re stuck in a rut, go meet someone new and learn something different. You really can learn from people outside your denomination or outside your normal circles.
But understand this… you’ve got to learn intentionally. You’re never going to have time to read, meet, or travel. You have to block that off because it’s valuable. You have to be intentional about who you want to learn from and how you want to grow.
#3 – Successful pastors actually work hard.
I know a lot of pastors who have big plans and big dreams, but have been waiting to take action for years. In some cases, they are waiting for funding. In other cases, they are waiting for their kids to grow up. A lot of times I hear the phrase, “when things settle down…”
But nobody is going to do it for you. Waiting for “one day” is like chasing a unicorn. And you won’t make time for it “when things slow down” because things aren’t going to slow down.
Successful pastors work hard. They manage their time wisely and don’t let everyone else control their schedule, but make no mistake about it, they work hard.
I want to make a confession. There have been times when I have “phoned it in” when it came to sermon prep and sermon delivery. Because I’m relatively good at these things, I can put together a message pretty quickly. If I’m not careful, I can get by without putting in the necessary time. My experience and gifting in this area can actually be a crutch, an excuse not to work hard.
But I know the difference between a good message and a great one. I know the difference between a decent plan and a great one. The difference is in the details, in the hard work of study and prayer, or the hard work of focus and planning.
And if you’re a bi-vocational pastor who leads a church in addition to working another job, hats off to you. You probably understand this principle more than most.
#4 – Successful pastors are willing to change.
In 2015, Twitter made some changes to their platform. One of those changes was design-related. They changed the star to a heart.
Instead of people starring tweets they liked or wanted to save, the icon changed to a heart. And as you can imagine (as with any change), people didn’t like it. Twitter complained and people wrote open letters, but Twitter stuck by their decision to change.
Akarshan Kumar, product manager at Twitter, said this: “We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.”
They took something nobody really complained about and tried to make it better for new people. And whether or not you’re a Twitter user, there’s a lesson to learn there. This social media company was willing to change.
That’s something I’ve noticed about successful pastors. They are willing to change, even things that are working okay because they believe they could work better.
I know pastors who changing from printed bulletins to online newsletters because for them, they are more effective and cheaper. I know pastors who have canceled ministries that people attended and liked because they weren’t effective at reaching people for Jesus. I know pastors who have made changes to their staff or to their structure in order to position the church to accomplish the vision.
Change is hard and people don’t like it. Ironically, most people in your church don’t want it to grow. But successful pastors are willing to change and lead the church through it with purpose.
#5 – Successful pastors take time off.
I want to end this list with a behavior that sounds counter intuitive.
The world tells you that you’ve got to work hard, hustle, and grind it out if you want to be successful. But one of the things I’ve observed about successful pastors is that after they work hard, they go home.
They go home at the end of the day. They take a day off every week. And they take family trips and vacations with their spouse every year.
If your devices need time to recharge, so do you. By the end of the day, my phone is dead. So when I get home, I stick it on the charger. And in the morning, it’s good to go.
The secret to getting more done might just be going home, declaring enough is enough for today. If you’ve set up your church to where it can’t survive without your for a Sabbath day, or for a few weeks every year, you’ve got a bigger problem.
Yes, work hard. But also… go home. You don’t have to be on call all the time and you don’t need to solve every problem in the church right now. And just like it is with intentionally learning, you’re going to have to be intentional about this one too.
We are what we repeatedly do.
Vision, passion, hopes, dreams and plans are great. But in reality, we are what we repeatedly do. Our behaviors, more than our desires, lead to our future.
The best predictor of what your future will look like are the actions you’re taking today.
So are any of these behaviors a part of your daily and weekly routine? Are you doing the things that other successful pastors do?
We are what we repeatedly do.
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