Take 60 seconds to try this thought experiment: Close your eyes and imagine a successful and effective ministry program in your context. What do you imagine? How many people are present? What are they doing? What’s your role as a ministry leader? 

Perhaps you imagined a space inside your church’s building filled to the brim with people. Maybe some of them were brand new to the ministry. Maybe you imagined programming that went off without a single mistake or issue, or an event that was perfect in your mind. 

In Western culture, many leaders and denominations consider a ministry good, valuable, and effective if it adheres to the following values: 

  • Endless growth in attendance
  • Excellence and perfection
  • Fresh program ideas
  • Permanence and longevity
  • Attraction 

Ultimately, the best ministries are those that contribute to institutional survival, or so the myth goes. 

These values aren’t inherently negative or entirely misplaced, but you and I know they only tell part of the story of what’s unfolding in your ministry context.

Part of the trouble with measuring effectiveness by these values alone is they often cause leaders to minister from an internalized sense of failure; experience enormous stress, anxiety, and freneticism; and ultimately, burn out and leave ministry altogether. But the biggest issue with these values is, too often, they’re centered on us, not Jesus.

Part of the trouble with measuring effectiveness by these values alone is they often cause leaders to minister from an internalized sense of failure.

I once served at a church with a pastor who was known for exploding in anger at the staff if there was an AV issue during a Sunday morning worship service. If a slide had a typo or someone’s mic didn’t function properly, he would lose it. To him, an effective expression of worship was a perfect worship service, without any human or technological errors. 

I’m pretty sure Jesus would not agree that perfection is the goal of a worship service or any other ministry. Ministry is messy because humans are messy. We make mistakes. We don’t always have the impact we intend. Our best efforts to create a meaningful program, service, sermon, or event sometimes fail horribly. And God is with us even still.

At the Lab, we challenge the leaders and faith communities we work with to look for signs of transformation, rather than perfection, through the ministries they develop. 

What does transformation in ministry look like?

Transformation can look like a group of people who return again and again each time the ministry happens. Perhaps it’s a casual participant who begins to volunteer and eventually lead the ministry, allowing staff to take a step back. Maybe it’s people meaningfully sharing their gifts and talents with others. Maybe it’s someone expressing how connected and engaged they feel with the faith community, and inviting their friends to participate. 1

As you consider what makes for an effective ministry this year, my prayer is you’ll expand your understanding of “success” to transcend perfection, numerical growth, excellence, and longevity. 

There are countless examples in scripture of Jesus’ ministry not going perfectly. The disciples often didn’t seem to get it. The people receiving Jesus’ teachings didn’t always respond the way he hoped. But lives were transformed anyway because God was, is, and always will be at work.

As the New Year unfolds, look for signs of transformation and watch God move, even (especially) when your ministry isn’t perfect. 

If you need help developing a transformative ministry, visit the Innovation Lab to learn about our resources that are designed to catalyze innovation in your context.

  1. We’re grateful for conversations with our friends at The Pace Center, an ecumenical campus ministry at Virginia Commonwealth University, who inspired some of these perspectives on measuring effectiveness. ↩︎