“Discouragement is an occupational hazard of Christian ministry.” John Stott may be able to lay claim to some of the truest words ever spoken. I wrote a few months ago that pastors sound ridiculous when we talk about the ministry like it is the world’s hardest job, but it does have unique challenges, difficulties, and discouragements.
In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul lists the hardships he faced as part of his ministry. He received beatings and imprisonments. He endured the forty lashes minus one five times. Paul lived under constant danger and threats from authorities. Then there were the shipwrecks and as well as nights spent naked, cold, and hungry. These sufferings and trials cannot compare to one other burden he bore though. “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” That Paul chose to mention his concern for the churches alongside his bodily sufferings tells us the enormous weight pastors carry.
The ministry allows us to see some amazing glories. We get to bear witness to the glorious truth about Jesus and experience people going from darkness to light through faith in him. Broken marriages reconcile, prodigals come home, and struggling people grow in their faith.
The heartbreaks can be profound as well though. When a marriage falls apart or someone walks away from the faith you look in the mirror and wonder what you could have done differently. People leave your church where you love and pray for them for the big church down the road where no one will know their name. When the ministry stagnates everyone looks your way. The pressures can be overwhelming.
What can tired, broken pastors do? Where do we go when the pressures of the ministry feel like they are going to break us?
Remember the Good News
I don’t start with the Gospel because we’re supposed to, but because the Gospel is our lifeblood. Our only hope in this life is the death of the Lord Jesus Christ for us and his resurrection from the dead. We must come back to this ever-flowing fountain every single day so we can be reminded of the hope, peace, and life we have because of him.
In addition we need to remember who we are because of the Gospel. Before you were called to be a pastor you were called to be a child of the King. Through your faith in Jesus you have been adopted as a child of God, and you can rest knowing nothing will separate you from the love of your father. Things may not be going well in your church family, but this does not change your standing before God because you have been justified by faith alone in Jesus and not by your performance in the ministry.
Because you belong to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ you have an audience with the Father. In 1 John 5:13 John summarizes his entire epistle by saying, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” He moves from this statement on assurance to our knowing God hears and answers us when we pray. Why would John connect assurance to prayer? Could it be that John wants us to see that when we know we belong to the Father we come to him with confident prayer? When we know we are part of the Father’s family, we take our burdens, cares, anxieties, and heartaches to the Father. He hears, he sympathizes, and he gives us his peace.
Rely on Your Fellow Leaders
As you read through the narrative passages in Scripture you never see just one man leading a church. The church in Jerusalem was led by the apostles. Paul had companions for his missionary journeys and he appointed elders in the churches that he founded. The idea of lone ranger ministry is foreign to the New Testament.
No one can shoulder the burden of ministry alone and as pastors we have to learn to be honest with our fellow leaders and rely on them. Unburdening our difficulties to our lay leadership can be humbling, but this means it’s the best thing for you to do. They need to know where you are so they can pray for you and help you. Do not try to walk alone because it never leads to anything constructive or God-honoring.
If you do not have lay leaders you can trust, you need to do two things. First, find a pastor friend you can talk to. They know where you are and can walk with you through the difficulty. Also, start disciplining some men who can be future leaders in the church. You don’t have to be stuck with unreliable leaders forever, so work to raise up some new ones.
(Pastor if you find yourself thinking about hurting yourself, how the world would be better off without you, or begin experiencing prolonged periods of darkness you need to see a medical professional and/or Christian counselor immediately. There is not one shred of shame in admitting you are dealing with crippling depression and the embarrassment of talking to a professional pales in comparison with the damage that would happen if you hurt yourself.)
Change Your Definition of “Success”
In our ministry climate the main point of Kent Hughes’ Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome becomes more important every day. We have to fill out statistical reports for the denomination each year. Pastors at conferences ask “whatcharunnin’” and well-meaning family members ask you if your church is growing over Thanksgiving dinner.
When filled seats and met budgets become our barometer for ministry “success” we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Instead, begin to focus on faithfulness and looking for every evidence of grace which suggests God is at work in your ministry.
Evangelize, disciple, pray, and study. This doesn’t make for an interesting reality show, but faithfulness in these disciplines over the long haul will yield fruit for the kingdom of God. Look at your ministry for the fruit you cannot report on a denominational form. Rejoice when you receive a text message from someone asking about a Bible verse, when a young Christian gains victory over sin, or when someone who previously seemed uninterested came to you with a great idea for ministry. These seemingly small things and more can be evidence God is at work through your ministry. Look for these treasures and celebrate them.
Weary pastor, don’t give up today in doing the things that matter. Remember the Gospel, pray, lean on the brothers around you, and walk faithfully in the basics of ministry knowing your labor in the Lord will not be in vain.