Get S.M.A.R.T.

About a month ago a friend challenged me with the question, “How do you gauge your spiritual growth?” This friend is an associate pastor within a very large church that requires their staff to chart out spiritual growth goals every 6 months. And these goals are not ambiguous or undefined. In fact, each pastor is accountable to someone within the pastoral team as to how well they are accomplishing their growth goals. To be very honest, it’s been awhile since I wrote out specific goals for growth. Unfortunately we [pastors] sometimes assume growth as a given, as if it were growth by osmosis via proximity to the “Church.”

The numbers don’t lie. Both Barna and the Schaeffer Institute have found that more than 70% of pastors only study the Bible when they are preparing for sermons or lessons. Only 26% “of pastors said they regularly had personal devotions and felt they were adequately fed spirituality.” Not only do the numbers not lie, they’re incredibly challenging. Perhaps such apathy and atrophy in the pastorate is why the profession of “Pastor” is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above “car salesman.”

I certainly didn’t realize it when I stepped into the pastorate, but this is a profession that chews up and spits out many who occupy it. The average pastor lasts only five yeas, which is startling, considering that I just began—last week—my 5th year pastoring Cross Connection Escondido. Peter Drucker once stated that the four hardest jobs in America are the President of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital and… a pastor. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that if you are to survive in pastoral ministry, you’d better be proactive about your spiritual life, which I believe holistically involves every other aspect of your being too (i.e. physical, mental, emotional, etc…).

When I first began in the ministry as a youth pastor, the theme verse for our youth group was 1 Timothy 4:12…

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

Over the last several months I’ve been brought back to 1 Timothy 4 a number of times. Another verse of the same chapter says…

For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.

– 1 Timothy 4:8

This verse is often jokingly put forth as a reason to abandon physical exercise, which is an obvious misapplication. But the glibness with which it is often thrown about in some ways lessens the impact and importance of what is being said. We need to be physically and spiritually well exercised, especially pastors.  Most certainly spiritual exercise, or godliness, has longer lasting benefits (in this life and eternity).  If we are to be exemplary in word, conduct, love, spirit, faith and purity, then we need to make sure that we exercise ourselves toward godliness. Thus, I’ve been challenged to more diligently set some S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific • Measurable • Achievable • Reliable/Realistic • Timely) about my spiritual and physical disciplines; because there are far too many in my “profession” that do not finish well.

11 replies
  1. Chuck Musselwhite
    Chuck Musselwhite says:


    Great article and very practical. I have been convicted on this ever since I finished my reading plan a month ago. Not wanting to read thru the Bible again I have been searching for a routine. I need to develop a spiritual growth plan not only for my but for my kids and family as well. Thanks for the exhortation.

  2. Nancy Allen
    Nancy Allen says:

    I’m not sure whether the survey you’re quoting was scientific, but pastors don’t rate that poorly in surveys I have seen. In the 2011 Gallup Poll results, “Clergy” gets above average ratings. By they way, nurses consistently rate at the top. 🙂

    I’ve seen estimates that the average person will have six or seven careers during his working life. It could be that a lot of the people who became pastors weren’t suited to that occupation to start with. The five year burnout rate for pastors is around the median for job changes for all workers.

    I do think that it’s important to focus on growth and make sure that you stay strong so that you can continue to be effective in the job you have been called to do. You may have to experiment a little to see what works best for you in achieving that goal.

    The S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting does work for physical fitness, but I really wonder if the corporate style of planning translates well to the spiritual realm. I have had fairly brief times of prayer or Bible reading where I felt like I really connected with the Lord. I have also had lengthy times of Bible study that I wouldn’t rate nearly as high for spiritual growth. I can quantify time spent, but I’m not sure the actual growth is measurable by any method I could use.

    I’ll be curious to see if the S.M.A.R.T. goals lead to real growth or just a longer to-do list.

  3. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Hi, Miles – interesting article. As far as your friend’s church goes, what goals do they establish? Are they performance goals (I will read my Bible 20 minutes a day/I will pray for 20 minutes a day) or are they character goals (I will be more patient w/ my wife/more loving of the homeless)? If character goals, how are they measured?

    Nancy, interesting post. The first five years probably do shake out a lot of rookie pastors who realize that a different career would be a better fit. That certainly applied to my dad. At the same time, starry eyed pastors (I was one), do run up against entrenched power structures within the church that resist them, they have unrealistic expectations that aren’t fulfilled, their people skills are such that they alienate a lot of people – they do get chewed up and spit out – just like presidents and hospital CEOs!

  4. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Another relevant verse from 1 Timothy 4…

    Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. (1 Timothy 4:15 ESV)

    Progress is visible when it can be measured against something. Others will see it, but as you said Miles, we must plan it. I’m training for a marathon right now. That means I am setting goals in my training both in mileage and speed. I need the goals to chart my progress and to reveal where I’m weak. Of course our spiritual folly would be to have goals and plan to achieve them without reliance on God’s enabling. We plan, trust, and go.

  5. Mickey
    Mickey says:

    So awesome that you put this out there to challenge us all to press on to know the Lord within His grace. The study in question about the stats is valid in that it was an academic dissertation that I read out of Fuller based on quantitative research across denominations (Blackburn). The tension is to have goals but to abide within grace and the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting the in so many areas of life, people have goals whether intentionally or unintentionally. Why not commit specific intentions to the Lord? As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord and these are spelled out in specific commitments to grow in what we know, who we are becoming and what we do.

  6. Rob Dingman
    Rob Dingman says:

    I would think that in contrast to a measurable goal, the idea is to grow in your relationship with God. I suspect you do not approach your relationship with your wife in those terms: “Measurable growth, babe! Our marriage is rockin’!”

    How do you measure your relationship with your wife?

    David said, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that I will seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). When I check that against what my own highest desire is, I wonder if I even have a worthy desire! But that has become my own prayer, that I might have that right desire, that highest desire.

    It occurred to me that there was not an earthly temple when David was alive. So where did he want to dwell? It must be that he wanted to be conscious of the presence of the Lord wherever, whenever. Like Brother Lawrence. Like Paul, praying without ceasing, rejoicing in the Lord always. Imagine beholding the beauty of the Lord. I think that constant gazing is meant to change us into His image, as Moses gazed at God and came down with His glory. Paul says when we see Him, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And he says also that we are being changed into His image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

    All that to say, I want to be like that and be a person growing in knowing God, so that when I do my job and teach, I will talk like somebody who knows God instead of sounding like somebody who reads books about God.

    I really appreciate you, Miles. Bless you today.

  7. Rob Dingman
    Rob Dingman says:

    Let me add, the effect on my preaching is a side-effect, not the main reason why I want to know God better. I think the right priority is to get God. Everything after that is side-effect. Otherwise we are making our relationship with God a means to an end, using God to accomplish our own agenda. “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, that I may by any means attain to the resurrection of the dead” is the main goal. Every other blessing becomes side-benefit. Without the resurrection, there is no benefit to anything.

  8. Jeanne DeBenedictis
    Jeanne DeBenedictis says:

    Excellent exhortation not only to pastors, but for all whom desire to live godly in Christ Jesus. Thanks Miles for the reminder to press on and stay accountable, so that we may grow spiritually into the men and women Christ intends for us to be.
    I know it is so sweet when I get to share with other truly like-minded lovers of Jesus, who are able to sharpen me and encourage me in my faith walk.

  9. Diane Golden
    Diane Golden says:

    I do believe that we do not spend enough time in God’s Word, in prayer, in meditation on His Word, in listening for God to speak. We say we do but if you break down our day and compare time on social media sites, cell phones, computer, TV, running around not to mention time spent at work and sleep I bet the average Christian spends less then 30 minutes a day in any thing for spiritual growth. A pastor, you would think, would be in the right environment for spiritual growth but as I have seen that our pastors are pulled in hundreds of directions including leading prayer groups, bible studies, teaching at the bible college, chaplins for fire/police, counseling, educating, planning, finance, funerals, weddings, etc. Pastors as well as the rest of us must carve out time for one on one time with God and not let anything get in the way of that time. I believe length of study of God’s Word is important. Even when I am not “feeling spiritually fed” I know I am absorbing God’s Word and the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge and bring it to remebrance when I need it.

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      It is amazing how busy we can get, and in our busyness we fail to do some things that are incredibly essential. I find more and more that if I do not “carve out time” then it doesn’t happen. I also understand more the wisdom of the Apostles position in Acts 6:4.

      Thanks for commenting!

  10. Diane Golden
    Diane Golden says:

    In my devotion today My Utmost for His Highest “We are in danger of forgetting that we cannot do what God does, and that God will not do what we can do. We cannot save ourselves nor sanctify ourselves, God does that; but God will not give us good habits, He will not give us character, He will not make us walk aright. We have to do all that oursleves, we have to work out the salvation God has worked in. Add means to get into the habit of doing things, and in the initial stages it is difficult. To take the initiative is to make a beginning, to instruct yourself in the way you have to go. Beware of the tendency of asking the way when you know it perfectly well. Take the initiative, stop hesitating, and take the first step.”
    Thank you for the great scripture, give ourselves, make it a habit, continually to prayer and to ministry of the Word. We are to be just like Daniel, Daniel 6:10 “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, AS WAS HIS CUSTOM SINCE EARLY DAYS.”

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