Pastors are meant to be examples of spiritual well-being. So, what do we do when we find our own spirits are sagging? How do we lead others when our hearts feel wrung out of vision? Where do we turn when ministry has become a slogging soul-draining experience? We may know we’re called to the ministry, but how do we stay on the field when we’re tired of playing the game?
For the past three years, I have been coaching a cohort of capable young pastors and Christian counselors. We meet regularly in a relaxed environment to catch up on personal items and to put our heads together regarding the everyday demands of ministry life. It's been life-giving and eye-opening.
One of the things I've noticed is that there's an important distinction that needs to be made between what you might call "in-game challenges" and "off-the-field threats."
The Bible often compares the life of ministry to the realm of sports (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, 2 Tim. 2:5, etc.). Not everyone is a sports fan, but one of the ways an athletic analogy can be helpful is remembering that when you step out on the field of play as an athlete, you can expect a certain level of formidable challenges, painful moments, and stressful situations throughout the grind of the game. You can't avoid the hits, the misses, the fouls, the bumps, and the bruises. As they say, it’s all part of the game. The same is true in ministry.
There are several “in-game” reasons for a pastor to feel temporarily under life’s dark cloud. It could be the disheartening email you opened on Monday morning, the tangled conflict between key people in the church, the lackluster momentum and morale you sense amongst your staff, the annoying peripheral issues that demand your attention, the case of the post-Christmas letdown, or the added pressure of drumming up new ministry goals for the coming year.
As we know, the list could go on. I certainly don't want to downplay the significant pressure that these moments can add to our lives, but these are all the expected in-game challenges of ministry life. We simply can’t avoid them. We should expect them.
Thankfully, there are a variety of skills, principles, and tools that can help us to face these pastoral strains with poise and wisdom. However, that’s not our focus here. Our deeper concern is with the dangerous hazards to our hearts and lives that can take us off the field of ministry and out of the game entirely.
Years ago, I felt myself growing extremely frazzled in meetings, constantly annoyed at people, and completely overwhelmed by all the ministry tasks that “needed” to get done. I rang up one of my ministry coaches, and after a long talk together, he said to me, “I don’t think your problem is the real problem.”
He came to this conclusion because during our talk, he had asked me a series of questions that revealed there was something more going on than meets the eye. These three questions have remained with me till this day. Each of them can be used to expose three dangerous threats to a pastor’s soul and our on-the-field longevity.
What Are You Sharing?
As my coach started out by asking me to explain the kind of things I was sharing with my key leaders, ministry friends, and even in my staff meetings and sermons, I could feel a defensiveness mounting up within me. I desperately wanted to impress him by giving him the answer I knew he was looking for. This instinctive desire to pretend that I was sharing more openly than I really had been, was in fact, the very threat that was being exposed.
Ever since the proverbial fig leaves were sown together and worn around in the old Garden, there’s an inclination in all of us to go around pretending that everything is fine when it really isn’t. If we’re not careful, we can become experts at putting on fig leaves—
“How did the meeting go?” “Fine.”
“How are you doing today?” “Fine.”
“How did the service go?” “Fine.”
“How are so and so getting along?” “Fine.”
“How are things going at the church?” “Fine.”
“How is your family doing?” “Fine.”
Perhaps it’s because it’s quicker and easier to move along in a conversation. Or maybe it’s because there’s an unspoken expectation for pastors to always sound positive. Whatever the reason, without even realizing it, we can minimize the bad and exaggerate the good in the things we choose to share with others. We can become so good at convincing ourselves that everything is fine, that months can go by before we’ve ever told anyone what we’re really thinking or how we’re really doing.
Beware of the threat of pretending. Our integrity of soul is constantly being threatened in our ministry. Although it can be painful, there is freedom in being vulnerable and honest with people you can trust. If we’re feeling down, it’s okay to share that. In fact, we may be surprised at how admitting our weaknesses will liberate our congregants to do the same. The truth will set us (and others) free. We need to functionally believe that because Jesus is the perfect Pastor, we don’t have to be.
What Are You Reading?
Several years ago, I was going through an incredible bout of spiritual doubt. I was on a month-long sabbatical and my prayer going into that time of extended rest was, “Lord, increase my faith.” But as the days went by, I couldn’t understand why my doubts only got stronger. I was frustrated with myself and frustrated with God.
One Sunday, we visited a little country church in western New Jersey. During the pastor’s sermon, as he was describing Jesus’ answer to the scribes and Pharisees from Matthew 19, he pointed out that Jesus answered their question with a simple question. Jesus asked them, “Have you not read …?” The pastor stopped and said, “You know it’s amazing how many problems could be solved by that one question of Jesus, ‘Have you not read?’” He looked out at everyone and just kept repeating the question—“Have you not read?” He kept panning the room. “Have you not read? Have you not been reading the scriptures that have been given to you?”
I cannot adequately explain the meaning of that moment for me. The Holy Spirit pierced my heart with power and exposed my neglect of God’s Word. I realized then and there that almost all my time had been occupied with reading commentaries, novels, and books on leadership and preaching (all well and good!), but I had neglected to spend significant personal time in the Bible. I hadn’t allowed myself to enjoy an unhurried intimacy with God through reading his Word. When I finally took some uninterrupted time with the Lord, my faith began to grow again.
It may seem simplistic, but the threat of neglecting personal time in God’s Word is very real, perhaps especially for ministers. If you’re anything like me, I currently have a pile of books on my desk that I’m trying to get through, another on my nightstand, and another reading list I want to begin. There are so many good books for us to read, but only one Book is necessary. When our souls feel empty of vision and faith, we need to remember that only “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7).
What Are You Seeing?
We’ve considered the threats of pretending and neglect. This final question exposes the threat of ungratefulness. Our perspective on the state of our lives plays a huge factor in how we approach our ministry to others.
In the classic holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is sent Clarence Oddbody, a bumbling second-class guardian angel as the answer to George’s prayer for help. George was disheartened about everything in his life and thought everyone would be a lot better off if he’d never been born. Clarence perceives that this could be the one way to overcome George’s discouragement. Clarence says to him, “Okay, you have your wish. You’ve never been born.”
A few scenes later Clarence says, “You’ve been given a great gift, George—a chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
Through an intervention of heaven, George is finally able to see all the good that he had in his life that he had completely overlooked and the good work that had a greater impact on the people and town than he could ever have imagined. George’s joy when he returns to his normal life, as he bounds through the snow-covered streets of Bedford Falls, wasn’t because his problems suddenly dissolved (He still thought he was going to jail!). No, George’s newfound joy came from finally seeing his life (and his problems!) through the lens of grateful eyes.
How often do we find ourselves slipping into the “Bailey syndrome” of always needing to be more, do more, have more, know more, accomplish more to finally experience rest? Our sights can be so narrowly focused on the things that we want that we can’t really see and appreciate all the wonderful gifts of God’s grace that we’ve already been given.
This can show up in our prayer life as well. There’s a great temptation to turn God into a ministry vending machine. We can easily fall into the habit of simply asking God for help and failing to sincerely thank him for grace.
One of the secrets to experiencing the peace of God in the stresses of life is praying “with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6). It’s seeing life, not as something to achieve, but as something to receive. In fact, it was Jesus who reminded us to rejoice, not that our ministries are going the way that we want but rejoice that our names are written in heaven (cf. Luke 10:20). As Christians, we’ve already received the greatest gift imaginable.
Before I finished talking with my coach, he prayed for both of us that our lives and ministries would be marked by healthy vulnerability before others, quality time in God’s Word, and a spirit of gratitude in all we do. And I walked away from our call that day ready to take the field again.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..