Don’t Let Success in Ministry Ruin Your Joy

Every spiritual leader must decide where to find ultimate joy. If you don’t, you’ll build on sand. If you make the wrong choice, you’ll be miserable. Your joy matters.

And Jesus makes it plain that there is more joy to be had in your identity in him than your activity for him.

It’s not wrong to be excited that more people joined the Sunday service — or that people even came back. It’s not wrong to be happy after a fruitful discipling meeting. And it’s definitely not wrong to rejoice — to throw a party even — when someone is born again. But what if these aren’t happening? Do you still rejoice?

Do you find your joy bobbing up and down with the number of empty chairs on Sunday? Does your zeal for ministry run in tandem with the size of the offering? Let’s be honest with ourselves. I’ve talked with enough ministry leaders, and know my own heart, to acknowledge that it’s not uncommon to still look for our joy in metrics, stats, figures, and data.

We must reject the fantasy-footballization of Christian ministry. I’m sure most of us know the verse, “God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6) — but do we really know it? We often don’t experience this truth at the center of our hearts, igniting joy in God’s sovereign grace and freeing us to live from solid confidence and comfort in the gospel, whether our ministry is fledgling or filled with fruitfulness.

“Do Not Rejoice in This”

Healthy leaders know where their joy comes from. They know what makes them tick. Am I only joyful when the ministry is meeting my metrics? Am I most joyful behind the pulpit? Does my joy run low if I don’t get any encouragement after leading a small group? I remember the early stages of our church, and I could sense my zeal, joy, and contentment tethered to how I thought the ministry was going. I found more joy in the act of preaching than the Jesus I was preaching about. I was looking for long-lasting joy in ministry. And, to no surprise, it was a beautiful letdown.

Healthy leaders remember the supersonic joy of the gospel.

In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the seventy-two, and they experience powerful, tweetable ministry. “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’” (Luke 10:17). When the disciples give Jesus their joyous report, he doesn’t rain on their parade, but he does redirect it. “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Jesus shows us where to find the fuel for our joy. We are saved. We are his people. Our names are written in his book. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. He loved us before the foundation of the world — before you went into ministry and before you did anything for him.

Gospel of Lasting Joy

Jesus reminds us that the joy from our gospel identity is greater than the joy from our gospel ministry. We find this readily applicable when things aren’t going well, but notice that Jesus gives us this word when the ministry of the seventy-two is going supernaturally well. Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection is the sustainable, never-failing, dependable, never-a-no-show joy in our lives. Ministry fruitfulness is seasonal; resurrection is forever.

When we try to lodge our joy in the fruits of ministry, it won’t be long till they go out of season and we are left waiting till the next harvest. And what happens when the next harvest isn’t as bountiful as the last? What happens when baptisms are half of what they were last year? What about when your most recent sermon is a dud? Since Jesus isn’t a pile of bone dust, there is a non-expiring joy found in knowing our names are written in heaven, even graven on his hands (Isaiah 49:16).

No matter what happens, or doesn’t happen, in our ministries, we have a warhead for rejoicing. The gospel secures and strengthens our joy. When we preach the gospel, do we personally believe that “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11)? Who is at the Father’s right hand? Christ himself. Since Jesus is there, fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore are ours.

Healthy leaders know their joy is geolocated at the Father’s right hand. Healthy leaders learn to love Jesus more than the fruit he produces through them. If there is greater joy in knowing our names are written in his book, then rejoicing in the gospel is more life-giving than preaching the gospel. The seventy-two Jesus sent out didn’t have a man-centered view of ministry — they were thrilled to see the satanic powers recoil in his name; they had a Jesus-centered ministry. But Jesus reminds us that the gospel, in all its mega-brilliance, brings even more joy than gospel-centered ministry.

Don’t Miss Real Joy

Whether you are dealing with failure, facing a fledgling or flailing ministry, or enjoying a season of super-fruitfulness, remember where joy is found. As Spurgeon reminds us, “Forget your abilities, forget your successes; cast these all at your Redeemer’s feet, where they ought to be, and then take this to yourself as your joy, your portion, your heaven below, that your name is written in the family register of the Eternal.”

At his right hand there is fullness of joy. Don’t miss it.