Our endurance in ministry rests in the enduring presence of Jesus. So, consider these three practices to help us thrive in ministry.
By Daryl Crouch
Mounting research indicates a growing number of pastors want to quit. Barna’s latest research says that number is 42%. While Lifeway Research found few pastors actually quit, more say they’re feeling overwhelmed. Regardless of how many are seriously considering throwing in the towel, I’m guessing nearly all pastors face unexpected challenges and battle significant discouragement in this cultural moment.
The issues of the modern church are complex. But before Jesus ascended to the Father, he said, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b, CSB).
As difficult as it is, now is an amazing time for the advancement of the gospel. Leadership resources are readily available, and the networks of support for pastors are greater than ever. This is a great moment to lead the local church. But ultimately, it’s not the opportunities, resources, or networks that create staying power for the pastor. Instead, our endurance in ministry rests in the enduring presence of Jesus.
So, consider with me these three practices to help us thrive in ministry as we serve local churches.
Approach spiritual disciplines as intimate encounters with God
“If the Bible were 70 books instead of 66, would you still try to read through it in 365 days?”
I asked myself that question several years ago as I was checking off my Bible reading plan. Many of my spiritual heroes read through the Bible every year, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. It’s a fruitful practice for many people, but for me, it turned into an exercise in speed reading. I was getting it done, but there was little life in it—little listening, little communion, little prayer.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and caught yourself trying to listen in a hurry, ready for them to finish the sentence so you could answer and move on? The transfer of information happened, but relationship building did not.
Lifeway Research found pastors often feel challenged in areas of prayer and Bible reading. Although spiritual disciplines are a challenge for many Christians, there’s something about spiritual leadership that can sabotage our intimacy with God.
Jesus explained how a person receives new life to a man named Nicodemus, who was a spiritual leader of Israel and an inquirer of Jesus. But Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9, CSB). He knew how to succeed in the religious establishment, but he was dull to the ways of God.
Like Nicodemus, pastors are comfortable talking about the things of God. We have credentials. We navigate the religious rhythms with ease. But we can lead from a place of spiritual barrenness, eventually producing frustration and often what we now call burnout. Flourishing in ministry is not marked by time, but by intimacy with God over time.“Flourishing in ministry is not marked by time, but by intimacy with God over time.” — @darylcrouch Click To Tweet
We read that Enoch walked with God (Genesis 5:24). The psalmist wrote that God revealed His ways to Moses (Psalm 103:7). When leaders approach spiritual disciplines as an invitation from God to know Him, experience Him, and commune with Him, our hearts are strengthened, and our ministries flow from intimacy with Him. Then we can thrive in ministry.
Pursue an all-of-life perspective on ministry
In response to pastors who advocated burning out over rusting out, I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that whether you burn out or rust out, you’re still just out. There’s no reward for exhaustion—for doing the work of the Lord while physically or emotionally depleting yourself.
Jesus said the greatest command is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37). Unfortunately, rather than apply this holistic approach to our relationship with God, many pastors silo their spiritual duties from the rest of their lives. We work hard in gospel ministry. But we neglect caring for our own souls by loving God with our minds and bodies.
While we may battle with the duties of diet and exercise like everyone else, the more significant issue for pastors may be enjoying the life God has given to us. We equate our strong work ethic with faithfulness to God only to find ourselves emotionally malnourished and physically exhausted—unable to thrive in ministry. Our family relationships become strained, our physical health wanes, our creativity atrophies, and our laughter dries up. We serve from a sense of duty rather than delight, which leads to an early exit. That exit may be an actual resignation, or it may be an emotional one. Either way, we’re out.“Grinding out our ministry assignment may feel like faithfulness to God, but it only undermines the fruitfulness in ministry we long to experience.” — @darylcrouch Click To Tweet
Pastors, however, can make different choices. We can cultivate a whole-of-life devotion to Jesus that influences how we build friendships with people who do not attend our churches, how we enjoy playing in the yard with our dogs, how we create moments with our spouses and children, how we read interesting things outside of theology or ministry, or how we cultivate interests that allow us to experience God in ways beyond our work.
Grinding out our ministry assignment may feel like faithfulness to God, but it only undermines the fruitfulness in ministry we long to experience.
Serve from a posture of peace with God
In Mark Sayers’ work, A Non-Anxious Presence, he writes of Christian leaders: “You were not created to remain paralyzed in ministry…You were made in the image of God to bring chaos into order, as you act as a channel of God’s will on earth.”
Lifeway Research confirms what we all know: Pastors are stressed. Modern pastoral ministry includes all the preaching, leading, and caring it’s always included. But with the added complexities of social media, social and cultural shifts, and the health and political challenges of a global pandemic, pastors feel an all-new set of pressures.
This pressure creates anxiety, which often produces insecure leaders. We’re no longer sure we have what it takes. We wrestle with God over our call to ministry.
Insecurity not only wars within us, but it affects how we lead. Rather than relying on the Holy Spirit within us, we either work harder in our own strength or we give ourselves a vote of no confidence and retreat into isolation. We settle for copying what other pastors are doing or jumping from one church growth fad to another.“Insecurity not only wars within us, but it affects how we lead.” — @darylcrouch Click To Tweet
Soon, we pass along the pressure we feel on the inside to the people around us, creating a strained leadership culture. And the pressures then compound upon one another.
This insecurity spiral sabotages our ministry and our ability to thrive. It either leads to foolish or sinful decisions that disqualify us from ministry altogether or into a season of discouragement that cripples our ability to shepherd the congregation.
Encouragement from Paul
The apostle Paul offered these words to his son in the ministry, Timothy: “Therefore, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:6-7, CSB).
To “rekindle the gift of God” is to fan the flame. It’s the practice of returning to the unique gifts and calling God has given you and leading from a posture of peace with God—that He has prepared you and provided everything necessary to do His will in this ministry assignment.
“Power, love, and sound judgment” mark the lives of pastors who rest in the presence of God and trust Him to work through them according to His good pleasure. We serve from a posture of peace with God that empowers us to love and lead well.
So, if you’re a discouraged pastor, if you feel the rug has been pulled out from under you, stop wrestling for just a moment. Give yourself permission to grieve whatever you’ve lost. And then start where you are by pursuing fresh intimacy with God, beginning to love and enjoy Him again with your whole self, and remembering it’s the Lord’s power and presence that strengthens you and bears fruit that lasts. You can thrive in ministry.
Daryl Crouch is the executive director of Everyone’s Wilson, a network of gospel-loving churches working together for the good of the community. Prior to this role, he pastored churches in Texas and Tennessee for 28 years. He and his wife Deborah have four children.