As I glanced down at the text I’d just received on my phone, my heart sank.
“Hey brother. Pray for us. We had a very disappointing business meeting and deacons meeting last night. Really frustrated.”
It was from a pastor friend. I texted him back that I was praying.
I know where he is. I’ve been there. Many times. Being a pastor empties you. That process of emptying is one of the most agonizing and fulfilling experiences of humanity. More on that later..
After I prayed, I was reminded of a low point in my own ministry journey as a pastor. I was at the Exponential Conference in Orlando in 2008. Ed Stetzer had spoken, and I found myself back in my hotel room that evening, despondent and frustrated – with God, with ministry, my church and my future. I had come for encouragement and refueling, but I’d had “successful church ministries and strategies” shoved down my throat all afternoon at the conference.
Pastors with published books. Pastors with more hair. Pastors with no hair that looked much more debonair than I with my thinning hair. Megachurches. Megaministries. Megaegos. Megastrategies. I felt small.
Where does a pastor turn for encouragement? Of course, the immediate answer is: God. We know that. We KNOW that. And it’s only through our personal relationships with the Lord who called us into ministry to begin with that we are renewed and find strength.
HOWEVER (and please don’t judge me, for as a pastor, I *feel* that pressure constantly of not being good enough or articulate enough or studied enough or visionary enough or “spiritual enough”..) when I feel small, I also want to be encouraged by flesh and blood. Tangible assurance.
So, let’s say I order a book by another pastor – to receive words of hope. But what do we typically find in books published by pastors in the last 20 years or so? (at least by celebrity pastors) – interspersed throughout the book will be comments about how they spoke to a conference of thousands or how their church exploded in growth or amazing stories of God’s activity around their ministry/preaching/church.
The nuggets of encouragement found elsewhere in the book begin to feel inauthentic due to the revealed “success” of their ministry or church.
It’s interesting that when you’re discouraged, you tend to be discourage-ING as well. That April in Orlando, when I was at Exponential, I was empty. I had needed encouragement, but I’d been fed “success.” I blogged that evening about Ed Stetzer’s presentation and said:
Ed Stetzer began the conference’s first main session, and his “presentation” consisted of statistics and research. Terrible way to begin a conference that should be inspirational and encouraging. In addition to that, everything he shared seemed targeted for the megachurch, in essence telling them that they need to be planting churches instead of growing monstrously large. In short, I give Stetzer’s presentation a D-. Seriously. The content was good, just inappropriate for the context.
Yeah. I was discouraging.
That evening, I learned that Ed had left a comment on my blog entry. He said simply:
I will have to try harder next time…
Discouraged pastors discourage pastors. Dang it. My emptiness had overflowed and drained another.
So when I received the text yesterday from my friend, I immediately texted back that I was praying. And I still am. I am praying for him, and in praying for him and his family and church, I am provoked to also pray for other ministry leaders.
It’s not like it’s a “thankless job.” We do receive encouragement from our church members. But it’s a vocation that by its nature is mostly intangibly measured. We are all wired, I think, to want to SEE that we’re making a difference. But attendance, budgets and buildings and books are not really reflective of eternal significance. You can have a large church that is essentially unhealthy.
So pray for your pastor today. Pray for your church staff. Remember that it’s difficult for us to confess our discouragement. People expect us to be “up” all the time. No one is inspired by a depressed minister. And so we tend to internalize our frustrations and hurts and disappointments.
By the time we send a text asking for prayer, we are probably at our wit’s end. And yes, we are turning to God too. But we count on you to be a reflection of Him as well.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel was pleasantly surprised to receive genuine repentance from the people of Israel when they realized that their asking for a king was actually rejecting God as their spiritual leader. He was encouraged by their request for him to pray for them, and his response to them is wonderful:
As for me, I vow that I will not sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you. (1 Samuel 12.23)
Such is the heart of a pastor for his church. Such should be the heart of a church for its pastor.
I glance back at my friend’s text and am praying for him, for his church and for their prayers to be numerous for one another.
In case you’re wondering, Ed Stetzer and I got to visit at the conference in 2008. It was enjoyable and refreshing, and he was so gracious. In a surreal moment, I was able to participate in a trip to Krakow, Poland later that year with him. Being on mission together was incredibly encouraging, and I’m deeply grateful. Perhaps one antidote to discouragement is refreshing ourselves together on mission?