Discouragement is an occupational hazard of ministry; it comes with the I turf. Ministers skirmish on the front lines of the "battle royal," where (pointed attacks on their professional well-being and personal confidence I are the name of the game. No negative emotion grips the heart of a pastor | more frequently than discouragement.
What complicates the issue is that discouragement can hurt a pastor's spiritual well-being and sensibility. Even a low-grade despondency may insinuate that all is not right with God. It can subtly infer an inner contradiction, a disguised dissonance. The eloquent and encouraging words to the congregation to "trust, hold on, and never doubt" boomerang as words of indictment in the pastor's weary soul, questioning his or her spiritual integrity and pastoral credibility. Some pastors have given up and left ministry, too discouraged to keep going. Most have stayed and fought what can sometimes be seen as a losing battle. I know, because I have fought the battle against discouragement for many years.
My introduction to discouragement in ministry happened early. I began pastoring at the age of 22 and took the call very seriously. Growing up in a ministerial family, I was not overawed by it, but I did respect it deeply. I possessed a natural youthful idealism about pastoring that was tempered somewhat by exposure to some of the downsides of ministry. However, that exposure was not enough to shield me or even adequately prepare me for the stinging realities of pastoring on the front lines.
I always saw myself as being able to handle anything. I was a "never say die" type. So when I took my first church, I had a high degree of confidence in my abilities. I was going to be successful and I knew it.
My first church was in a small college town just outside of the largest city in the state. It was a small congregation made up of several families, with two or three of those families having significant influence in the church. As a single pastor at the time (six months from being married) I had plenty of time to give to my new people. And that's exactly what I did. I lived church, I talked church, I ate church, I breathed church, and when I did sleep, I slept church. I was living my dream. The members were very affirming of just about everything I did. But / had not even heard of the "honeymoon" period in a church. I thought I was just a phenomenal pastor.
As chairperson and the youngest member of the church board, I sensed that even the leadership group seemed excited about my ministry. They complimented me on my visitation of the members and spoke glowingly of the youth program that I was putting into place. An overall aura of enthusiasm and excitement permeated the church environment, and all of this in my first two months. Ministry was great!
I'd heard of pastors burning out losing their passion for ministry. I was familiar with the stories of churches and pastors in conflict. And every now and then the word would spread about some pastor throwing in the towel and calling it quits. But not me! I could never see myself succumbing to that. I was an exception, and I had a theory: if I visited the people on a regular basis, handled the business of the church with relative competence, and preached decent sermons, that would cover the major bases. Problems would be minor and few. But to my surprise, it wasn't long before cracks began to appear in that theory.
After two months of pastoring one church exclusively, another congregation in the nearby city was added to my responsibilities. Whereas before I had plenty of time to give to my first charge, I now had to divide my time and passion between the two.
My second church was an inner-city congregation that rented facilities from another denomination. We worshiped in an old, Gothic-style building with a dark, dimly lit, heavy, stained glass sanctuary. The congregation had been in existence for 16 months prior to my arrival. Its 125 members appeared to be a zealous group. Most were newly baptized, with about 25 charter members from the parent church in the city. As with my first church, I plunged in ready to go.
The first board meeting went quite smoothly. But I did notice that one woman did most of the talking. It was remarkable how everyone seemed to defer to her. This behavior carried on into subsequent meetings. Not only did she dominate the floor, but when it came time for a vote, some board members, as if on cue, glanced her way to get their directions on how to vote.
Notwithstanding, she was appropriately friendly with me, but not overly so. I soon detected, however, that her influence went well beyond the board it was pervasive throughout the church. For the first time in ministry a yet undefined and almost unnoticed tension began to build in me.
In an effort to draw out and engage other members of the church board in discussions, I would intentionally but diplomatically ask for their views even though the woman had spoken. At first people were reluctant to share their thinking, but on further encouragement some began to open up cautiously. Before long the lady moved from being "appropriately" friendly to being quietly hostile. At least I thought she was being quiet about it.
Introduced to discouragement
As with most two-church districts, weekly worship services had to be shared between both congregations. I preached in each church every other week on average twice per month. On returning to my city congregation after being away a week, I noticed that many in the congregation who were usually friendly had turned somewhat cool during my absence. They spoke, but it wasn't the same. It was obvious that things had changed something had happened.
What happened, I soon discovered, was that my "friend" was disseminating skillfully concocted tales and innuendos. She passed along such interesting tidbits as: "He's young and doesn't know what he's doing;" "He's not as nice as our former pastor;" "He seems a bit distant;" "He can't be trusted." Clearly these not-too-subtle pronouncements were hitting their intended mark. She was slowly but effectively turning the entire congregation against me or so it seemed. And I was crushed.
I remember that Saturday night well. I had taken a full day of obvious hostility from those I had been called to pastor. I left the church and drove slowly through the streets of the city, attempting to make sense of it all, but failing miserably. The heaviness in my chest could be matched only by the pain in my heart. Questions swirled in my head: What went -wrong ? What do I do now ? I pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building and turned off the engine. Too burdened to get out of the car, I sat there for what seemed like hours.
I don't remember leaving the car and walking to the apartment. But I do recall unlocking and closing the door and immediately collapsing in the middle of the floor in my suit in a darkened apartment. My body instinctively folded into a fetal position. And then emotions, refusing to be held any longer, gushed forth like water plunging over Niagara Falls. "God," I wailed, "if this is what ministry is about, then I want no part of it." That night I was introduced to discouragement of the ministerial variety. It was almost as if God were saying, "Pastor Russell, welcome to ministry."
Thankfully, with both those congregations I ended up having some of my best days in ministry. Since that night, discouragement has brought me low many times. But those initial lessons learned about discouragement in those early churches, and the ones learned in subsequent years, have served me well ever since.
There is no one particular door through which discouragement enters to invade the life of a pastor. It can come as a result of feeling trapped in a dying church that is resistant to change; it can descend when there are no tangible indicators of success; it can also hit in the middle of a painful ordeal in church conflict. The causes are legion. But one thing is certain it happens. So since discouraging times will come, the question is How do we manage discouragement and ensure that we don't wallow in it, but grow through it?
My experience has given me some clues.
Tell yourself the truth. Pastors are most prone to be discouraged when they blunder. As pastors we tend to be tougher on ourselves than we need to be. In our discouragement we frequently tell ourselves untruths: "I'm so stupid;" "I'm no good;" "I'm a terrible pastor." In this way serious damage can be done to our sense of competence and value.
It is essential that we replace lies about ourselves with the truth. And the truth is, to err is human. "I'm not the first person to make a mistake, and I will not be the last." It was when I intentionally embraced this simple truth that I began to roll out of discouragement more quickly and easily.
Talk with a friend. Friends have a way of lifting our spirits. They remind us that the sun will shine again. They help us gain needed perspective, which is often half the battle.
Occasionally we don't require any feedback, only a sounding board someone to listen to us. Thinking out loud with a friend has value. Hearing yourself describe the reason for your discouragement can bring clarity to your thoughts. A friend is also good at providing comfort. On some occasions all we need to know is that someone cares that we are not alone.
Maintain a good attitude. Situations arise in ministry that we are powerless to do anything about. Our attitude is not one of them. We have the power to control that.
Attitude has to do with how we think, and what we think. "As [a man] minketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). If I constantly entertain negative thoughts, then my ability to process the discouraging times through to resolution is greatly affected. "My brothers, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable" (Phil. 4:8, TEV).
Keep an affirmation folder. Tucked safely away in the back of my file drawer is a folder labeled "Affirmations and Encouragements." These are letters and notes that members, colleagues, and mentors have written to me over the years, affirming me and my ministry. At the times I'm feeling low they serve as gentle reminders of God's anointing on my ministry.
Develop and maintain a consistent devotional life. I'm amazed at how my life is charged with joy when I take time to spend with Jesus morning by morning. My ability to handle the letdowns in ministry and other challenges of life is directly tied to the consistency of my devotional life. Daily dependence on God is a potent antidote to discouragement.
One last word
Sitting alone on the hillside, broken in spirit, Elijah was sure that his ministry was over. The events of recent days had depleted his energy and completely deflated his passion for the cause he had defended so courageously on the top of Mount Carmel. God came to him in his stony hideaway, not to berate him, not to judge him, not to make him talk about it, not even to show him the future. Instead, God took time to meet his physical and emotional needs compassionately. And then slowly ever so slowly God helped him pick up the pieces, renew his mind, rebuild his confidence, and renew his calling. God restored Elijah.
During that torturous moment of Elijah's discouragement God was there for him. He is always there for us, in our journeys through the crises of discouragement.
Bible texts credited to TEV are from the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright American Bible Society 1976; New Testament: Copyright American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976.
Continuing Education Exercises:
Half the battle in getting through discouragement is understanding
different elements. Try keeping a journal over the next
90 days recording your responses to the following questions when
A. What brought the discouragement on?
B. What am I telling myself about it? Is it true or is it a lie?
C. Am I being unreasonably hard on myself?
D. Can I talk to anyone about this to gain perspective'? If so, who?
E. If the cause of the current discouragement happened again,
what could I do differently to keep from getting "down"
Bratcher, Edward. The Walk on Water Syndrome. (Waco, Tex:
Word Book Publishers, 1984). 225 pages. This book demands
to be read in one sitting. From the first page to the last, it
demystifies ministry for ministers. Having left the pastorate
for a while because of burnout, the author impels clergy to
face the tough realities of the “call.”
Hughes, Kent and Barbara. Liberating Ministry From the
Success Syndrome. (Wheaton, III: Tyndale House
Publishers , 1987), 195 pages. Anecdotal in approach, the
Hughes describe their own journey in dealing with the pitfalls
of pastoring discouragement, success, integrity,
disappointments, and a host of other challenges faced by pastors.
A virtual handbook on ministry, dealing with “gut” level issues.
Powell, Colin L. My American Journey. (New York: Random House
Publishers, 1995), 617 pages. This is not a run-of-the-mill
biography. It teaches leadership and the ability to go forward
in the midst of heavy opposition. Colin Powell’s “rules” are
excellent guideposts for handling the sometimes slippery
slopes of ministry.
Timberlake, Louis. It’s Always Too Soon to Quit. (Old Tappan,
NJ: Flemming H. Revell Company, 1988), 187 pages. This is
an upbeat book of stories about people who triumphed
through adversity and disappointments. The author is a
Christian motivational speaker.