Evaluating Ministry by Fruitfulness Isn’t Fair

Charles Kiser —  October 25, 2012 — 10 Comments

I’ve been reflecting lately on experiencing breakthrough in ministry – what it takes to really grow and thrive as a church, and how to know if we are cooperating with God so that breakthrough can happen.

Tim Keller provides a helpful discussion on how to evaluate ministry effectiveness in his new book Center Church that speaks to the topic of breakthrough.

In the end, however, I believe his discussion falls short.

Keller observes that there are two dominant approaches to assessing one’s effectiveness in ministry.

  • Success. “Successful” ministers are those whose churches grow rapidly, attract thousands of attendees, account for many conversions, and amass significant financial resources.
  • Faithfulness. Ministry in this approach is evaluated by one’s faithfulness to God – soundness in doctrine, commitment to Scripture, godly character, and perseverance in preaching and pastoring people.

Keller submits, I think rightly, that there is something missing in both approaches. On one hand, success-driven evaluation is likely to produce consumer Christians and shallow Christianity. On the other hand, God calls ministers not only to be faithful but also competent.

Keller, therefore, offers a third way of evaluation.

  • Fruitfulness. Fruitfulness includes elements of effectiveness that the success and faithfulness approaches neglect on their own: both conversions and godly character, for instance, are referred to as fruit in the New Testament.

Keller’s most incisive critique of the success and faithfulness approaches is ironically the same line of thinking that calls his fruitfulness criterion into question:

The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skillful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well.

The difficulty in evaluating ministry with the criterion of fruitfulness is that fruitfulness is often an outcome or byproduct of ministry that is dependent on factors largely out of a minister’s control – in the same way even the most skilled farmer would not see a fruitful crop at harvest time if it didn’t rain all year long (a factor out of his control).

Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 3:6 – Paul planted the seed of the gospel. Apollos watered it. God made it grow and bear fruit. God creates the fruit, not us.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t command his disciples to bear fruit in John 15. He only tells them to stay connected to him and love each other, and that fruit would follow.

There are also examples in Scripture where God calls people, like Isaiah, to be faithful and skilled in their ministry, but tells them that they will most certainly not be fruitful (see Isaiah 6).

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman shares a similar perspective in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:


Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.

“Luck” – whether in the form of God’s sovereign work or human free agency – is a factor beyond our control.

Here’s my point: it doesn’t seem helpful or fair to evaluate a person’s ministry based on something that is largely out of her control.

We need an alternative criterion for evaluating ministry that includes both character and competency but does not assess on the basis of outcomes that are largely beyond the control of any one person or group of people.

I propose this alternative criterion:

  • Wisdom. Wisdom of the type described in Proverbs 1-3 accounts for both faithfulness and skill, character and competency. It is also something that God gives generously to all who ask and without discrimination (James 1:5).

When we are “wise” in ministry, fruitfulness is sometimes the outcome, but not always (at least not immediately, or even in our lifetime). We are not in control of the fruit. Regardless of the outcomes, if we are wise, having sound character and adequate competency, we can be satisfied with our work.

So maybe the new ministry evaluation question should be: are you a wise minister?

My major takeaway from this discussion is just how dependent we are upon God to do anything “effective” in this world. We cannot bear fruit unless God grows it for us. Neither can we have wisdom unless God gives it to us.

Tim Keller also makes this observation in Center Church: “We can only prepare for revival [=fruitfulness or breakthrough]; we can’t really bring it about. God must send it.”

All this leads me deeper into prayer and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Which seems wise to me.

What do you think? What is the best criterion for evaluating effectiveness in ministry?

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Charles Kiser

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Dallas, TX. Church Planter with Storyline Christian Community. Equipper and Coach with Mission Alive.

10 responses to Evaluating Ministry by Fruitfulness Isn’t Fair

  1. 

    In ministry today, is the cart before the horse? Funding is so important. We think, “If people don’t give/support our work we will be shut down.” And we think people won’t give unless we are getting “results.” I have even, and often, heard the business term “return on investment” used in the contest of ministry. We must show our donors/givers/(investors?) that they are getting their money’s worth. Is that a Biblical model? When I read the scriptures on giving I don’t think I see that.

    Yes, Charles, I want to see our circle of disciples grow in wisdom and love and joy and peace and strength and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

    To be effective in my ministry, I want to see something that no one can measure!

    • 

      Thanks, Diane. Great thoughts. I think you’re right, ROI is difficult. What we must identify is the “return” part. What is the nature of the return we should expect from “effective ministry”?

  2. 

    Thanks for sharing this, Charles. I haven’t read Keller. I typically like his stuff, but his default position is to often find a third-way from two dominant ways. I think you are right to say that there may be a third third-way.

    At the same time, I read this with hesitancy. Knowing you, I know this is not what you’re suggesting, but I suspect many readers will misuse your words and – once again – find a landing place for inefficiency.

    In my time in ministry, I’m constantly amazed by the ways churches and ministers can blame God for their lack of impact. Whenever we see something objectively verifiable, say numerical growth, in it’s absence, we come up with myriad ways to explain why it’s not happening. Those explanations tend to be things that are not objectively verifiable – deepening people, spiritually forming people, etc…. What I’ve seen is this: When we take frutifulness off the table with get excusefulness.

    It seems another rubric to add to evaluating ministry effectiveness might also be to ask what God ultimately wants. Does God want our neighbors and friends to have a relationship with God? Does God want the naked clothed, prisoners visited, widows and orphans cared for? If the answer is yes, then we can simply evaluate our ministry by whether or not we are doing them. For example, my daughters can ask a lot of sophisticated questions about my long-term desire for them, but they certainly know I want them to clean their room.

    Perhaps ministry evaluation begins with the criterion of obedience to the stated desires of God – make disciples, serve the poor, etc… – and then let God do what only God can do.

    • 

      Great comment, Sean. I agree with you – I am not trying to say that skill or competency is not important. I don’t want my reflections here to justify, as Keller says, “taking the pressure off ourselves”. We do have responsibility and partnership with God in the kingdom. And that involves both character and competency. God bears fruit through our competency. I only want to say that it is not a given that we will be fruitful if we are competent.

      I also love the criterion you suggest of obedience. Right on. A mentor of mine says, “Success is obedience to God.” I think he’s on to something with that. Obedience can entail both character and competency as well.

      • 

        Yes. Competence doesn’t equal fruitfulness. Even better news: Fruitfulness doesn’t equal competence. I’m trained. I’m not always competence.

      • 

        Haha. So true. And thank God for that – I’ve got plenty of incompetence myself! Reminds me of Paul saying that our competence does not come from ourselves but from God. It begins and ends with God, it seems. Hopefully we’re in the middle a little bit.

  3. 

    It seems [to me] that both success and wisdom are natural children of obedience and faithfulness, birthed by fruitfulness. Obedience and faithfulness are choices we make in our walk with Jesus; success and wisdom are outside our control. I think one of the most important points to make is that obedience and faithfulness WILL bear fruit, but it doesn’t always look like success to our culture that bases success on quantifiable outcomes.

    In the social sciences, there is a distinction between outcome evaluation and process evaluation. I think that conducting outcome evaluations of ministry is dangerous – it assumes that we know what the outcome should be (and “who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? -1 Cor. 2:16). As you pointed out, there are so many times when God calls us to fail by way of obedience! And this obedience, whether it results in success or failure, has the purpose to bear fruits of the Spirit in us (a la Romans 5:3-5) and teach us how to trust Him.

    I support conducting internal process evaluations of ministry where we examine our hearts and motives and commit to surrendering our outcomes to the work of the Spirit. Thanks for initiating a conversation that forces us to re-examine an issue that is so easy to take for granted!

  4. 

    I loved reading this in the midst of where we are on our journey. We are into our 5th year, and we come back from this furlough knowing that we are only here two more years. In so many ways, it feels like we have only just begun this work. What is exciting is that a team of four couples is coming in a year to take over the next chapter of this journey, and to be honest, God started this work before we ever came. That is where it becomes real to me. I am only a part of what God is doing here in Arequipa… just one chapter of many. I can think it is all on me all that I want, but it is God through us, and he continues the work even when we are not present. Many want to define success as how many we have converted. I share with many that ask me about this that someone’s conversion is not the end but the beginning. “Success” for me is seeing that new Christian live out Christ’s call in their life and in turn sharing it with others. I really liked your quote from your mentor, “Success is obedience to God.” Thanks for your words, Charles. We visited Nate and Jenni at the end of our furlough. It reminds me of the grad school days thinking of you guys. :-)

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