How Can We Deal With And Overcome The Heartbreak And Disappointment Of Suffering In Ministry?
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). In this verse, Paul asserted that suffering is the portion of every believer. Pastors need to take this verse seriously and not expect ministry to be a bed of roses.
Pastors will not only suffer at the hands of the world, but also at the hands of the church (although the two sufferings are qualitatively different). Jesus was not only persecuted by the world, but was also misunderstood and poorly treated by his own disciples. Paul too did not have an easy time with the churches he planted, especially the Corinthian church.
So, the lot of every pastor is disappointments and sufferings in ministry. How should he deal with them and overcome them? I will seek to answer this question in this article.
By Trusting God For The Growth Of The Church
Perhaps the single greatest reason why pastors get disappointed is the slow growth of the church. Faithful pastors stick to the basics of church life such as faithful preaching of God’s word, proper administration of the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and Baptism), due use of church discipline, reverential worship, and shepherding. However, when their church does not grow despite following these basics, they grow impatient and become disappointed. They wonder whether they are doing something wrong and whether they should compromise on their convictions.
Pastors sometimes expect the church to work as an assembly line. In an assembly line, raw materials and basic components are passed through an arrangement of machines, pieces of equipment, and workers.1 This arrangement then produces the final product in a mechanically efficient manner. Similarly, some pastors believe that if they just follow the basics (and some programs), they will be able to churn out disciples in an efficient manner and the church will grow at a rapid rate. But church growth is never so simple.
Despite following the basics, the Lord may not give the church immediate growth. Despite preaching God’s word faithfully week after week, a pastor may have only a few members in his church. In spite of spending long hours with a few people, a faithful pastor may find out that those people have left him to go to another church or have abandoned the Christian faith altogether.
To avoid disappointments in ministry, a pastor must entrust church growth entirely to the Lord. He should treat the church as a nursery and not an assembly line. He should sow seeds, the elders should water, but he and the elders must realize that God alone ultimately gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). The pastor must stick to the basics and improve the functioning of the church in whatever ways he can (within the bounds of God’s Word). But he must give up delusions that he can engineer church growth. The pastor is a church planter, not a church manufacturer.
By Being Patient With God’s People
Another source of disappointment for pastors can be the slow pace at which people mature. A pastor may spend hours and hours discipling a brother only to find out that that brother repeatedly falls into the same sins. A pastor and his wife may counsel a couple for long hours only to realize that they didn’t heed the pastor’s advice and had another fight. A pastor may invest a lot of time training a potential leader only to discover that that person has significant character flaws, which prevent him from assuming leadership soon.
But such disappointments are part and parcel of Christian ministry. God is teaching us humility and patience. We, pastors, should be patient with God’s people and not give up on them. God did not write us off, and neither should we write off others. Jesus bore with his disciples patiently for three years before they became world changers (Acts 17:6). Paul never gave up on the Corinthian church even though they gave him a very hard time.
The first mark of love is long-suffering(1 Cor. 13:4, NKJV). God is a long-suffering God (Num. 14:18). We, the undershepherds of Jesus Christ, must be long-suffering with God’s people as well. The more we put on this virtue, the more we will protect ourselves from disappointments. God’s people will mature, but not always at the rate at which we expect them to mature.
By Leaning On Elders
Sometimes pastors may not only face disappointments, but even heartbreaks, opposition and false accusations. A pastor’s son or daughter may commit a major sin which causes the pastor great embarrassment. Or some of his children may walk away from the faith. A disgruntled member may turn against the pastor and blurt out, “You are not fit to be a pastor.” And that member may start sowing seeds of discord in the church trying to turn the opinion of the church against the pastor. Members of the unbelieving community may start making false accusations against the pastor.
How does a pastor cope with such situations? A pastor cannot handle such stressful situations alone. He needs the support and help of trusted friends. For this reason, every pastor should ensure that his church has elders (Tit. 1:5; notice the plural). The elders are the pastor’s closest friends in ministry. They will come to his aid whenever he finds himself in a predicament. The elders will encourage him to persevere in ministry if some of his children walk away from the faith or do something outrageous. The elders will prevent the pastor from taking excessive responsibility and resigning from the ministry prematurely. They will defend him when he faces random charges from a disgruntled member. They will fight his case when he is wrongly accused by outsiders.
A pastor without elders is like a car without brakes. Sooner or later he will crash. God has given elders to protect the pastor. May we, pastors, not think of ourselves wiser than God and do away with the elders whom God has given the church for our benefit.
Ministry is like running a marathon. Just as runners in a marathon require constant refreshments to complete the arduous journey, pastors require the right perspectives and the right people to complete the race of faith. May God grant us the right perspectives and right people in great measure.
1 Wording influenced by https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assembly-line