The Cure for Pastor’s Discouragement

I am going to start this off by saying that it is overly ambitious to say that this one post will contain the cure for anything in its entirety, but I hope that it will be a useful bit of wisdom for pastors who find themselves frequently discouraged by the ordinary ups and downs of life. One pastor once told me that most pastors he knew were very discouraged on Mondays because Sundays never lived up to their expectations. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

You’re not that special

Okay, let me be the first to say that every child of God is special, because the value of something is basically determined by the price paid to acquire it. Since it cost God his only Son to acquire any of us, any pastor who is a Jesus follower is infinitely valuable. What I’m talking about is that you’re not any more special than every other child of God.

I think it would be hard to find too many pastors who say out loud that they are more special than everyone else, but you see it clearly when you’re looking for it. A pastor lets his church’s webpage with his books be compared to the Scripture (yes, I have really seen this). One mom of two pastors was glowing when she discussed their vocations in a way that made it clear she wouldn’t have been as pleased with her kids if they were bricklayers or carpenters. Pastors make their struggles sound like they are worse than everyone else’s struggles (for this look at some of the blog posts in my first article in this series). Pastors point to their office or role as some kind of permission slip to be assumed to be wonderful. Sometimes pastors tell church members how blessed they are to have such a good (fill in the blank) pastor unlike those bad churches out there.

Here’s the problem: The Bible does not support this in any way, shape or form.  1 Corinthians 12:7 says that each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, meaning that if anyone in the church was missing, everyone else would suffer. Rather than highlighting how special you are, or how much your church would lose if you weren’t there, try to focus on how special everyone else is and how wonderful it is to have a front row seat to the glory of God manifested by his beloved saints.

Another way this shows up is when pastors choose to do things that others should be doing, or choose to not do things that others have to do. I had a pastor once who spent two weeks talking about living a gospel centered life at work. He had not worked a non-church job in a really long time at that point, while there were several non-staff elders who were working in real jobs and (presumably) successfully understanding and overcoming the challenges. Maybe he asked every godly person who worked a real job to do it and they all turned him down, but I doubt it. On the flip side, how many pastors do you see cleaning dishes, sweeping floors or scrubbing baseboards?  I know that some do, but if you haven’t done this and others in your church have, it’s time to break out the Dawn and Mr. Clean if for no other reason than to spend quality time with the servants in your church.

Understand you aren’t changing anyone

Pastors often expect their words to have an impact that they would not expect from anyone else in their congregation, as if somehow they are more special than anyone else. This, in fact, is why my friend (and his friends) experienced discouraging Mondays. They somehow let themselves believe that their wonderful sermons ought to be changing people and then they come face to face with the reality that people aren’t changing as they would like.

If this is you, remember that God changes people, you do not change people. 2 Cor 3:18 says And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. People are changed into Jesus’ image by beholding Him, not your careful Greek exegesis or clever contextualization. If you ever think that what people need to change is another sermon series on the topic rather than a pastor they personally know who they see living out the truth in daily life, you have deceived yourself.

Paul Tripp, in his very helpful book Dangerous Calling, says this about those discouraging days: “The absence of what causes us to want to give up and quit? The pursuit of what leads us to feeling overburdened and overwhelmed?” If you have a discouraging rather than joyful Monday it means you are hoping in something other than Jesus, because He will never disappoint. If it happens on most Mondays then you need to seriously repent and probably confess this to a broad group and perhaps your entire church.

Stop whining to other pastors

Whether it’s pastors on the same church staff (or much worse) pastors of other churches, it is never a good idea to whine or grumble about how bad things are. I will gladly make the distinction between grumbling and strategizing around a difficult challenge, but I don’t know how many vocational pastors can make that distinction. Strategizing is always focused on the greatness of God, His commitment to build His church and our part in the solution. Grumbling includes a focus on how church circumstances affect us, are generally absent of a Godward perspective and often includes gossip.

John wrote that he had no greater joy than to see his children walking in the truth, and so it is reasonable and natural to long for that joy when those we lead are not walking in the truth. The question is what to do about it. The Apostle Paul had lots of situations like this and his approach was not to whine to Barnabus or Silas, but to go back to those who were causing him pain if they were believers and face things head on. Fear of man is a snare to many pastors who would rather talk about their struggles with people who they assume will be sympathetic rather than having hard conversations where they may learn that they are more responsible for the conflict than they want to admit.

Be normal

Go to the movies with everyday people in your church. Stop hanging out with only people who like you (real people don’t get that option). Tell your wife to make some friends. Talk about your own struggles with sin with your church. Acknowledge that many people in your church have a much harder life than you do, and some may have it easier. Go see someone’s workplace and meet their co-workers.

All these things will help you to remember how broad is the world you are trying to impact, and expose you to more ways to rejoice in God’s working beyond how much people liked your sermon.

Eleven quick tips:

  1. Assume whatever struggle you have there is something comparable in the lives of those around you.
  2. Stop thinking that simply because you went to seminary or are a vocational pastor that you are owed something not specifically promised in the Scriptures (this would include the promise of suffering, persecutions, divisions, false professions of faith, etc.)
  3. Repent as soon as you see some gap between what you say you believe (or taught last week) and what you are actually living.
  4. Remind yourself daily that it’s not your kingdom that matters. Pray that God will open your eyes to where you have let your kingdom rule your priorities.
  5. When something has you down, ask yourself what would have to be true for you to be joyful. Use that meditation to identify the idolatry causing your discontent.
  6. Get to know your neighbors, maybe host a block party. It will help you get your eyes off yourself and onto your mission field.
  7. Stop focusing on what happens for 60 – 90 minutes on a Sunday morning as if that is the only barometer for the spiritual life of your people. If you spent as much time with people the rest of the week as you do preparing for your gathering you would see much more of God working.
  8. If you believe you can apply Bible truths to those in your church when you have no idea about their jobs or daily life, give your church members the same permission in respect to applying Bible truth to you.
  9. Ask more questions when with your church family. This will help you see where you can do a better job of responding to their actual lives rather than what you think you’re supposed to be doing and falling short.
  10. Theology doesn’t matter unless it produces a greater love for God or for people. Ask yourself hard questions about what your study, preach and teach actually has that effect.
  11. Buy and read Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling slowly and carefully.
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