If you have not yet faced discouragement in ministry, just wait. It will happen. Ministry and discouragement go together like the sun and sunburn—the longer you’re in the sun, the more likely you are to get burned. I say this not to be flippant or overly pessimistic, but to point out a ministerial reality. Now, ministry isn’t always discouraging. Praise God that there are times of great encouragement, seasons when we see the Lord blessing our labors and using the means of grace to save and sanctify his people. But through all of these seasons, one constant remains: discouragement. And that is why, as I have argued elsewhere, that ministry is discouragement.
And ministry is isolating. Maybe it’s because people share their deepest, darkest struggles with their minister and being around him makes them feel uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s because many are intimidated by their minister (for whatever reason) and that keeps them from reaching out. Or maybe it’s because of the ongoing demands of ministry (indeed, there’s always far more to do than there are hours in the day!) and that makes people feel like that cannot or should not disturb us. Whatever the reasons might be, the end result is still the same: loneliness and isolation. And this means that we typically endure the discouragements of ministry alone. It means that we generally do not have close friends or brothers that we can talk to, be real with, or be challenged and encouraged by.
Moreover, ministry is almost always sacrificial. Yes, we are called to lead sacrificial lives. But even with the great rewards that go along with pouring ourselves out for others, we can experience the unhealthy burden brought by giving our time and emotional and mental energies to put others’ needs ahead of our own. Ministry often requires us to be available whenever and wherever we are needed, not just between the hours of 8am and 5pm. Life is messy, and investing ourselves in the lives of others will, therefore, be unavoidably messy and time-consuming. And this daily sacrifice can have unhealthy consequences.
If we’re not careful, these three—discouragement, isolation, and sacrifice—can be a recipe for disaster. They can easily lead to breakdown or burnout, to difficulties in marriage and with children, or to adopting unhealthy addictions in order to deal with the stresses and strains of ministry. If we’re honest, we’ve seen signs of these in our lives from time to time. We’ve even seen them destroy the lives of some of our friends and fellow ministers within the Reformed community.
The Company of Pastors
So what can we do to help protect ourselves, our families, and the people in our churches from the burden of discouragement, the loneliness of isolation, and the difficult side effects of a sacrificial ministry?
Although there may be many ways to answer this question, I have found one to be particularly helpful in my own life and ministry. For the last several years, I have been a member of a group of seven other men—all PCA pastors—who get together monthly (via gotomeeting.com) to talk about life and ministry, to share our struggles and concerns, to encourage one another, and to pray for one another. And it’s made all the difference in the world. We call ourselves a “band of brothers,” because we really are engaged in war. But it could also be called a “company of pastors,” in honor of the great debt we owe to John Calvin. The important thing is not what we call it but that we do it. Let me tell you why I have found my group so helpful.
In the context of the discouragement of ministry, my company of pastors has provided steady encouragement for me. This encouragement has primarily taken the form of prayer. Not only do we pray for one another when we meet each month, but we also share specific needs as they arise in our lives and ministries. Text messages and emails regularly connect our group, and I am constantly encouraged by these visual reminders that my brothers are praying for me. As Joseph Scriven writes in his well-known hymn: “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer!” What an encouragement it is when brothers take your cares upon themselves and intercede on your behalf before the throne of our great God and King!
In addition to prayer, our group also shares struggles with one another and, what is more helpful, how we cope with those struggles and even rejoice in the midst of them. That reminds me that I am not alone in experiencing struggles—that even the most gifted servants of the Lord experience them too. We can sometimes forget that. When Israel fought against Amalek at Rephidim in Exodus 17:8–13, we are told that as long as Moses kept his arms raised (with the staff of God in his hand) Israel prevailed. But when Moses became “weary,” he needed the help of Aaron and Hur to help hold his arms up. There are many times when I am weary in ministry, and I need the help of brothers to come alongside me and hold my arms up. But not only do I need this, all of “Israel” needs it too, because the impact of our weariness extends beyond us as individuals.
In the context of ministry isolation, our company of pastors has provided much needed friendship. Just as David found refuge in the close bond of friendship that he had with Jonathan in a time of great discouragement and isolation, so you and I can find this as well (1 Sam. 18:1–5; 20:1–42). Although we need the strength of numbers (Eccles. 4:9–12), we often tragically choose to go it alone. And we pay the price for it too, together with our families and churches.
In the context of the sacrifices that ministry so often requires, our company of pastors has also provided a source of rest and refreshment as well as the constant challenge of “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17). Every time our group gets together we discuss some previously assigned topic. It may be a practical question that has arisen within one of our ministries or a book or theological issue that has caused consternation. Or it may be some PCA matter. The point is we all have a chance to weigh in on whatever the topic might be that month. And that allows all of us to glean from the wisdom of our brothers. In addition, we also plan an annual retreat for about two or three days in the middle of the week. This provides us the chance to get away, read a book together, laugh together, have fun together, and invest in each other for the future. I find this time tremendously uplifting.
Perhaps most importantly, my company of pastors provides an avenue of accountability. Knowing that I am going to be facing these men each month and may have to answer difficult questions from them helps keep me from drifting too far afield. It is too easy to rationalize sinful behavior under the guise of deserving it because of the sacrifices that we make for the Lord and for his people. We need some kind of built-in method of resisting this temptation. Too many ministers have fallen and thereby cast a shadow upon the Lord, his church, and their families by isolating themselves and then rationalizing their indulgences as entitlements for all the ministry sacrifices they make. I, for one, do not want to be counted among their number, and I hope that you don’t either.
I realize that being a part of a company of pastors (or a “band of brothers,” in my case) will take time and effort—two things that seem to be in short supply in the ministry. But I can assure you that whatever time and effort these groups require is well worth it. The future of our ministries and our families may well be determined by whether we choose to get involved in this kind of group or not.
 Guy Richard, “Ministry is Discouragement,” Reformation 21, August 23, 2016, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/08/ministry-is-discouragement.phpPa