Happy Monday, and welcome back. Well, Mondays are notoriously difficult for pastors. The Monday Blues, as they’re called, can set in after giving one’s life and soul on Sunday. If you’re not a pastor, pray for your pastor today as you listen.
And all of this is compounded for pastors who struggle with tension inside their church’s leadership, which then breeds tension in marriages and families. All of this leads to a question from an anonymous wife of a discouraged pastor.
“Pastor John, I really appreciate your Ask Pastor John podcast. It is one of my favorite things to listen to when I am walking or doing the dishes or folding laundry. Thank you. I write you as a discouraged pastor’s wife. My husband and I have been in full-time youth ministry for four years now, and it breaks my heart to say it, but I feel almost fed up with ministry. My husband gets very frustrated and discouraged at times. I submit to his leading in our family and his call to ministry. But I am so discouraged. The last year has been really difficult for us, my husband, our marriage, and our family. My husband looks so defeated some days. It breaks my heart. We have received difficult criticism from church members. I have a hard time not taking the criticism personally. Some of these people are our dear friends, and it’s hard not to feel betrayed. Our church leadership remains fairly silent regarding the criticism and neither offers support nor guidance in how my husband can improve. I know we are not perfect by any means, but without guidance we don’t know what the church wants from us. We feel alone. Can you offer any encouragement to us?”
My heart really goes out to the situation of this young couple — to pastors, especially younger pastors, who are not in the lead pastor position, but serve in supportive roles like youth pastor. Their fruitfulness and their joy are often dependent on patterns of leadership set by those who oversee them, and so they’re more vulnerable than others are. I have a special tender spot of concern that they have good leadership, not leaders who just ignore issues.
What might be helpful is three things. One is a testimony. Let me give a little testimony of my own discouragement six years into the ministry. Another is a series of diagnostic questions that might provide a way of reflecting on their situation. And finally, some encouragement from the word.
How I Almost Quit
Here’s the testimony. I had been at Bethlehem as the senior pastor for six years. I was now forty years old at this point, which I do believe is an emotionally vulnerable place for a man to be.
“God’s purpose for you in your ministry is not your harm, but your good.”
There are real midlife issues, I think, and I wrote in my journal November 6, 1986, these words. (In fact, you can read the whole thing by going to desiringGod.org and just searching for the article called “How I Almost Quit.”)
Here’s part of what I said:
The church is looking for a vision for the future, and I do not have it. Does this mean that my time at Bethlehem is over? Does it mean that there is a radical alternative unforeseen by me? Does it mean that I am simply in the pits today and unable to feel the beauty and power and joy and fruitfulness of an expanded facility and ministry?
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me. I am so discouraged. I am so blank. I feel like there are opponents on every hand, even when I know that most of my people are for me. I am so blind to the future of the church.
Oh, Father, am I blind because it is not my future? Perhaps I shall not even live out the year, and you are sparing the church the added burden of a future I had made and couldn’t complete. I do not doubt for a moment your goodness or power or omnipotence in my life or in the life of the church.
I confess that the problem is mine, the weakness is mine, the blindness is in my eyes. The sin (oh, reveal to me my hidden faults) is mine and mine the blame. Have mercy, Father. Have mercy on me. I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.
Now, as a matter of fact, I remained in that role for another 27 years, which is a warning against precipitous resignations when God may have something wonderful in store by persevering through seasons of blankness. He certainly did for me, and I’m so thankful he didn’t let me go, in both senses. He didn’t let me leave the church, and he didn’t let go of me.
However, not all resignations, not all ministry changes, are owing to cowardice or fear or laziness or a sense of failure, so let me give some diagnostic questions that might help this young couple discern what the problem really is, because maybe a change in ministry is appropriate and maybe it’s not.
Is there a mismatch between your husband’s spiritual gifts and the role he is being asked to fulfill?
It’s not a defeat or an act of disobedience if you discover that the role you are in calls for gifts you don’t have. Such a mismatch may be painful to discover, but it doesn’t have to be shameful. It’s very difficult for us to make this call about ourselves.
We need loving, honest, objective partners in ministry. If they aren’t there in the staff or in the church, then from outside. I think gifts for ministry are best discovered and best confirmed by others, not just ourselves. Others see more clearly than we at times whether our gifts are bearing any spiritual fruit or not and what that fruit should be.
Is there a possible mismatch between the theology of your husband and the theology of the leadership?
Depending on how serious the differences are, this can be a deal-breaker in ongoing ministry. How sweet when there’s a theological camaraderie on the staff and nobody has to be fearful of openly sharing what they believe and can teach.
3. Philosophy of Ministry
Is there a possible mismatch between your husband’s philosophy of ministry and the philosophy of ministry in the leadership of the church?
This is different from theology. It basically refers to how you go about ministry. In youth ministry, this is explosively controversial. Parents often have views about what they think should happen in youth ministry that certainly should not happen in youth ministry.
If a youth minister doesn’t have a full support of the senior pastor or the rest of the staff, he’s probably not going to survive the onslaught of these parents who don’t like what he’s doing with their kids.
Is there a possible mismatch of personality or culture?
This can often feel like a matter of sin when, in fact, the essence of it is not necessarily sin but genuine differences that are almost indefinable in the culture of ministry, in the personality of the leadership, in the youth minister, or in the staff of the church.
We need skillful, spiritually discerning friends inside or outside the church to help us discern whether our personalities are simply like oil and water on this staff. Maybe that was part of what was going on with Paul and Barnabas.
5. A Call for Discernment
Is this present discouragement a test of faithfulness and perseverance, or is it something that shouldn’t be endured and needs to be changed?
God knows what you’re in, and he’s put you there. His purpose is that you would persevere in grace and overcome evil with good. No matter what the outcome is, that’s your calling. Discerning whether this is the case requires partners in ministry.
6. No Excuses
This is number six (but really a continuation of five). I suppose the most disheartening sentence in this wife’s question was “Our leadership remains fairly silent regarding the criticism and neither offers support nor guidance in how my husband can improve.”
“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning”
That’s just inexcusable. That’s just inexcusable for a mature, godly staff to function that way. It’s not at all uncommon, unfortunately, and suggests that the leadership is too immature or fearful, as part of their own dysfunction. Too fearful to deal face to face, upfront with the conflict and take the flack that addressing it will get. Many leadership structures experience staff changes by simply not addressing staff problems. That’s the only way they know to deal with them: “Well, if we don’t do anything, the staff member that perhaps shouldn’t be there in our judgment will just not be here if we let things get bad enough.”
Well, that’s awful. That’s just not the way Christians should do things. It just ticks me off when I see that happening. It’s not the way we’re told to deal with each other. It ought not to be, and I don’t know if it is the case there or not, but that sentence was a big red flashing light to me. I was so sad to read it.
Joy Is Coming
Let me end with some encouragement. Clearly, God is sovereign, and God is over this present moment. He has you in this situation of sorrow and pressure and burden and discouragement.
His purpose for you there is not your harm. It’s not your harm. We know this because of Romans 8:28 and 8:32. We know that he has bought with his blood good for you in every circumstance.
We know that his purpose is for you, and he wants your joy in the ministry. We know that because of Hebrews 13:17, where he says, “Let them [the pastors] do their work with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to the you.” We know that God’s purpose is to bring you through this season stronger and happier.
Let me close with these two psalms. Listen with your heart. Let it sink in.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5). “Those who sow in tears” — like in youth ministry — “shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5–6).
Then this one from Psalm 30: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).