Every pastor experiences disheartening seasons in ministry. They come with the territory. Our Lord Jesus and the apostles encountered them (e.g., Mark 14:34; 2 Cor. 1:8–9). I’ve certainly known them over the years. Perhaps you are experiencing a discouraging season now? If so, dear pastor, you are not alone!
In addition to ordinary pastoral demands, today’s global pandemic and social unrest have heaped new and growing stress upon all gospel ministers. Discouragement and burnout are widespread. But we mustn’t lose hope! We mustn’t surrender to fear, despondency, and self-pity. We simply can’t. God has called us to lead, and persevering through dark times is part of what it means to be a good and faithful leader.
A Lesson from History
The first half of 1942 was a veritable disaster for Winston Churchill. The axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—were advancing on almost all fronts. Central Europe was under Nazi control. The Germans seemed unstoppable, winning countless victories by land, sea, and air. Tens of thousands of allied soldiers were captured or killed. Over 35,000 American troops were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, the largest surrender in U.S. history. The American Pacific fleet was significantly crippled from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and armament production amongst the allied forces could not keep up with the extensive demands. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Morale was at an all-time low, and Churchill knew it.
Adding to the pressure, the Prime Minister received relentless criticism from his war cabinet and the MPs at Westminster. Andrew Roberts explains that “it is wrong to think that the British Establishment wholeheartedly supported Churchill’s premiership in the darkest days of the Second World War: it tolerated him for the lack of a viable alternative and because he was still popular with the public.” The government was losing faith in their leader.
During this rough period there were also troubles at home. Churchill’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary, became engaged to a twenty-nine-year-old Viscount—a decision firmly resisted by her parents.
The first six months of 1942 were grueling for Sir Winston. Discouraged and frustrated, he wondered if he could carry on (thankfully he did!). Does this sound familiar? Every leader—every pastor—has experienced it. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul expressed that at one point he and his missionary companions “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8).
Hard Times, Heavy Burdens
The first half of 2020—while nothing compared to the widespread devastation of 1942—has been terrible. The pandemic has turned the world upside down. Many, like my family, have lost cherished loved ones to the disease. Everyone has been affected by the contagion in one way or another. Moreover, the death of George Floyd on May 25th sparked protests and violent riots across the nation. Major city centers have been overrun by anarchists. The fact that we are in an election year further complicates things. No seminary class can prepare a pastor for the unique challenges of the present day!
I have spoken to numerous pastors recently who are overwhelmed and burdened. The weekly preparation and preaching of sermons, the teaching of Bible studies, the construction of liturgies, the shepherding of the flock, the oversight of staff, the assimilation of new members, the participation in presbytery and denominational matters, and the weekly administration (among myriad other things) are more than enough to keep a pastor busy. Now add to these duties the brave new world of livestream worship services (preaching to empty pews!), online prayer meetings, and socially distanced funerals and weddings. How is all of this supposed to work? Opinions are innumerable. Also, the cultural pharisaism on racial justice and mask-wearing has many, including Christians, impugning bad motives to leaders who are not responding according to their (often uninformed) standards. Virtue signaling and public shaming are rampant, and no one wants to be called a public health threat or a racist.
There is a lot weighing on pastors right now. Times are hard and burdens are heavy. But we mustn’t lose hope. Dear pastor, you mustn’t lose hope! In fact, the more difficult things get, the more we must remember “to rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). Indeed, it’s time to stop drawing from the insufficient well of our own limited resources, or the polluted resources of the world, and instead draw near to our Lord’s boundless provisions for grace and strength.
God’s Grace is Sufficient
Paul toiled and struggled in the “energy” of Christ, and so must we (Col. 1:29). Dear pastor, whatever you may be facing in life and ministry, remember Christ’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Moreover, remember Paul’s inspired response to these words: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
The Word, sacraments, and prayer are the divinely ordained means by which we receive God’s strength, wisdom, and grace. Indeed, through these means we receive and rest in Christ by faith, “confidently draw[ing] near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16; cf. Acts 6:4). Dear pastor, you need the means of grace as much as any struggling Christian.
Persevere by Faith
Winston Churchill once quipped, “Any featherhead can have confidence in times of victory, but the test is to have faith when things are going wrong for the time being.” It is highly questionable where Churchill placed his faith, but the point stands regardless, especially for gospel ministers. We must live by faith in both light and heavy seasons—faith in God’s glorious and unshakable promises.
Are things difficult right now? Is there little response to your preaching? Are finances tight? Have beloved members left the church? Is criticism wearing on you? Are pressures mounting from the pandemic and social upheavals? Are things difficult at home? Are the burdens too much to bear? Don’t lose heart. Rather, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). [Cast] all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–8). You’ve preached it many times to others, and now you must preach it to yourself.
Keep going, dear pastor. The Lord is on your side. Don’t give in to despair or cynicism during these dark and confusing times. Keeping running. Keep moving forward—one foot after the other. Your congregation is looking to you for direction and leadership. Your family needs you to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might (Eph. 6:10). Draw strength from the Holy Spirit and the ordained means through which He fortifies the souls of His saints. Finally, remember that Christ loves you beyond measure. May His ineffable love, above all else, compel you to fulfill your sacred calling.