The Christian life from the point of conversion will be lived in tension with the world. Christians are evidence of the work of the Spirit and are new creations in Christ Jesus. Sinclair Ferguson astutely observes, “The Christian belongs to the community of the resurrection order, but lives within the context of the present order” (Ferguson, The Holy Spirit). The Spirit as spiritus recreator ushers us into the eternal kingdom of God while leaving us to live in a world full of mini-“kingdoms” all vying for our allegiance.
Any sinner who freely trusts Christ expecting life to be a “cake walk” is only kidding himself. Following Christ does not lead to more comfort and ease in this world, but less and only more hostility. On numerous occasions, Jesus attests to this reality (Mark 13:13; John 15:18-21; Matt. 10:25). However, the Christian can take heart for their Master has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Living between the times of the two advents of Christ, all Christians will experience the noted Pauline battle of flesh and spirit (Rom. 7). This is not any less true in the life of the pastor-shepherd and may even be more vibrantly felt. Now, obviously this is not prescriptive for all because the amount of spiritual warfare and the intensity of physical stumbling blocks will vary between Christians and cultural contexts. However, it is worth noting that as under-shepherd, the pastor is (or should be) in the line of fire of both deceiving and blatant wolves.
The leader of a group of people is always under the most duress when trials and tribulations come. When false teachings permeate a society and local church, it is the role of the pastor-shepherd to combat them with the true and profitable teachings of the Word of God. Not only does a pastor have the responsibility to guard his own heart, the heart of his wife, and the hearts of his children, the pastor also must guard the hearts of his congregates. When sin and Satan penetrate the body of Christ with poisonous teaching and living, the pastor must exercise the discernment and authority necessary to protect the true flock of the Chief Shepherd.
On top of this protective shepherding, the pastor must be faithful to herald the truths of God in Scripture, diligent in the demanding work of pastoral care (counseling, visiting, writing, grieving, weeping, rejoicing), active in equipping his people to be fishers of men, and true to the leadership of his wife and children. The task is daunting and it could easily become overwhelming. Not only does the pastor deal with his own stress, trials, and tribulations, but he also must deal with the countless heartaches, stresses, trials, and tribulations of his congregation.
In the face of these daunting tasks, the pastor will be subject to discouragement. Many sermons will return only negative and unhelpful criticism. Derek Prime and Alistair Begg highlight the subtle danger of discouragement by calling discouragement, which results from such sorrows as a congregate leaving the faith because the cost of discipleship was too much, a “subtle peril” (On Being a Pastor, 298). They also discuss many other things that could tempt pastors to leave a particular pastorate or the ministry altogether, including: opposition, spiritual battles, trials, laziness, discouragement, unhelpful criticism, over-involvement with people’s troubles and stress, the desire to escape, and pride (Ibid. 294-307).
Burnout in the workplace is the reality of many Americans. Educators, for example, most often exit college with the desire to change the world through teaching children. Within ten years, that same “world changer” may be going back to school to find a new career. Burnout is real and the ministry is not void of it. Burnout in the ministry must be guarded against, lest we be ineffective or disobediently board a ship for Tarshish. Again, Prime and Begg are sympathetic to what leads to burnout:
“Some of the sad circumstances into which we enter will frequently live with us, and as we go to bed at night, we may find our mind returning to them and reviewing all we have said and how we might have dealt with them more effectively” (Ibid. 300).
An inability to be empathetic without taking the sorrow of others home with us will lead to inevitable burnout. I am not writing from pastoral experience, so take the following points of encouragement with a grain of salt. I am preparing for pastoral ministry, but I have no idea what the aforementioned struggles are like. However, from an outside perspective, I hope I can offer a couple reminders that might help anyone in full-time ministry to not burnout, but keep their flame for the glory of God blazing. I believe there are two things a pastor must trust in when he comes under duress, stress, and discouragement in ministry.
1. The Sufficient Grace of Jesus
Firstly we must rely on the sufficient grace of Jesus Christ. His grace was sufficient for Paul despite his life of suffering and the “thorn in his side.” Likewise, the many thorns that plague the sides of so many pastors will be felt and endured in the strength of Christ who enables all things (Phil. 4:13) and is sufficient for the calling at hand. This grace may come in the form of a timely book or conference. Still yet it may come in the form of a kind word from a fellow pastor or a subtle kiss from the pastor’s wife. But all in all, pastors can be confident that the empowering grace of Christ will be sufficient for them.
2. The Promise of Final Perseverance
The preservation of God will endure the pastor through all tribulation. It must be remembered that it is God who has called the pastor into this work. The nature of this God is one of preservation. The God who called you into this work is the same God who preserved Israel through much sin, suffering, and even exile. The God who has entrusted this particular flock to your care is the same God who promised that none of his sheep will finally fall away.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Our God is one of perseverance and preservation. Trust this sovereign God to preserve you in a particular difficult ministry and in the ministry altogether. Obedience is hardly comfortable this side of the Fall. However, the one who called you is with you. He knew what he was doing. Are pastors inadequate for the vocation? In one sense, the answer to this question is always, “Yes.” However, is God big enough and powerful enough to be strong when we are weak? Yes. Always.
While the temptation to leave the ministry and burnout is real, the power of God to endure pastors to the end is stronger. His grace is sufficient. Pastors, trust in this.
If any pastor reading this has any suggestions or helps for dealing with ministry struggles without burning out, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.