Pastors can engage in much hyperbole about how difficult the ministry is. On its best days, the ministry is demanding, but so many great things are happening around you that the aggravations fade into the background. The bad days in ministry can be downright terrible. Whether it’s another person in your church walking through sickness and death, a leader leaving for another church, dealing with someone who is walking through a season of outright rebellion against God, or facing fierce opposition from within the church, the bad days bring trouble that can make you forget the good days ever existed.
I have always been encouraged by 2 Corinthians, in which Paul unfolds the heart and motivation behind a mature ministry. He writes to the Corinthian church, which he started in the midst of terrible opposition and discouragement. Now, a group of men have come into this church boasting in themselves and actively working to discredit Paul’s ministry among the congregation. They attack Paul’s appearance and lack of rhetorical impressiveness, even going so far as to use the physical sufferings he has faced in ministry as a way to discredit him.
In chapter 11, Paul catalogues the hardships he has faced in service to Christ, but he doesn’t do this to complain or engage in one-upmanship. Instead, he recites his sufferings for the sake of advancing the Gospel to boast in his own weakness because they show that it has been the power of God which animated his ministry all along.
He says something curious as he lays out his physical hardships. After speaking of beatings, lashings, nights spent in the cold, imprisonments, and days spent in hunger and thirst, he says, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” The authorities gave Paul the thirty-nine lashings five times, three times they beat him with rods, and once he was stoned; and in the same paragraph he mentions his anxiety for the churches. This tells us something about the pressures of ministry.
Every pastor walks through dark nights of the soul. The pain of betrayal, the sting of failure, and despair over people walking away from the faith is often more than the pastor is able to bear. Some days, being beaten with rods sounds preferable to the tense meeting, the painful confrontation, and the smile you force while one more person tells you they are going somewhere else.
You don’t get to shut down when you’re in these times of trouble though. While there are times when a pastor needs to get away, for the most part when times are tough we have to keep plodding for the glory of God. We continue to pray, preach, evangelize, disciple, and counsel even when we are in great need of help ourselves.
How do you do this though? How can a pastor continue to work faithfully while walking through overwhelming pain and trouble?
Ground Your Identity in the Gospel
Please don’t skip this point for the more “practical” stuff I say below. One thing I find to be hard about the ministry is how intertwined my spiritual life and my vocation are. While all work that contributes to the flourishing of mankind is a sacred calling, there is something about the ministry that makes you question your standing before the Lord when things are not going well. You can wrongly assume that if you were praying more, sharing the Gospel more, reading the Bible more, and being a more faithful Christian your church would be doing better than it is right now. Do not fall into this trap. Some of the godliest men I have ever known have faced some of the greatest uphill ministry battles I have ever seen.
Pastor, remember that you are a Christian first. Before God called you to be a pastor, he called you to himself. You are a child of God through faith alone in Jesus Christ. You have been promised an incredible hope, not because of your effectiveness in ministry, but through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. By his life, death, resurrection, and continuing ministry at the right hand of God you are a justified saint with access to the throne of God. And this is all true, not by any great work you have done in the name of Jesus, but because of Jesus and what he has done. Come back to this great truth every single day.
Talk to Your Wife
Talk to pastors about how much you should tell your wife about what you are facing at church and you will get varying responses. Many men believe you should not weigh down your wife with the difficulties you are facing. I cannot presume to speak for every marriage because every man and wife are different, but I think I would shrivel up inside if I did not talk with Beth about the pressures I faced in ministry and the effect they were having on my soul.
The reasons I choose to be so open with her about the pressures of ministry are many, but they begin with the fact I adversely affect our relationship more by hiding my struggles than I do by being open about them. Men, our wives know us well and have great insight, so we cannot hide when we walk into the house with a two-ton weight on our shoulders. They know it, and shutting them out hurts our marriages more than it helps them.
Our wives follow Jesus too, and know us better than anyone else does, so why wouldn’t we want to invite them into our struggles? We need their wisdom, their help, their understanding, and their prayers. If you can tell your struggles are weighing your wife down as well, don’t assume not talking is the right response. Ask her the best way to talk through these things with her without overburdening her. Don’t assume you will make the right call on this without hearing her insight.
Trust Your Church’s Leaders
I am a firm believer that every church’s leadership meetings need to begin with prayer. By this I am not talking about a quick, obligatory prayer that we feel like we must offer because we are talking about “church business.” Instead, the church’s leaders need to have honest conversations about how they can pray for each other and begin the meeting with ever church leader prayer over one of the other church leaders. Doing this builds an incredible sense of brotherhood and reminds us that we are partners in a great cause, not belligerents in a battle.
If you are walking through a time of pain and difficulty, trust your church’s leaders enough to let them know. Explain the source of the trouble and what is happening to you as you walk through it. Listen to them as they counsel you and receive the encouragement God gives as they pray for you. Then, as they may want to come along and offer practical help, let them. The church is a body, and you rob yourself of the help that comes from this glorious truth when you try to forge ahead alone.
You knew I was going to go here, but I once had a friend ask me an incredibly important question about prayer and you need to hear what he said too. “Scott, have you prayed about this?” “Yeah, I’ve prayed about it.” “No, Scott, have you really stopped and prayed about this?” The answer was, “no.”
Too often, we throw up one quick prayer and say we have prayed about something. We have to stop and come before the Lord with our burdens. The promises we so often quote to people about prayer apply to us too. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Bring your burdens before the Lord, and receive the peace that he gives to his people.
Read Your Bible
Fellow pastor, I don’t mean to insult you by insinuating that you don’t read the Bible. I know you do, but like with prayer it must be asked, “Do you read the Bible?”. By this I mean that you read the Bible for the sake of your own soul and not just so you can teach it at the next appointed hour.
In the Bible you will find constant encouragement. As God speaks to us in the pages of Scripture, we hear the truths we need to persevere in the face of trials and difficulty. We remember the heart of why we do ministry and the proper means by through which we accomplish it. You’ll see how the people of God throughout history kept going forward when adversity came and how the Lord helped them overcome it. We need this constant nourishment. We need the truths of the Gospel and a reminder about the gracious character of God. We find these truths in the Bible alone.
When I was young I read a biography of Charles Spurgeon and found his bouts with depression to be a curious battle for so great a man. What I found particularly strange at the time was how much he felt likes walks on the beach and getting into nature restored his soul. He said things like this, I before I was a pastor myself I didn’t get it.
Let a man be naturally as blithe as a bird, he will hardly be able to bear up year after year against such a suicidal process; he will make his study a prison and his books the warders of a goal, while nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.
He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.
A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours, ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.
A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.
Heaviest the heart is in a heavy air,
Ev’ry wind that rises blows away despair.
The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops—these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary.
For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected, and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.
Most of our work is inside work. We meet with people over meals or coffee. Then we head back to the study to sit in a chair while we read, study, pray, return emails, and meet with more people. Sitting down inside this much is not good for us, so we must look for every possible opportunity to get moving and get outside. Reading on my back porch and my 5AM walk have done immeasurable good for my soul. Spurgeon was right about nature, and only had to walk through some tough times to see how right he was.
Pastor, fight the good fight in the encouragement God gives. Get in the word, get on your knees, get outside, talk to your wife, and talk to your leaders. Remember who you are because of Jesus and Jesus alone. None of these things will make the ministry easy, but they will help to keep us going when things get really hard.
Take a Day off, Take Your Vacations, and Take a Retreat
Unfortunately pastors think we can abuse ourselves by working nonstop because, “I’m doing this for Jesus.” Pastors, we can never bring glory to God by pretending like we are him. God alone never slumbers or sleeps, and we demonstrate great foolishness when we think we can keep plowing without rest like God does. This idiocy starts in seminary, where we use how little we’ve slept as some kind of badge of honor, and if we are not careful it continues into our work in the ministry.
Pastor, take twenty-four consecutive hours off from work to rest, hang out with your family, do yard work, or whatever you want to do. Your body and your mind need a break. Your family needs your attention. To be honest, I’ve struggled with this lately and felt myself starting to wear down. We left town a couple of days ago to come visit family and I did nothing work related yesterday. After just that one day, I feel incredibly rested, rejuvenated, and ready to get back to work tomorrow.
One day a week will only cut it for so long. Take your vacation time and get away. Tell people to only call you if there is a real emergency. Get everything in place for who will cover your responsibilities and go somewhere. Take naps, enjoy nature, eat good food, and have fun with your family. You need it more than you know, so pull out your calendar right now and make the time to get away. (Notice I said “make the time.” We need to excise “find the time” from our vocabulary. You never magically “find” time for the things that matter. You have to “make” it.)
Also, work with your leaders to schedule time for a study and planning retreat. This is not a vacation, but a time or two a year for you to get away and work in a distraction-free environment. Work on sermons, plan outreach events, or develop training for your leaders, but make this time to get away and work without the ringing of the phone or the pinging of the email. (Many denominations have camp grounds or conference centers that would be great for this. Also look for cabins in state parks or find out if someone in your church has a place where you can go.)
I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be said about persevering through hard times in the ministry. Where do you find encouragement to keep going when ministry gets hard?
“48 Scattered Thoughts about Pastoral Ministry and Being a Pastor“
“Six Foolish Things I Used to Believe about the Ministry“
For Further Reading:
The Pastor’s Justification by Jared Wilson
Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by R. Kent Hughes
Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp