Ineffective Pastors

What causes a pastor to be ineffective? Charles Bridges wrestled with that question almost two hundred years ago in his classic The Christian Ministry with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency.[1] Bridges specified ten things related to a pastor’s personal character that hinder ministerial effectiveness. His insights are as true today as they were in 1830. I offer them with a certain degree of "fear and trembling," realizing my own inadequacies.

1. A pastor will be ineffective if he is not entirely devoted to the ministry.

Devotion to the work of ministry is essential to spiritual success. The resolution of the apostles was to “devote [themselves] to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). After charging Timothy about the duties of ministry, Paul urged: “Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). Our time, our reading, our mind and heart must be wholly given to this work. We are called to labor, not loiter, in vineyard of the Lord. Just as Jesus considered it his “food” to do the will of his Father and to accomplish his work (John 4:34), so should it be with us. The devil doesn’t care how we fritter away time, as long as it is not in our appointed work – of prayer and the ministry of the word. These supreme priorities should fragrance everything else – both our labor and our recreation – with the aroma of holy consecration to the Lord Jesus. Our passion for our God-given work should be like that of David Brainerd, who wrote: “I longed to be as a flame of fire, continually glowing in the Divine service, preaching and building up Christ’s kingdom to my latest, my dying hour.”[2] When a glowing passion for the King and his Kingdom are missing, a pastor is not likely to be effective in ministry.

2. A pastor will be ineffective if he is conformed to the world.

We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, not conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2), because friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4) and love for the world cannot coexist in one’s heart with a love for God (1 John 2:15). Of course, we cannot fully escape the world without leaving it (1 Cor 5:10), but our affections must not be ensnared. Our loves, desires, delights, and pursuits must be fixed on things above, not things of the earth (Col. 3:2). This is both the obligation and the high privilege of every Christian – but how much more the minister whose example others will follow?

When I find myself lacking power, I should take personal inventory of my soul. Are there cracks in my soul? Have my affections leaked out to worldly things? Do I have an undo attachment to the ambitions, entertainments, and extravagances of this present age? Am I so earthly-minded that I am of no heavenly-good? Jesus said of his followers, “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). Can that be said of me?

3. A pastor will be ineffective if he lives in “the fear of man.”

“The fear of man lays a snare” (Prov. 29:25), and how easy it is for the pastor to be caught in this trap! When a pastor itches for approval and affirmation from his people, or measures his words so as not to offend the ungodly, or calculates decisions in order to maintain the approval of the influential, he is catering to the fear of man. When we fear men, we cease to fear God.

The fear of man will cause us to take the teeth out of biblical exhortation and practical application and preach sermons full of vague generalities which are unlikely to bring conviction to anyone. When we fear man, we value our own popularity above biblical faithfulness and congregational holiness. Hard sayings and difficult doctrines will rarely find their way into our preaching. Personal confrontation and church discipline will rarely make an appearance in our pastoring. When we fear men, we love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43). An effective pastor will say with Paul: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). Whose servant are you?

4. A pastor will be ineffective if he is lacking in Christian self-denial.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This summons to a life of self-denial is the calling of Christ for all of his disciples. But it is especially necessary for ministers. Paul taught the same thing, using the athletic imagery of the day. “I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26b-27).

Self-denial is needed in our attitudes and expectations. If we place our own interests above the honor of the Lord or the needs of others, we will quickly become bitter and our self-seeking will be evident to others. John Eliot, the seventeenth-century missionary to Native Americans, is said to have “become so nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ that the grandeurs of this world were unto him just what they would be to a dying man.” His counsel to ministers who made too much of themselves was, “Study mortification, brother; study mortification.”[3]

Self-denial is also needed in our use of time. To “give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), we will have to deny ourselves many other pursuits and pleasures. The needs of people will impinge upon our personal plans and the demands of study will take priority over our hobbies and recreation.

In a day where pastoral burnout and fallout are all too common, with 1500 pastors leaving the ministry each month, and 50% of pastor’s marriages ending in divorce[4], it is important to stress the need for balance. Pastors do need to maintain margins in their schedule – regular seasons for personal renewal, time with family, and genuine re-creation. We must continually, and with the help of others, assess our priorities and our motives. Self-seeking ambition and a desire to secure the approval of others can easily masquerade as self-denial and result in the neglect of one’s family, the loss of spiritual vitality, and even the breakdown of physical health. Pastors should not continually run on fumes. Motivation is the key. Are we driven by an ambition to please God and love others or by a desire to please ourselves?

5. A pastor will be ineffective if he is covetous.

Covetousness among pastors is almost proverbial. Judas and Demas were among the first to forsake faithfulness to Christ for the love of money and this present world. All pastors are vulnerable to the lure of riches. That is why Paul told Timothy to flee the love of money (1 Tim. 6:10-11) and urged that qualified church leaders must not be “greedy for gain” (Tit. 1:7). Covetous pastors are not shepherds, but wolves who live to fleece God’s flock. Our mandate is to feed the sheep, not devour them. That is why elders must serve eagerly from a willing heart, not for shameful gain (1 Pet. 5:2).

A covetous heart can easily be cloaked, but God knows our hearts and can help us to know ourselves. When we clutch wealth and close our hearts and hands to those in need, when we are overly excited with the prospect of gain and greatly distressed by material loss, when we subtly hint to others that we have financial ‘needs,’ or when we always expect our deacons to pick up the tab for lunch – we should look deep within for the root of covetous desires.

The best defense against covetousness is treasuring Jesus and eternal riches above the wealth of this present age. If we are convinced that God really knows our needs before we ask and that treasure in heaven is worth more than treasure on earth, we will be empowered to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt. 6:19-33). Where the pursuit of the kingdom is displaced by overmuch concern to fund your IRAs and secure a raise, people will know (so will God), and divine blessing on your ministry will be diminished. Do not be greedy to gain, concerned to keep, or troubled to lose worldly wealth. God is your treasure!

6. A pastor will be ineffective if he neglects personal fellowship with God.

“Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while,” said Jesus to his disciples (Mark 6:31). If Jesus himself needed space for unhurried spiritual and physical restoration, how much more do we? The atmosphere of constant busyness is suffocating to prayer and meditation. But if we neglect personal communion with God, our souls will be impoverished as will our ministries.

Too often pastors feel that they don’t have time for unhurried prayer and meditation. But ‘waiting on the Lord’ will never hinder our effectiveness. Just the opposite is true. Without personal communion with God, we are of little use to God’s people. We sow, but God gives no increase. We preach, but our words ring hollow in people’s ears. We lead in worship, while our hearts are far from God. Fellowship with God is half our ministry and gives to the other half all its power and success. It strengthens our devotion to the work and increases our capacities for it.

The great missionary Henry Martyn lamented that “want of private devotional reading and shortness of prayer, through incessant sermon-making, had produced much strangeness between God and his own soul.”[5] Is God a stranger to your soul?

7. A pastor will be ineffective if he is characterized by spiritual pride.

It has been observed that spiritual pride is the sin of young ministers. Paul warns Timothy against setting an immature believer in the role of an overseer: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). Pride is sure to lead to destruction (Prov. 16:18).

But the presence of pride is often subtle and hard to discern. One indication is the desire to be popular rather than useful. When we are more concerned about what people think of us than how we can best help them or when we are envious of those who have superior gifts and greater visibility than do we, we can be sure pride is at work.

Christian leaders should especially be wary of allowing the compliments received from others to nurture pride in their hearts. The Puritan John Flavel gave wise counsel in this regard.

They are not our best friends, that stir the pride in our hearts by the flattery of their lips. The graces of God in others (I confess) are thankfully to be owned, and under discouragements and temptations to be wisely and modestly spoken of; but the strongest Christians do scarcely show their own weakness in any one thing more than they do in hearing their own praises. Christian! thou knowest thou carriest gunpowder about thee – Desire those that carry fire, to keep at a distance from thee. It is a dangerous crisis, when a proud heart meets with flattering lips. Faithful, seasonable, and discreet reproofs are much more safe to us, and advantageous to the mortification of sin in our souls.[6]

When we feel vanity rising up within our hearts, we should take to heart the words of Henry Martyn, who confessed, “Men frequently admire me, and I am pleased; but I abhor the pleasure that I feel!”[7]

8. A pastor will be ineffective if he lacks a genuine personal relationship with God.

Nothing could be more tragic than for a herald of the saving message of Christ and him crucified to have never personally trusted in the gospel himself. Yet it can happen.

Richard Baxter warned,

Verily, it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and unexperienced Pastors, and to have so many men become preachers, before they are Christians . . . and so to worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, an unknown Spirit, an unknown state of holiness and communion with God, and a glory that is unknown, and likely to be unknown forever. He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth in his heart.[8]
This is the danger of professionalism – to think that because we can describe the forgiveness of sins we have therefore experienced it; to assume that because we can articulate the gospel, we have therefore appropriated it. But it is much easier to preach against the sins of others than it is to mortify even one of our own by the cross of Christ.

It is not without reason that Paul told Timothy to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16, emphasis added).

9. A pastor will be ineffective if his family is not following Jesus.

More than a few men have been disqualified from ministry by the poor example of their families. I have known ministers whose wives were known for their unruly tempers and uncontrolled tongues or whose children had a reputation for drunkenness and immorality.

If a pastor’s top priority is his personal relationship with Christ, his second and third priorities should be the spiritual welfare of his wife and children. Pastors are often driven by their ambition to be successful in ministry and consequently neglect their families. It is really the temptation that every man faces – to be so focused on his job that he neglects his home. Unfortunately, it is easy for ministers to justify this neglect by calling it sacrifice for the Lord’s work.

To guard against neglecting our homes, we should ruthlessly safeguard quality family time – and we should make that time count by investing in the spiritual welfare of our wives and children: praying for them and with them, nourishing them with God’s word, and cultivating healthy Christ-centered relationships with them.

Whether he remains in ministry or not, a pastor with an unspiritual wife and unruly children is not likely to have much impact for the Lord “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (1 Tim. 3:5). Therefore, take care, not only of yourself, but also of your family.

10. A pastor will be ineffective if he lacks faith in God.

The famous motto of William Carey was “Expect great things for God; attempt great things for God.” A final reason why so many pastors see so little fruit to their labors is because they expected nothing. “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).

Lack of faith has two different faces. It reveals itself in both self-sufficiency and slothfulness. When we are self-sufficient, we tend to work harder but pray less, resting on our own gifts, resources, talents, and labor – but with little expectation of help from God. But the other extreme is slothfulness – presumptuous indolence and disregard for the work God has called us to do. The proper balance is to labor in faithfulness to God’s command, while expecting God to do abundantly more than we can ask or think.

Faith in God’s promises will empower us for obedience in the face of obstacles, support us through discouragement, and give us confidence that God will use our weak efforts and the foolishness of what we preach to save those who are called (1 Cor. 1:18-21). Faith will free us from the frenzy of trying to reinvent the wheel of ministry. And faith will keep us faithful to appropriate the means God has given for the building of the church. “Does not the promise of God warrant us to make the greatest attempts with the fullest assurance of ultimate success?”[9]

Finally, recognizing that all “success” in ministry is really the result of God’s work, faith will also nurture humility.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

End Notes

[1] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 reprint, 1830 original). The substance of this essay is based on the flow of thought, and at times, the actual wording of Charles Bridges.
[2] Quoted in Bridges, 111.
[3] Quoted in Bridges, 128.
[4] Statistics compiled by Richard A. Murphy, “Maranatha Life” at
[5] Quoted in Bridges, 150.
[6] Quoted in Bridges, 153.
[7] Quoted in Bridges, 153.
[8] Quoted in Bridges, 155-156.
[9] Bridges, 178.

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