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November 7,  2003


Can success be used to define ministry?

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker warns clergy not to get too wrapped up in the world’s definition of success.
By J.A. Buchholz

LAKELAND — While clergy live in the world, it is often difficult for them not to become trapped in worldly ideals of success, which should not be applied to the ministry, according to the majority of clergy who responded to a recent informal e-mail survey.

How clergy define and achieve success was an underlying theme of the Sept. 12 Conference Table Meeting at Lake Gibson United Methodist Church here.

The Conference Table, created in 2002, is a venue for clergy and laity to discuss the connectional life and current context of the United Methodist Church for the 21st century.

More than 70 Florida Conference clergy surveyed shared how they define success, whether or not they feel they have to compete with other clergy to be successful, and how the expectations of laity play a role in their ministry.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker had some strong words for clergy who allow the cultural category of success to define their Christian vocation.

“If we who are clergy take this cultural category as our goal in life, we’re going to lose focus of our calling,” Whitaker said in a recent interview. “The Biblical category that should define what ministry is all about is faithfulness.

“To me there are three fundamental things that we, who are clergy, should remember as we seek to be faithful in our calling. Remember that each of us is part of the one body. If we think of ourselves as individuals who are doing his or her own thing…then I think we are going to have a distorted understanding of our role, and we’re not going to provide the kind of leadership we should. Secondly, each of us who are clergy has a responsibility to tell the truth, and when I say tell the truth, I mean to tell God’s truth in all of its meaning. Sometimes that means talking about things people may not want to talk about. Last thing, I would say always be motivated by passion to fulfill the mission of the church.”

Whitaker acknowledged he has wrestled with cultural success in his ministry.

“The way I dealt with it is I always tried to keep my eye on the ball,” he said. “I never permitted myself to become distracted. I always tried to keep focus on what God had enabled me to do and what God had called me to do. I emphasized self-discipline and not allowed myself to become distracted by the concerns of other people that were rooted in the values in our culture, which I don’t think are necessarily Christian values.”

The Rev. Kirk Dreiser, pastor of Limona Village Chapel in Brandon, said he defines success as being obedient to the call God has given him, yet he is torn.

“I feel I must be in a growing church with lots of new members and baptisms and professions of faith, having paid all of my apportionments, to be considered successful by fellow clergy,” he said. “I feel I must meet all of the emotional and physical needs of the congregation, visit everyone often, remember everything I am told about everyone’s family, and never have a bad day, in order to be successful by the laity.”

The Rev. George Zimmerman said success and calling are not at odds.

“I feel that success comes in taking care and loving your people,” he said. “It is not determined by salary, position or the size of the church. It is what and how you serve the God who called you. You are not the CEO who rules with an iron hand, but the shepherd that leads. If you love and take care of your people, all else will be taken care of.”

Like Whitaker, the Rev. Steven Price, co-pastor of Harvest United Methodist Church in Bradenton, has a problem with success being used to define the ministry.

“I think that using the term ‘success’ is itself problematic,” he said. “It is difficult for us to think of success in any terms other than those which come to us from the prevailing capitalist culture in which we live. I would prefer to think in terms of our ‘faithfulness’ as clergy, rather than successfulness. Based on standards often used, pastors could be successful without being faithful and, simultaneously, there are many faithful pastors who would fail the ‘success’ test.”

Whitaker said if pastors lose focus of their ministry, all is not lost.

“I think it’s inevitable that you will lose your passion for ministry,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to maintain spiritual discipline, and most especially to be part of a covenant group…[group] with others will remind you when you’re getting off track.

“I don’t mean to suggest that pastors, particularly those with families, don’t have legitimate material needs. They need to be able to provide. All of us have psychological needs to feel like we’re making a contribution to life. It’s all a matter of perspective. There’s a difference between that legitimate human need and a person really treating the ministry as a profession, measuring it by all the standards of success which have to do with how much salary you make, the church you have and what kind of accomplishments your church has. By the way, churches that do achieve a great deal, often we, who are clergy, take a lot more credit for that than we should.”

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