Over half of pastors are discouraged right now. It’s similar for all kinds of ministry leaders. (You may not consider yourself a “ministry leader” but if you think about your relationships as a ministry of being salt and light for Jesus then I’m sure that you will relate to the problem of discouragement in ministry.)
If you’re a discouraged pastor or ministry leader then you know that it’s hard to preach, lead, and care for others when you’re discouraged.
Are you Discouraged?
To be discouraged is to lose confidence. It’s to be downcast and depleted in your spirit. It’s to have the wind taken out of your sails so that you’re drifting with the currents and can’t go where you need to.
Everyone has moments of feeling discouraged. To become discouraged means that an emotional distress has taken over your personality and you can’t rise above it. You’ve lost heart for what’s important to you. You’re debilitated by your lack of achievement, what other people think about you, or your lost opportunities.
What Discourages Pastors?
I’ve been in ministry leadership for many years, including serving as a pastor in a local church, and I know what it’s like to be discouraged about my ministry. And I’ve talked with many discouraged pastors. Pastor Stress is the great concern of our Soul Shepherding ministry.
Why do pastors and other leaders and caregivers who are serving Christ get discouraged? What is it about ministering to other people that makes us vulnerable to discouragement? Here are a few of the underlying reasons that you may be a discouraged pastor or ministry leader:
We may have grown up in our family under the pressure of unrealistic expectations or felt like we needed to do well in life in order to be loved. Then we become pastors and find that so much is expected of us! We always have to be “on,” ready to lead a meeting or to bless others with our wisdom, friendliness, or prayers.
Grow the church… Manage the church and the budget… Be available whenever called upon… Entertain people on Sundays so they come back… Make people feel good… And be really close to God all the time!
But it’s not just the expectations of others that distress us, it’s also our self-expectations. We push ourselves to do more and to it better. We pressure ourselves to serve people and make them happy. Then we compare ourselves to other pastors and leaders. If you expect more of yourself and other people expect more of you that’s when you’ll become discouraged, even debilitated.
Living under conditions of worth will cause you to miss out on experiencing the grace of God.
Criticism and expectation go together. You may feel criticized jut because you haven’t excelled.
As with expectations, our problem with criticism is not just with other people but within our own selves. If you don’t have strong confidence and security in your worth as a person before God and others, if you feel you have to “measure up” to be acceptable, or if you’re trying to please people to feel good about yourself then criticism from others will have a place to land in you and it will be most discouraging.
It can be lonely to be a leader. The same LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 pastors that found over half of them to be discouraged also found that over half them are lonely. Discouragement and loneliness often go together.
Many pastors operate as Lone Rangers. Some are solo pastors or find that they are very different from other pastors and leaders they know. Many don’t have a safe community outside their church (no matter how safe a group inside your church seems you will always have to be careful). Many do not have a spiritual mentor or soul friend who listens to them with compassion and encourages them.
As much as we who pastor and lead care for others so also we need to be cared for personally. So solitude might seem like the last thing you need if you’re lonely and discouraged. But we also need to learn how to unhook from our relationships and responsibilities to be alone with Jesus in a quiet place for extended hours.
Who am I without my roles, my work, making people happy? In solitude and silence we find out, we begin to get in touch with our naked self. Insecurities rise to the surface. We feel antsy to accomplish something or get busy. If we stay quiet and not busy (even in quiet solitude set aside for God it’s easy to get busy!) we may find that we feel empty inside. So probably we avoid this.
But apart from solitude with the Good Shepherd in his green pastures and beside his still waters we won’t experience the Ahhhhhh! that David described: “He restores my soul!” (Psalm 23:3). Without learning how to be at rest under God in solitude and silence we never learn how to pull our plow in Jesus’ “easy yoke,” doing the work of ministry in his relaxed “rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28: NIV84 and MSG).
Do Not Be Discouraged!
If you’re discouraged about your ministry hear Jesus’ invitation to those who are experiencing troubles: “Take heart!” (John 16:33) He’s saying the same thing that the Lord said to Joshua through Moses and to Solomon through David: “Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9 and other places; 1 Chronicles 28:20 is similar).
The Lord is with us. He understands how we feel. He cares. He wants to lead us in the path of life.
The Lord knows that as we minister to others we’re prone to neglect the care of our own souls. Even though we may be around people all the time we may isolate our true self. It’s in isolation that we’re most prone to discouragement. This is why his way of leading us out of discouragement is to help us trust that he is with us.
The first and most basic way that we learn that God is indeed with us is when a brother or sister listens to us in Jesus’ name. Each of us need a “God with skin on,” one of Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), who offers empathy and compassion, without judgment, advice or reassurance. Having someone be with you to hear how discouraged you feel and why is huge.
One way that the divine encouragement of having a compassionate friend can be powerfully ministered to us when we’re disheartened is in the context of Group Lectio Divina. For instance, recently I led a small group of pastors through Lectio Divina on a little known but powerful Scripture passage in which we read that “David encouraged himself in the Lord” (1 Samuel 30:6, KJV) after his wilderness town of Ziklag was burned by enemies. (Try our meditation on “Help for Discouraged Leaders.” This is one of many free Lectio Divina Guides we offer for you to use in your personal devotions or in leading a small group.)
But What do we Really Want?
Jesus often asked people, “What do you want me to do for you?” He asked this of James and John in Mark 10:36. They told Jesus that they wanted him to give them positions of honor. Then Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus the same question in Mark 10:51. He said that he wanted to see. James and John saw only their egos. Bartimaeus saw the Son of God.
Is it enough for me to see that the Lord is with me? Is it enough for you? Do we really mean it when we say, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want”? (Psalm 23:1) Maybe we think that we need to feel that we are successful in order to be encouraged? Maybe we want to feel that people are happy with us so that we can be content?
How easily we get focused on the wrong things! We focus on our performance or what people think of us rather than the greatness of God and our relationship with him. We’re missing what is most important.
Reminding Ourselves of What’s Most Important
Personally, I have found over the years that when I feel discouraged about my ministry what helps is to remind myself that Jesus’ Greatest Commandment is what’s most important: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). So I ask myself, Am I devoted to Jesus Christ, loving the Lord God who loves me? Am I sharing God’s love with the people around me?
To be faithful to love God and others as God loves me is a life of great significance! I have found that when I am finding my soul satisfaction in Jesus and sharing him with the people in my circle of influence that God expands that circle. Caught up in a love relationship with Jesus feelings of discouragement don’t weigh me down and sidetrack me. Unconcerned about ministry success God seems to bring me more success.