Leading with Joy

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Pastor, Vista, California

It was an elder meeting I’ll never forget.

I’d just returned from a leadership conference where the pastor of one of America’s largest churches had waxed eloquent about the unique challenges and hardships that come with pastoral ministry.

He claimed that leading a ministry is the toughest of jobs. The stakes are eternal. Our enemy is the epitome of evil. He’s cagey, fierce, and the ultimate deceiver. We’re prone to be misunderstood. Our message is unpopular. Most of our rewards come later. And we’re asked to give more than we get.

Since I was in the middle of a particularly dark season of ministry, his words resonated with me. Like Asaph in Psalm 73, I was beginning to wonder if ministry was worth it all.

At our next elder meeting, I began to share what he’d said. I couched it as a request for prayer. But in reality, I just wanted some empathy and understanding. But before I could get into my pity party, one of the men on our board told me to “shut up.”

I did. Immediately.

You see, he was a retired marine who had served three tours of duty in Vietnam. He’d fought with valor and experienced firsthand the horror and carnage of war. Worse, he’d returned home to widespread scorn and ridicule. There was no hero’s welcome. He was literally spit upon at the airport.

He was right to call me out. I had no idea what I was talking about — and no right to complain about the hardships and pressures of ministry. Sure, vocational ministry has its unique challenges and difficulties, but compared to a tour of duty in Vietnam or Fallujah, it’s a cakewalk. The fact is, ever since the Fall, every vocation has been riddled with hardship and difficulties. There’s not a garden without weeds.

I quickly apologized. He graciously accepted my apology.

That day, on my way home, I made a commitment to never again publicly complain about the hardships and burdens of ministry as if it was burden rather than an incredible privilege. I instituted what I call the “no complaining” rule. It’s based on remembering the following Scriptures and guidelines.

1) Leadership Is a Choice

God has called every believer to a life of discipleship and kingdom ministry. But formal leadership is a choice. I don’t have to lead. No one does. And if I can’t lead with a grateful and joyful heart, the kingdom will be better served if I step aside or take a timeout so that someone else can take the mantle. Leading “with joy and not with groaning” is for the good of our people (Hebrews 13:17).

That doesn’t mean I have to be giddy or pretend the hardships aren’t hard. But it does mean that my Lord is not well served when I serve him with an Eeyore-like outlook.

When Paul laid down the qualifications for an overseer, he told Timothy to apply them to anyone who aspired to become a leader (1 Timothy 3:1–7). And when Jesus pointed to the path of servant leadership, he didn’t say it was for everybody. He appealed to those who desired to be great or first (Matthew 20:25–28).

Don’t miss this, because as long as I understand that serving in a leadership role is a choice, I have nothing to complain about. It’s the path I’ve chosen.

2) Servant Leadership Means Being Treated Like a Servant

I love the idea of servant leadership. But when people start treating me like a servant, that’s another matter. Yet Jesus wasn’t kidding. Genuine servant leadership means being treated like a servant. It’s a reality, not a cliché.

It’s a rare master who truly appreciates what his servants do for him. In fact, most often, masters treat servants with a sense of entitlement. So I should not be surprised when some in my flock act like they own me, resist my leadership, or take what I do for granted. It comes with the territory. And it’s a territory I’ve chosen to live and serve in.

3) Our Reward Is Coming

As an athlete, I never enjoyed “hell week.” I would have skipped it if I could. But I kept showing up year after year willingly and eagerly because “hell week” was the precursor to a season full of games.

In the same way, I’ve learned to embrace the “hell weeks” that are a part of ministry, seeking to judge them not by today’s pain, but by tomorrow’s promise. My Lord endured the cross for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Paul considered his hardships and persecutions to be momentary light afflictions in light of the eternal glories to follow (2 Corinthians 4:17). And those who shepherd their flock willingly and eagerly, not under compulsion or for selfish gain, will receive an eternal reward when the chief Shepherd appears (1 Peter 5:1–4).

4) Suffering Is a Privilege

The pastoral and leadership guru who so eloquently bemoaned the hardships of ministry got it partly right. Ministry is often a tough calling; infinitely great things are at stake. It’s not for the faint of heart. But those hardships rightly understood are not something to be lamented. They are something to glory in. Suffering for Jesus isn’t a curse to endure; it’s an honor to be embraced. It means we’ve been counted worthy (Philippians 1:27–30).

When ministry leadership becomes a joyless burden, it’s a sign that something has gone radically wrong with my spiritual paradigm. Leadership in the kingdom isn’t a burden. It’s one of the greatest privileges anyone could be granted. It’s mindboggling that Jesus would pay for my sins. It’s beyond anything I could ever imagine or ask that he would turn me into a son and joint-heir. And it’s completely incomprehensible that he would entrust someone like me with the care and feeding of his bride.

Yet he has. And the only logical response to such an undeserved and inexplicable privilege is a heart filled with joy and gratitude even in the darkest valleys of ministry. Or as I like to put it: “No more complaining.”