Ministry for the Long Haul
The cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 is familiar to many people in ministry: I’ve had enough, Lord. Why was Elijah so distraught? Hadn’t he just witnessed astonishing displays of God’s power at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20–46)? Sure. But if you’re a church leader, you’ve felt Elijah’s ennui. You know how often a big Sunday becomes a blue Monday.
Conventional wisdom says at least 1,500 pastors hang it up every month. I doubt the situation is that dire. Still, many ministers of the gospel are blue not just on occasional Mondays but constantly. They feel underpaid and overstretched, discouraged if not depressed. They say they no longer hear the music of God’s love. They’ve had their fill of crises, conflicts, and complaints. Their bodies may be in the pulpit, but their hearts no longer beat with gospel enthusiasm.
There have been times in my thirty years as a pastor when, like Elijah, I’ve wanted to walk away from ministry and try my hand at something else. But by the grace of God, I’m still in. I love preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and shepherding God’s people. And while many things have contributed to my survival, three key decisions have kept me going.
First, I have decided to expect difficulty. To be a pastor is to be called by Jesus into conflict. I was naive about this in the beginning. But I’ve come to agree with the evangelist Alan Redpath: “If you’re a Christian pastor, you’re always in a crisis—either in the middle of one, coming out of one, or going into one.” Pastors are in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, not to mention very broken people. And we ourselves are broken—fragile jars of clay, as Paul says (2 Cor. 4:7).
Jonathan Edwards expected difficulty. In his farewell sermon in Northampton, Mass., he said, “It often comes to pass in this evil world, that great differences and controversies arise between ministers and the people under their pastoral care.”
A few years ago, I was at my denomination’s annual meeting. At one point, I looked around the ballroom and wondered, “How are all these guys really doing?” On a whim, I turned that thought into a tweet, hashtagged the conference, and sent it out. The tweet read, “1000 pastors are at annual meeting this week. Any guesses how many are depressed, hurting, lonely?” I quickly had a number of new Twitter followers. Several friends at the conference who had seen my tweet came up and thanked me for it. They were glad someone knew and understood.
Second, I have decided that I am me and not someone else. That may sound elementary, but it’s critical for ministry leaders to feel comfortable in their own skin and (dare I say it?) to like themselves. As a mentor told me years ago, we minister out of who we are, not out of who we wish we were.
Shortly before his death in 1732, Thomas Boston wrote a little book titled The Crook in the Lot: Or, the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. In it, Boston argues that everything—even our weaknesses, struggles, and failures—happens at God’s command and by God’s design.
Armed with faith in God’s sovereignty, we can relax and enjoy ministry. We can focus on our strengths and freely admit our faults. We can accept our limitations and say with the psalmist, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6). And we don’t have to compare ourselves—to anyone. That’s good news in a culture that celebrates the big, grand, and slick and denigrates the small, ordinary, and faithful.
Third, I have decided that I need people. I can’t do ministry alone. I need helpers, and I need friends.
No matter how loudly we may protest, most of us in ministry have a messiah complex. We believe we are God’s gift to the church. After all, we have the seminary degree, the right theology, the gifts, and the experience. With Jesus’ help and people’s cooperation, we’ll grow the church.
The truth is, pastors are some of the loneliest folks around. According to research, about 70 percent of pastors say they have no close friends. A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors. Like everyone else, people in ministry fear intimacy. We find excuses not to pursue community. And unless we’re careful, ministry tasks only contribute to our isolation.
I am your classic introvert. Nevertheless, I am purposeful about being in the company of men and women who know me, love me, hold me accountable, help me laugh, and keep me sane. My wife and I belong to a small group. I meet every Wednesday with five men who know my sins and failings. I have lunch once a month with a pastor whom I’ve known since our seminary days. I have friends—not just the Facebook kind—with whom I regularly socialize and speak freely. And when it comes to ministry, I don’t try to do everything. My job is to equip and develop others, not keep ministry to myself. Wasn’t self-imposed isolation one of Elijah’s problems? “I am the only one left,” he said (1 Kings 19:10, 14). God broke the news to Elijah that seven thousand faithful Israelites had not bowed the knee to Baal (v. 18).
These three decisions have helped me see that ministry survival, while challenging, is not impossible. God has given us His Son, His Spirit, His Word, His promises, and His people to sustain our faith and fuel our joy. Take advantage of these and you’ll be in ministry for the long haul.