Note: This was going to be one article, but it got a bit long. So this is part one of a two part discussion of when ministry hurts.
Sometimes pastoral ministry is one of the most joy-filled experiences one can have. Seeing people come to Christ or grasp the implications of the Gospel more fully is a privilege. Watching them overcome sin and mature as believers is incredibly rewarding. When we see people grow and change we praise God, we feel encouraged; we feel that we’ve had the honor of partnering with God in his work. That’s why John wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” 3 John 1:4 (ESV).
But there’s another side to pastoral experience: ministry can hurt.
Perhaps you’re reading this and you’re hurting right now. Maybe something came up this past week, or maybe you’ve been the thick of a mess for months. You hurt.
- Someone has sent you an anonymous letter, making false accusations about you or your motives.
- An elder who was a supporter seems to have turned against you for reasons you don’t understand.
- Your church seems stagnant. People seem disinterested.
- There’s conflict between factions in the church. Or conflict between individuals that has spilled over to others in the congregation or threatens to spill over.
- You’ve just finished preaching and on the way out of church someone criticizes something you said, the way you said it, or says something else that robs you of your joy.
- Families who have made a commitment through membership to the church decide that they need “more” than your church can give. So they tell you they are leaving for greener pastures where there are more bells and whistles and zing and bling.
- There’s conflict among staff members in your church, and no matter what you try, it does not resolve the conflict.
- Someone is critical of your wife, because “she’s not doing what the last pastor’s wife did.”
- Giving is down and ministries need to be cut.
- A family leaves because they claim that they are not getting anything from your sermons.
- The program changes the Elders have settled on is met with resistance.
- People tell you they are not giving because they don’t like the direction of the church (which being interpreted means that they’ll start giving again once you do things their way).
- Your youth pastor has come under a lot of criticism because he wants to teach the kids and “our kids need to have fun in a positive environment.”
- You inadvertently didn’t mention someone in the pastoral prayer so their family is offended and has stopped attending church.
I could go on, but I won’t. You can probably add to the list on your own.
I’ve experienced a few of these and know pastor friends who have experienced several. Going through these kinds of experiences is painful. They make us question our calling, our abilities, and our own integrity. They can be fodder for the enemy to use against us.
See, my dear brothers, church, for a pastor, is not always a safe place.
Wow. Did I just say that? Yeah, I did.
It’s not always that way, of course. Most of the time, people are great. And sometimes people are just goofy.
Some years ago I missed several Sundays because I had leg surgery. I wasn’t able to shave for a few weeks, so my beard grew in. When the time came to get myself looking presentable, my wife and I thought the beard should stay. On my first Sunday back, an older lady in our church walked up to me, grabbed my face in her hand, turned my head both ways and said, “I don’t like it.”
Those are the kinds of things you laugh at, shake your head, and blow off. If you let little things like that get your undergarments in a wad, you probably shouldn’t work with people.
But sometimes what people say or do, in private or in public, really hurts. They make us wish we could be anywhere else. We leave our offices feeling defeated and deflated. It disrupts our sleep. Our sense of joy in serving the Lord seems to have disappeared. We have Sundays when we wish we could turn over and pull the covers over our heads.
Why, when church people behave badly, do pastors take it so hard?
The answer is that we are human beings – human beings who carry with them the never-ending responsibility to act as a shepherd to people who need to be brought under and kept under the care of God. And unless we’re doing something wrong, we take that very seriously.
False accusations strike at our integrity. And let’s face it, without integrity, we’re of very little value.
Anger over decisions we make grieves us, not because we want everyone to line up like little ducklings and follow us (hopefully), but because we have worked hard along with other leaders for the best of our people. Apparently this giving grief to church leaders thing has been around for a while, else the writer of Hebrews would not have written: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17, ESV).
Seeing members walk out the door for other churches with more options hurts because we’ve invested in them, cared for them, prayed for them, been there when they’ve needed our comfort and our counsel. But they quickly forget those things because the lights are brighter elsewhere.
Now you’re probably not incredibly encouraged right now. To this point, what I’ve written has been pretty negative. I certainly don’t want anyone to think, “If this is what I have to look forward to in ministry, I’d be better off selling comic books in the mall.” Or you may be thinking (about me) “What happened to that guy.
Fear not I am fine. I’ve just seen a lot in my time.
Our churches have good people, and there will be good moments, good stretches of peace and spiritual prosperity. But we’re ministering to human beings with the same sinful tendencies we ourselves have, and there will be times when you will experience ministry pain.
So what do we do when those hurtful, disappointing, gut-wrenching, self-doubt causing times come? I’d like to respond to that on Friday.
In the meantime, you may know someone going through the fire right now. Let me encourage you to him and ask God to bring him some relief.