Book Review: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, by Kent and Barbara Hughes
Biblical, practical, and anecdotal. That’s not a bad combination of characteristics for a book on ministry. Yet Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book Liberating Ministry from Success Syndrome is all three. In it, this faithful biblical expositor calls on a lifetime of ministry experience to reorient his readers’ understanding of success in ministry.
Indeed, the book is grounded in Kent Hughes own story, since he speaks as one whose understanding of success underwent profound transformation. Many readers may be aware of his years of service as pastor of the College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, but fewer will know of his early years as pastor of a small congregation in southern California. In the book, the Hughes speak honestly and frankly about those early days. The Lord used these days, they say, to reveal a heart that understood ministry success in worldly terms.
AN EVANGELICAL CLASSIC
A classic in conservative evangelical literature, Liberating Ministry has been in print for over twenty years. It’s written with a transparent, personal, and pastoral tone that is accessible and applicable to pastors and church members alike. I read Liberating Ministry for the first time as a sophomore at a conservative Christian college that was far removed from the predominant “mega-church” philosophy of the nineties which the book seems to be addressing. Yet I was and continue to be challenged by the way the Hughes go after the heart.
For instance, the Hughes enlist the example of Jesus ministering to the Samaritan woman at the well in order to make the point that we must tirelessly pursue faithfulness. They write,
In his exhaustion it would have been so easy for him to mutter, ‘I’ve been ministering to thousands. I’ve got to have time to rest. I’ll just keep my eyes shut and ignore her.’ Not Jesus! He went for her soul in one of the most beautiful displays of gracious aggression in all of Scripture. He continued to minister when necessary, even at the point of exhaustion. And we, if we are faithful, will do as our Master did!” (42)
Church leaders who have rejected a pragmatic, church-growth philosophy may be tempted to assume they have a solid grasp of what success in ministry looks like. Yet the Hughes go beyond forms and structures to aim at the motivations of such leaders anyway. I read Liberating Ministry years ago, as I said, and agreed with it then. But still, rereading it now helped me to see afresh how my sinful heart gently and constantly urges me to misconceive of success in ministry.
In other words, Liberating Ministry challenges church leaders who may be orthodox in doctrine and biblical in ecclesiology to watch not just their doctrine but their life!
No doubt, Liberating Ministry is an excellent work that deserves to be read and applied.
A FEW DEFICIENCIES
There are a couple matters I think could use some tweaking. They might have given a fuller treatment of the importance of prayer, particularly understanding “success” when prayers seem to go unanswered. They also might have either re-titled the section on holiness “purity,” since it focused principally on sexual purity, or they might have given a fuller treatment of personal holiness beyond the sexual arena.
A little more substantially, the book seems to assume that its readers rightly understand and know how to apply the gospel. So the Hughes provide an excellent redefinition of success, which focuses on the seven characteristics of faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness, and attitude. But at the root of a wrong understanding of success in ministry is an inherent contortion of misapplication of the gospel. Perhaps the discussion could have begun there and then proceeded to these well-chosen characteristics?
Finally, the Hughes treatment of attitude seems to equate joy and hope with optimism. For instance, they write,
There is a sense in which attitude is everything. Our physicians tell us this is so when they remind us that a high percentage of illnesses are produced by unhealthy mind-sets and attitudes. The influence of positive mental attitude is not limited to medicine. Today ‘attitude’ is virtually a sports cliché. Attitude, we are told, separates the greats from the also-rans. Similarly, educators, marriage counselors, corporate managers, military brass—all assert the importance of attitude. (96)
It’s true that an optimistic attitude is helpful, but there is a difference between an optimistic attitude and biblical hope and joy. One is a supernatural gift of the Spirit, and one isn’t. As such, it is possible for a Christian minister to struggle throughout his life with a less than optimistic perspective and still have a Spirit-given hope. It’s also possible for an optimistic person to not walk by faith.
AN EXCEPTIONAL SUCCESS
The book doesn’t claim to be an extensive treatment of the cultural forces driving wrong views of ministry success. Nor does it mean to be a manual for biblical practices within the church. For these topics, one should consult, respectively, The Courage to be Protestant by David Wells or The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander.
Instead, Liberating Ministry attempts to bring refreshment to the soul of anyone that has been laboring in the desert of ministry drought. It attempts to biblically reshape the heart of the Christian minister, and in these attempts it is exceptionally successful.