Since today is the day before Thanksgiving, it seems only right to make some connection between this American holiday and pastoral ministry. So I'd like to consider the question: Can thanksgiving transform your ministry?
You may have noticed that I did not capitalize the word "thanksgiving" in the question I just posed. I'm not wondering how your ministry can be renewed by celebrations associated with Thanksgiving Day. Rather, I'm asking whether the practice of giving thanks to God might have the power to transform your service as a pastor.
The Example and Teaching of Paul
We who shepherd congregations ought to thank God for our ministries. The Apostle Paul modeled consistent gratitude for the churches he had planted. He thanked God even for the Corinthians, a community of believers who gave Paul plenty of grief (1 Cor. 1:4). Though it's true that Greco-Roman letters often opened with a statement of thanks to the gods, and therefore Paul's thanksgivings reflected cultural norms, this in no way invalidates the genuineness of his gratitude to God for his churches. Moreover, Paul's example of gratitude reflected his teaching, which included the instructions to thank God in all circumstances and to make requests of the Lord in the context of persistent thanksgiving (1 Th. 5:18; Phil. 4:6).
When Thanksgiving Comes Easily
There are times when we pastors find it easy to thank God for our churches. Ironically, during my sixteen-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, our annual Thanksgiving Eve worship service was a setting in which my gratitude flowed most freely. This service was highly participatory, with lots of congregational songs and prayers. At the midpoint of the service, worshipers were invited to share briefly that for which they were thankful. Preschoolers would inevitably thank God for their parents and pets, while some of our seniors would tearfully offer thanks for their beloved spouses who had recently gone to be with the Lord. Toward the conclusion of the service, everybody was given a little paper pumpkin on which to write down their expressions of thanks. Then they would come forward to the communion table, adding their gratitude to a decorative cornucopia that signified God's superabundant grace. At this time, we would also receive special offerings for the needy. (The photo shows the resulting bounty of thanks offered to God.)
As I listened to my church family share their thanks and as I watched them come to the front with their scribbled thank offerings, my heart was full of gratitude. How blessed I felt to be the pastor of such a wonderful congregation. How easy it was to thank the Lord again and again while basking in the glow of our Thanksgiving Eve service.
And When It's Not So Easy
But it wasn't always that easy, as you can imagine. During my sixteen years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I faced the kinds of challenges and discouragements that are common to all who serve in the church. I made plenty of mistakes and some church members were all-too-eager to remind me of them. Sometimes I received deserved criticism. But many of the harshest words ever said to me were unfair. Nevertheless, they pierced my heart, haunting me with sadness and self-doubt.
I knew I was supposed give thanks in all circumstances, but how could I be thankful when somebody told me to my face that he was leaving the church because I was "just not a loving person"? And how could I be honestly grateful when, during my first year as pastor, one of my elders accused me of "using the church as a stepping stone for personal career advancement"? When this influential church leader said to me, "I know you'll only be here until you can get a bigger church," how was I supposed to be thankful?
During such times, I took solace in the fact that even Paul found it hard to be thankful at times. Though he openly expressed gratitude for the pesky Corinthians, he just couldn't bring himself to do so for the Galatians. Still, when I was feeling discouraged, and when I found myself obsessed with the negative aspects of my ministry, by God's grace I knew that I needed to take time for extended prayer bathed in gratitude. It was time to take to heart Philippians 4:6: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."
When I needed to pray at length, I'd go to a secluded stretch of beach where I could pour out my soul to the Lord. There, I would share my frustrations and sorrows. I'd complain about how I felt unfairly treated or how it seemed as if God had abandoned me. But, once I got these things off my chest, I'd start to offer thanks, initially more out of a sense of obedience than of eagerness. I'd begin with that which was obvious and easy. I'd thank God for my colleagues on staff (unless they were the ones driving me crazy!). I'd remember the lay leaders in the church who labored alongside me so sacrificially and lovingly. I'd express gratitude for the opportunity to study and preach the Scripture. I'd thank the Lord for the Sunday School teachers who lovingly instructed my children. And on, and on, and on. Eventually, I'd work my way up to the issues or relationships that were difficult, finding ways to be truly thankful for God's presence even in these challenges.