Book Review: The Measure of Our Success, by Shawn Lovejoy
Shawn Lovejoy loves fellow pastors and desperately wants them to thrive in ministry. But, as he explains in his book The Measure of Our Success, he fears far too many pastors feel discouragement and discontentment instead. The reason for this malaise? Pastors are using the wrong metrics for gauging successful ministry.
A VIEW FROM THE TRENCHES
Lovejoy’s insights emerge predominantly from his own failures and successes in ministry, as well as from observing pastors and church planters within his ministry networks. He knows how pastors think. As a result, Lovejoy’s assessments are simultaneously piercing and disarming. He calls out our unspoken and unhealthy concepts of success, but also shares his own story of facing those faulty metrics.
I found myself repeatedly convicted by this book. Lovejoy’s own story of near burnout (Ch. 3) and his lifestyle changes to foster personal vitality (Ch. 4) were particularly engaging. Shawn has practical wisdom to share, much of it from the school of hard-knocks. The author is perhaps at his best in these moments of autobiographically-driven exhortation and encouragement.
RIGHT AND WRONG MEASURES OF MINSITRY SUCCESS
So what are the wrong measures of ministry success? According to the author, they include things like approval from people, numerical growth, busyness in church work, and fame (Ch 1). Pastors become unhealthy when they compare their ministries to others, and as a result either copy those ministries or condemn them (Ch 2). None of these observations are ground-breaking, and yet they are everyday temptations that pastors face. Lovejoy’s diagnoses hit home again and again.
Lovejoy proposes different ways of weighing our ministries. In one the most powerful chapters (Ch. 5), Lovejoy calls pastors to recover the “most forgotten metric”: love. He notes how easily we see people as means for accomplishing our church’s goals. “We must stop using people to get ministry done. People are our ministry” (85). Amen!
He also sees successful ministry as “prophetic” (Ch. 7). Prophetic ministry challenges the status quo and should expect criticism and rejection. If we measure success by people’s approval, we will never confront problems in the church.
According to Lovejoy, successful ministry is marked by perseverance through desert experiences (Ch. 8), and a focus on building churches through conversion growth and not sheep-swapping (Ch. 9). The book ends with a call to keep Jesus, not the church, central (Ch. 11) and in a signature Lovejoy flourish he tenders his “resignation” as leader of the church, and gives the reigns publicly to Christ (Ch. 12). Successful ministry happens when pastors acknowledge Jesus as ruler of his church.
THE LIMITS OF EXPERIENCE
It has been said that our greatest strengths are sometimes our greatest weaknesses. So the author’s engaging use of personal experience also ended up hampering the book in several ways.
Not surprisingly, the focus on personal experience trends the book toward therapeutic concerns. From the outset the author asks: “Why? Why are so many pastors and ministry leaders failing? Why are they so vulnerable? Why are they so unfulfilled? Lonely? Insecure? Discouraged? Depressed? Burned out?” (15).
This concern for emotional health dogs the book, subtly implying that successful ministry means, in part, that pastors feel energized. The author speaks about the “love language” of affirmation and addresses the role of fathers in shaping our need for affirmation (19). He urges pastors to restructure their schedules to nurture spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and relational vitality (Ch. 4), and to fight through doubts and desires to quit (Ch. 8). Again, much of this comes from his own experiences.
To be sure, pastors should carefully steward their own lives and energies. But the book tended to be long on therapy and short on theology. There was little theological reflection on the relationship between pastoral ministry and God’s glory, the nature of the church, or even the gospel itself. It seems strange to read a book about measuring success in ministry, and find such a lack of clear biblical thinking on topics that would seem basic to the thesis.
This need for theological reflection becomes acute in Lovejoy’s views of the church.
He argues for healthy teams as a key measure of success (“Everything rises and falls on our team leadership culture”; 95), but does not evaluate the role and nature of elders, the one church leadership “team” actually commanded in Scripture.
He describes the church as a “hospital for sinners” (142) and then opines, “Generally speaking, many of our churches are designed to meet the needs of the people who already know God and ignore the needs of those who are far from him” (143). This is certainly a timely word addressing complacency and indifference in our congregations. But is that really all the New Testament says about the nature and purpose of the local church, that it must be centered on conversion growth?
Again, the author’s personal narrative of church planting drives his focus: “I wanted to create a safe place where I could welcome my unchurched friends, a place where they would be accepted as they were and allowed some time to know God before being challenged to change” (143).
When it comes to preaching, Lovejoy reacts against “going deeper” and even goes so far as to say, “Jesus focused more on life application than on Bible exposition” (147). I’m currently preaching through the Gospel of John and have found there a theologically weighty Jesus. Jesus gave both pithy commands and lengthy discourses on the deep things of God. And what about the preaching of Paul and the other apostles? Are profound theology and motivating application really enemies?
Lovejoy’s thinking on the church struck me as somewhat imbalanced, trending toward the pragmatic, and often guilty of false dichotomies.
It pains me to write this, but perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is its use of the Bible. Not only are biblical texts sparse, but when they do appear the author too often handles them in a sloppy, facile manner.
For example, he sees David’s donning and rejecting Saul’s armor (1 Sam. 17:38-40) as a model of being secure in your own unique ministry calling and not needing to mimic someone else's ministry (37-39). This again smacks of pop-psychological preoccupation with self-affirmation.
The fact that Paul had ministry relationships and Jesus worked with disciples provides a flimsy springboard for his chapter on healthy teams (Ch. 6), a chapter that brims with the ideas and techniques of modern leadership theory.
Lovejoy also makes a simplistic connection between biblical prophets and the role of the pastor as prophet within his organization (Ch. 7) without any careful thought on the Bible’s teaching about either office. Do pastors really get a vision from God for their church and then challenge the status quo and ignore criticism, just like Old Testament prophets (110-116)?
And was Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness really a moral lesson on how to deal with the temptation to quit church ministry (125-126)?
Finally, I must again note the almost complete absence of commentary on biblical texts that directly address pastors/elders and their ministry in the local church.
THE WAY FORWARD
On a positive note, I believe the author sows the seeds for his own way forward in chapter 10: “Do we need something new? A call for reformation.”
Biblical reformation is more than just an appreciation for the past. It is a commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to save sinners, sanctify saints, and to shape the church. Reformation does not just involve important general principles like loving each other and keeping Jesus central, but also specific practices like expository preaching, biblical church polity, and Word-centered evangelism.
As a fellow pastor who has trod many of these same paths of pragmatic and therapeutic ministry, I would encourage my brother Shawn to join me in discovering this old path, the way of biblical reformation, and there find a richer definition of success: gospel faithfulness.