How to Navigate The 3 Ministry Modes of Survival, Success, and Significance

We all want to experience significance in ministry. We hope for success, and yet sometimes find ourselves merely surviving.

Is there a way to more consistently experience significant ministry impact?

Is it always through success?

How can you break out of survival mode?

This article may be for you or someone you coach, and regardless of where you are in your pursuit of significance, start here with survival for context.


Characteristics of Ministry Survival:

  • You function day to day without a plan.
  • You experience more distraction than focus.
  • You are more reactionary than proactive.
  • You experience little joy and meager results.
  • You are frustrated and/or discouraged.

If you experience two or more characteristics, I believe we can agree that change is needed from your current ministry practices, patterns, and way of thinking.

If you work hard and pray hard but have meager results, take heart in this truth, your experience is more common than you might imagine, and you can break out of this survival zone.

There is great value in a “simple” approach because you don’t need one more thing in your life that is complicated. You need to read something and say, “I can do that.”

Navigating ministry survival:

1) Get some rest and take time to pray.

Higher productivity often comes from working less and taking better care of yourself. Take some time to rest, think, and pray.

Consistent rest and exercise are healthy and needed. Take your regular days off, that’s not always easy, but it is so important. It also helps you develop margin that allows you to get ahead and make a plan.

Working proactively, rather than jumping every time the phone rings is essential. When you are rested and refreshed, you can think more; clearly, your attitude is better, and your decisions are more resolute. 

2) Talk with a leader you trust and respect.

We were never intended to lead in a vacuum. The body of Christ was designed to help each other.

Find a church leader, ideally close to you for the advantage of in-person conversations, but phone conversations work well too. 

A leader you trust, and respect is vital, and it’s best if the pastor is leading a church a little larger than yours, with enough experience to add wisdom to your life.

It’s amazing what a conversation or two can do to help you get unstuck and begin to move forward. This doesn’t mean your church doubles overnight, but you can start to see personal growth and some movement in your church.

3) Get reacquainted with your calling.

When you become exhausted, frustrated, or lose your way in ministry, that often results in merely going through the motions (survival mode) without passion.

It’s common in these times to lose perspective. The first thing you lose sight of is purpose, why you do what you do. You lose connection with your calling, that’s what survival is — behavior without purpose.

Take some time to pray and write out your original calling to ministry. Write the story of how God called you to ministry. He hasn’t left you or changed His mind. God is not done with you. Read those divinely inspired words daily. Meditate on them and ask God for His favor to do what He’s called you to do.


Success in ministry is always the desired utopia until you have it.

When you’ve experienced sustained success, though certainly a good thing, one of two things may happen. It’s either never enough, and you desire greater levels of success, even beyond God’s plan. Or, you are surprised because the treadmill of success starts to feel somewhat hollow and empty.

Characteristics of Ministry Success:

  • Your leadership is effective, and you realize positive results.
  • Your church is growing, and you experience ministry momentum.
  • Something seems to be missing, and you have a sense of inner unrest.
  • The ministry is growing but requires more energy to keep it going than it did to get it going.
  • You are productive, but tired more than energized.

Success in ministry is wonderful. No one chooses survival over success! But sustaining success healthily is not always easy.

Navigating ministry success:

1) Operate out of a heart of gratitude.

Start by acknowledging that ministry success is because many people are helping you and God’s favor is evident.

God has gifted you and blessed you with your current results. Don’t take them for granted.

I love this quote that says it so well: “If you are standing on third base, you didn’t necessarily hit a triple.” (Kevin Penry) Let people know you are grateful. Say thank you to key leaders every day.

2) Don’t trade your inner peace for outward productivity.

Leaders unknowingly trade inner peace for outward productivity.

When that happens, it’s slow and subtle, like the frog in the kettle. A frog will die in a pan of boiling water when it could have easily escaped while the water was warming up. But it doesn’t jump out because the cool water became warm and comfortable, then a little warmer still, feels good, then boiling hot and soon too late.

Nothing is worth trading the inner peace God wants you to have. His love, peace, and joy should never be traded for anything, even a larger church. Peace and productivity aren’t mutually exclusive, but far too often, the peace of God is sacrificed in the pursuit of God’s mission. That’s not a trade God wants you to make.

3) More is not the only answer.

I love to see a full worship auditorium just as much as you, and I get fired up about reaching more people. But that can become a “success treadmill” if you don’t have your thinking right.

Beware of bigger but not better, be cautious about innovation without life change and watch out for pushing your plan instead of God’s.  Success can quickly become shallow, hollow, and exhausting.

Along with gratitude and inner peace, stay on God’s agenda. More of God leads to the right kind of “more,” and then your success is meaningful and brings great joy.


As we have acknowledged, success is awesome, but there’s more, and the right answer is not merely more success.

Ministry significance is what our hearts long for, and though success and significance are not mutually exclusive, it is possible to experience surface success — lots of programs and activity but little depth and meaning. 

Ministry is hard work, and without meaningful relationships, joy, and intimacy with God, success can lead to burnout.

It’s not unlike the student who gets straight A’s. That’s great! To continue to get all A’s that student is tempted to sacrifice things in life that are more meaningful than a perfect report card.

Success in ministry can rob even the best of leaders from significance in ministry. And significance is not measured in numbers only.

Characteristics of Ministry Significance:

  • God’s presence and power are clear to everyone, and He gets the credit.
  • Consistent evidence of changed lives – stories are abundant.
  • Genuine joy and peace are equal to or greater than all the hard work.
  • A spirit of serving and giving permeates throughout the church.
  • Your family loves you, you love them, and your ministry legacy is positioned to live on after you.

Navigating ministry significance:

1) Strive to love people before you lead them.

Jesus set the pace for us; He loved us first, intimately, unconditionally, and sacrificially.  Therefore, love must be the foundation for all our leadership. Loving people first allows us to lead them for their good. As we often say, want more for people than from them.

2) Lean into God’s power over your own.

I’ve been tempted many times during my years in ministry to lead by my own power. When I was a young leader, I think that came from a combination of passion and inexperience. Now, if I were to do that, it’s just dumb.

There comes a time when we genuinely understand that it’s all God. That doesn’t take away from your gifts and hard work, but it acknowledges where that talent and favor comes from.

God is the one who brings the power for any ministry and life change that will last. And He brings a power that is infinitely greater than yours or mine.

3) Pray that your ministry is always larger than you as the leader.

We sometimes see a leader become larger than their ministry, and the result can be disappointing. This potential reality is not limited to very large churches. It can happen in a church of any size. It can happen to senior pastors or staff members and even key volunteer leaders.

I think it’s great when a gifted and talented Christian leader rises in prominence. That person has a greater opportunity to influence the world for Christ. However, that great influence brings significant pressures, and as the body of Christ, we can be supportive by praying for God’s best upon them and their ministry.

Billy Graham is a great example. What name among Christian leaders in modern history is more significant? But it was never about him. It was always about salvation. Ultimately, the eternal legacy of life change is much larger than his name.

I pray you are blessed with Kingdom significance!

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