by Reinder Bruinsma | 6 December 2023 |
Seven years ago Pastor Jolanda Aantjes moved to Hall, a small village in a rural area in the central part of the Netherlands, to serve as pastor of the United Protestant Church (PKN). In a recent interview in Christian Daily she talked about her ministry.
On Sundays, on average, 25 of the circa 600 villagers attend the worship service in the historic Ludgerus church, built in 1395 and named after a ninth-century missionary among the Frisians.
It has not been easy to keep the church going. The last confirmation was in 2007. Recently a 60-year-old lady was baptized as a somewhat belated (and rather unexpected) fruit of an Alpha Course, an interdenominational evangelistic introduction to the Christian faith. It was the first baptismal service since 2015.
Jolanda has made it a fixed part of her daily schedule to pray for a revival in her church and she refuses to be discouraged. She remains convinced that the Christian church—including her small congregation—has a future.
The desire for success
As I was reading the interview, I wondered how Pastor Jolanda Aantjes has been able to hold on to her enthusiasm and passion. She makes no secret of her belief that she has a spiritual responsibility for the entire village community. She has the word “pastor” printed in bold letters on her blouses and T-shirts. She knows everyone in the village and constantly wonders what she can say or do to attract more of them to her church.
At the same time she is happy that in the utterly secular Dutch environment in which she lives and works, a few dozen people are still believers and regular churchgoers. Where will she be in five or ten years from now? Will she still be in Hall, praying for the next baptism? Or will she be looking for a new challenge that promises more success?
Pastors are human, and just like their parishioners they long for success in their work. Adventist pastors are no exception. But how many Adventist pastors in the Western world consider themselves successful? And what actually counts as success?
Are ministers successful if they meet the expectations of their members, their church board, and their conference officials? Are they successful if their church grows numerically as the result of regular evangelistic activities, bringing in at least a few baptisms each year? Are they successful if there is still a good-sized youth group in their church? Are they successful when the congregations in their care aren’t plagued by conflicts and polarization, as so many of their colleagues experience in their churches?
If this is how success is defined, it is small wonder that many pastors give up. Many find it impossible to satisfy the expectations of the various stakeholders they have to deal with. A good many of the members have no inkling what a pastor does and wonder why so many clergy suffer from burnout or give up on their calling.
Many of the officials who work in conference, union, or division offices have long forgotten how difficult church boards can be, and how the Pareto principle (the idea that 20 percent of the clients are responsible for 80 percent of all problems) is constantly being corroborated. Few understand the deep disappointment when the baptistry remains unused for years on end, as is the case in many of our smaller churches.
About 50 years ago James F. Engel, a behaviorist expert (1934-2016) developed a scale to analyze the steps of success in evangelism. One of several adaptations of this scale lists the various stages as progressing from minus-10 to plus-10.
According to this scale, evangelistic success begins when an awareness of the supernatural emerges. It progresses through an initial interest in Christianity (-8) and a positive attitude towards the gospel (-4), to repentance and faith (-1), and then continues in initiation into the church (+2), growth in Christian character (+5), adoption of a Christian lifestyle (+7), to becoming a true disciple who wants to share her faith with others (+10).
Having success is not only seeing someone proceed from stage -10 all the way to stage +10. True success is also when we help someone to proceed just one step on the ladder towards becoming a disciple of Christ. Whether or not she is acquainted with the Engel scale, it seems to me that pastor Jolanda Aantjes defines her success in ministry in this way.
Have I been successful?
I sometimes wonder how successful I have been in the various church assignments I have been engaged in. I count some of my activities as successes.
But not everything has been a success in the church institutions I have managed. The Trans-European Division and the Netherlands Union did not grow by leaps and bounds. They did not initiate numerous brilliant projects simply because I happened to be part of their administration for a number of years.
If I am to be completely honest, I would admit to some things that might have turned out better if I had not been involved with them.
Gradually I have learned to see success in a different light. From time to time people tell me that something I said or wrote had a positive impact on their life; that they read something in one of my books that helped them to see an issue they were struggling with in a new light; that having a coffee with me at a crucial point in his/her life gave the encouragement that was critically needed at that very moment. These things count as genuine success.
Perhaps Adventist pastors should learn to define success in terms of the Engel scale: that is, small steps toward a desired goal are to be counted as true success. And perhaps many pastors (me included) should learn to pay more attention to small signals that our ministry is appreciated—at least by some; and that our merely “being there” for at least some people, when they needed our support, has made a real difference.
For pastors to focus on the happiness and the contentment such moments bring, rather than succumbing to a constant worry whether they have been able to satisfy the expectations of church members and/or church leaders, may go a long way toward a much happier ministry.
Moreover, it seems to me that God’s way of evaluating our success is much closer to that of James Engel than to the emphasis on quantitative and numerical factors our church so often tends to associate with being successful.
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching, and writing. He blogs at http://reinderbruinsma.com/.