DISCOURAGEMENT IN MINISTRY
A friend of mine was an automobile mechanic for most of his career and at the end of his work days he was usually covered with grease and oil. It was an “occupational hazard.” It could not be avoided due to the nature of his work. My son is working his way through college at a BBQ restaurant in Austin, and after work, his work clothes often have a strong smokey smell and a few BBQ sauce stains. Those things are unavoidable for him because of the environment he works in. Ministry has environmental factors and “occupational hazards” too. We cannot avoid discouragement.
Before you think I’m “going negative”or “having a bad day,” consider the evidence. I have been in ministry for more than 30 years. I have never known a minister who did not face discouragement at times. I have had more than one conversation with a pastor or staff member who was already standing “on the ledge” of quitting. A recent article by Tim Peters, in ChurchLeaders magazine, reported that 1700 pastors leave the ministry every month! The number one reason cited is “discouragement.” More importantly, beyond the statistical and anecdotal evidence, it is impossible to trace the lives of biblical characters without being confronted with stories of their “bad days.” Moses overreacted out of anger when the people rebelled. Elijah was depressed in a cave. Jeremiah felt deceived. Nehemiah cried for days when he heard the bad news about Jerusalem’s condition. Jonah wanted to die. Peter was a public failure who wept in shame. Even Jesus in Gethsemane was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Discouragement is a ministerial occupational hazard. You cannot avoid it so you must learn to deal with it by being prepared for it before it creeps up.
HOW TO DEAL WITH MINISTRY DISCOURAGEMENT
There are several hundred thousand ministers in America and probably an equal number of reasons why we battle discouragement! Physical and emotional fatigue, financial pressures, relationship conflicts (both in the church and at home), personal health issues, personal sin and guilt, and even unwise comparisons to other ministers, (who appear to be succeeding in areas where we feel as if we’re struggling), may be just the tip of the discouragement iceberg. There is no doubt discouragements will come. The question is, “what can I do about discouragement?”
There are a number of factors to consider when dealing with ministry discouragement. You may be tired and need rest. You may need to eliminate other distractions from your life where possible to focus more directly on ministry. You may need to learn to celebrate the small victories when the big ones seem elusive. All of these issues, and many more, play a role in healthy, long term ministry but I want to focus on only one area in this brief essay. Ministry can drain your spiritual and emotional tank and you must know how to refill it!
As a minister your spiritual life has to be a top priority if you are going to help others with theirs! For instance, when you are on a commercial flight and the flight attendant explains how to buckle a seat belt prior to take off (and you check out mentally while someone explains how to use your seat cushion as a flotation device) they usually tell you something about the oxygen masks that fall from overhead if the cabin “suddenly loses pressure.” Every time the advice is the same- put your mask on before you attempt to help someone else. Otherwise, a parent might pass out from oxygen deprivation while trying to save a child and in that case both people suffer. The logic is clear. If you are breathing you can help others- but you stop breathing you become part of the problem! The same is true of the minister’s spiritual life. You cannot help others for long, if your own life is suffering from spiritual oxygen deprivation!
The antidote for overcoming ministry discouragement may be as basic as maintaining a consistent walk with God. Do whatever you have to do to guard your time alone with God each day. Start your day as early as possible with the study of the Word and prayer. The more discouraged you feel, the more you need the Scripture and communion with the Lord. Ignore every impulse that suggests your spiritual needs can wait. Prioritize prayer and Bible reading over nearly every other ministry (of course there are emergencies that must be addressed and you must respond to those. You will know when those things occur, but do not let daily routines disguise themselves as emergencies!). Remember Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6 ESV) In ministry, with its endless demands, we have to “shut the door” for our spiritual growth! That means we prioritize prayer and Bible study and shut out the relentless cry of other voices begging for our attention. Is it easy to do? No, because we want to respond, we want to help, we want to solve problems. But if you ignore your spiritual life long enough you won’t be helping anybody- you’ll be on a spiritual casualty list!
An old expression imagines that you can “become so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” While I understand the sentiment of that old saying, it isn’t realistic. Few of us border on being too heavenly minded today. The bigger problem in our ranks, if we would be honest, is we are often too earthly minded to be any heavenly good! If you want to overcome ministry discouragement then you will pray and study the Bible as much as possible and as early as possible every day because it is through those consistent disciplines that you maintain spiritual and emotional strength.
Does this counsel seem too simplistic? Perhaps. But there are no viable substitutes for God in your life and God has given you prayer and the Word in order to stay connected to Him. On the last night of His life on earth, with only a few hours remaining to train His followers and pass the baton of leadership, Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:7-8 ESV) One key to effective ministry (bearing fruit and proving to be His disciples) is a dynamic personal spiritual life. Jesus said the key to your spiritual fruitfulness is His Word and prayer (v.8). If you can’t take my word for it, take it from Jesus! Pray earnestly, and read the Word regularly, and you will be stronger and more effective in ministry and less prone to discouragement.