A Message to Pastors

Are you tired in ministry?

Many years ago, my wife and I wrote in our Christmas letter that we were tired.  My home pastor wrote back that we shouldn’t be tired if we are doing the Lord’s work.  At the time, I thought he was just being “spiritual,” and I shrugged off his comment.  I didn’t want to feel guilty besides tired.  Over the years, however, the Lord brought that back to my mind many times.

 I began to ask just what it meant that the work was the Lord’s.  It sure felt like mine!  I was the one who lost sleep and faced the criticism.  I was the one who groaned when ministry goals were not met.  I was the one whose job was on the line all the time.

Well, I was missing something.  I was missing the truth of the grace of God.  As I began to understand what the Scriptures were saying, I began to realize that the work – and the results – truly were His.  I began to see that the only valid measurement of success in ministry must be His as well.  My part was to be along for the ride.

 And what a ride it is!  I have had almost all of the struggles and pleasures of ministry in the past 40+ years.  I have seen people come to Jesus in wondrous ways, and I have seen people ignore His love for them.  I have seen my church grow beyond any expectations, and I have seen my church destroyed by division and pettiness.  I have made good friends, and I have lost good friends.  Sometimes I wonder about the road we are on, but I have learned to trust the Driver.

Why did you get into ministry?

Most of us got into ministry because we thought we could make a difference.  We had an idea there were people who needed encouragement and support and we could help.  We also believed that the mission of our own lives was larger than what a normal secular job would fill, that – again – we could make a difference. 

Then, when we got to the church, we began to see that very few people want a difference, either in their lives or in the world.  They are quite content, even while complaining, to keep their world just as it is.  Ministry became less of a calling and more of a job for most of us.  Not that we were necessarily disillusioned enough to quit but the day to day chores of ministry and the almost constant small crises did wear us down.  Someone said, “I grew up wanting to be a firefighter.  Then I became a pastor and I have been fighting fires my entire ministry.”

But is ministry about videos and music and petty arguments?  Did you go into ministry to be a baby-sitter, trying to make sure the people don’t hurt each other too much?  I heard E.V. Hill say that the reason congregations build church buildings is so they can do their fighting indoors.  That isn’t why I went into ministry… and I doubt that’s why you did.

What would you like your ministry to be?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love people and I still do my best to minister to people whenever I can.  Funerals and weddings and church services can become organizational labor, but talking with a bereaved family and reminding them of the promises of God or guiding a young couple into the questions they need to ask before they marry… those are good things.  Worshiping the Lord with a congregation is good also and so is preaching the Word.  The pastors I know who struggle in ministry usually don’t have any trouble with those things.  They struggle with board meetings and trying to motivate people toward change.  They chafe under rules that seem designed to maintain the status quo.

But what if ministry could be different?  What if it could truly be people-oriented?  What if no one cared about the size of your church and you were simply encouraged in opening your heart to people who need Jesus, both inside and outside the church?  What if your job didn’t feel precarious all the time and your statistics weren’t measured?  What if the questions centered around what God was doing in the hearts of your people instead of your attendance last week? 

I would still like my ministry to matter.  I would like to see lives changed for Jesus Christ.  To find a church that would understand that Jesus actually does love and accept people would be a great thing.  I would like to forever be separate from the performance spirituality that plagues ministry and church life.  My guess is that you would like these things too.

So, what do we do?

The performance treadmill is particularly dangerous for pastors and others who serve in ministry.  Even if you manage to survive somehow, it still drains you of joy and peace.  Why not just get off?  Why not just allow Jesus to be the Lord of your ministry, in charge of the decisions and the results?  He’s the One who said He would draw the people.  He owns the church… and your life.  He is the Master, and you are only the servant after all. 

Listen: if He is the Master and He is the Strength of the ministry, then the results are truly in His hands.  I don’t know why He wants some churches to be large and others to be small.  What I do know is that there are some pretty incompetent people leading large churches and some powerful leaders serving in small churches.  We must understand that ministry performance is not the determining factor in church size or in ministry value. 

Sure, you could learn techniques to grow your organization.  I remember when someone was pushing the idea of making 20,000 phone calls as a method of starting a church.  If you made 20,000 phone calls, 2000 people would agree to receive information about the church and 200 would show up on the target date.  Wow!  What a great plan!  If only it worked!  But gimmicks and schemes rarely pay off.  I have come to believe that God is not particularly impressed by the schemes of men and, in fact, is not disposed to allowing them to work.

Instead, why not just stop trying?  If the measurement of success is not determined by your performance (and it isn’t – you know that) then why should you seek to perform more or better?  Why study gimmicks and make schemes?  Why not just follow the Master?  If you aren’t the boss, maybe you won’t feel so responsible for the company!

“But if I don’t feel responsible, I may get lazy and not do real ministry.”  Really?  Then maybe you need to get right with Jesus.  If following the Lord who loves you is not motivation for ministry, then nothing you or I could come up with will work in its stead.  No amount of guilt or fake responsibility will make it happen the way it should.  No, ministry is either the result of following the Master or it is just another work of the flesh.

“But how do I know where He is going?”  That’s the most common question.  Since we have not been taught to maintain a close relationship, a “walk” if you will, with Jesus, we don’t have a clue where we are supposed to be going.  But following the next denominational motivation tool or working out the teaching of the next book you read are not the same as following the personal Lord who loves you.   Maybe it is time to take a break and figure out how to communicate with Jesus.

You see, it isn’t about you.  Ministry hurts, but it hurts especially when it is about you.  I know because I have been there.  I thought the attacks were personal!  I thought I was a loser when things fell apart.  The truth was that the Lord was just as involved and active during that time as He was at other times.  Nothing happened outside His control.

Listen:  You serve a Person!  You don’t serve a church or a career or a denomination.  You got into ministry because of your relationship with Jesus Christ (if you didn’t, talk to me) and something happened along the line so that relationship slipped in priority and in activity.  It is time to return to Jesus… for the sake of your heart and your ministry.  Set everything else aside and draw near to Him. 

Pastor, missionary, seminary prof—send me an email.  Let’s start talking.  I care, and I want to help.  What you send and say will be confidential.  I will pray for you.