Big Idea: How do we get through tough times in ministry? Start with why.
I’d like to ask you to open your Bibles to 2 Timothy 1. While you do so, I want to tell you how honored we are to be with you. I want to thank Tim and Gilbert for the invitation to be here. I’m praying that this will be the most freeing, welcoming, non-posing and pretending conferences you’re going to attend this year. We’ve been looking forward to being here with you, and we’re excited about what God may want to do over the next couple of days.
Late last Fall I was on a conference call with a group of pastors, and what happened has haunted me ever since. During the call, one of the pastors who, by any measure, has been effective let us know that he felt like a failure. I still remember the pain in his voice as he talked about the struggles he’s facing in his ministry.
And he’s not alone. I attend an annual retreat every May with about 40 pastors from all over North America, all from very different ministries of all different sizes. At the start of every retreat, we go around the table and talk about what’s happened since the last time we were together. It’s fascinating. Every year about half the room is a mess. It’s never the same people, but it’s always about half the room. It doesn’t make a difference whether they’re from a big church or a small church, or from what part of the country. It’s only a matter of time before everyone is one of the 50% going through a tough time.
This morning, I am speaking to a group of people I deeply respect. I have no idea what your stories are, but I know some of you came today ready to quit. I know. I’ve been there. A few years ago it hit Charlene and me that we’d spent over twenty years in ministry, which would be pretty close to a life sentence in some prisons. Ministry hasn’t always felt like a prison term, but it has sometimes. I’ve been close to burnout. I know discouragement in ministry. I’ve been there.
I also know what it’s like to experience not so much a full-blown crisis, but what I like to call a low-grade fever of pastoral discouragement. Do you know what I’m talking about? Nothing is going really bad, but nothing is going really well either. I love what John Ames says in Marilyn Robinson’s brilliant book Gilead about his sermons:
So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.
Man, do I know what that’s like. Everything in ministry — even the good things — still fall short of the hopes that I had for them. After some time that can get discouraging and wearying. Some of us came today tired — not ready to quit, just tired. I’ve been there too.
I also know what it’s like to be encouraged. The other week someone I pastored years ago posted this on my Facebook page:
Pastor Darryl! I know I said it before but I wanted to say it again: You really impacted my life in the past by sharing the gospel to me.I have never been the same and Jesus has completely transformed my life for ever and ever and ever! Only Jesus can take a life and make something new with it! To HIM be all glory, all praise and all honor! you stay blessed and keep on preaching! those were great years at PLBC! May Jesus continue to bless you, Charlene and all your family and your congregation!!!
I know what it’s like to want to quit. I know what it’s like to be discouraged and tired. I know what it’s like to be encouraged and excited about the next round of ministry. And I pretty much bounce between these emotions.
Here’s what I believe: pastoring is one of the best callings or vocations out there, but we also deal with a unique set of vocational pressures. The statistics tell us that 70% of churches are declining. Most of us determine our self-worth by how well the church is doing numerically. Chuck Lawless recently listed the twelve most frequent burdens that pastors face:
- Declining church growth.
- Losing the support of friends.
- Grieving a fall.
- Sensing that the sermon went nowhere.
- Losing vision.
- Being lonely.
- Dealing with unsupportive staff.
- Remembering failures.
- Dealing with death recurrently.
- Facing personal jealousies.
- Balancing family and ministry priorities.
- Responding to criticism.
And while very job is hard, the occupational hazards of being a pastor are well documented:
- 80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of their spouses) are discouraged in their role as pastors.
- For every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.
- 50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
- 25 percent of pastors have been forced out or fired from their ministry at least once.
- 70 percent of pastors say they do not have a single close friend.
- Denominational health insurance agencies report that medical costs for clergy are higher than for any other professional group.
- Additionally, the Alban Institute published a report finding that of their sample group, 62 percent of pastors reported having little spiritual life.
It’s no wonder that Paul Tripp calls pastoring a “dangerous calling.”
My hope in the sessions that I have today and tomorrow is to be as honest and encouraging as possible about the challenges of ministry. But I want to begin by saying how honored and grateful I am to be here with you. I’m praying that you feel like you’re in good company whether you’re encouraged or discouraged today, and I’m also praying that we will be relieved of the pressure to pose or pretend. So let’s pray, and then let’s get into it.
Father, we thank you for the privilege of serving you. We echo what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:12: “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service…” (1 Timothy 1:12). We never want to lose sight of the privilege we have in serving you.
But we also know that many of us came here today feeling tired, weary, unappreciated, discouraged. We thank you that because of the gospel, we don’t have to pose or pretend. We thank you that we already measure up in Jesus Christ. We have nothing left to prove because everything that needed to be proved was proved by Christ as Calvary. We also thank you that you are the mighty friend of sinners, the ally of your enemies, the defender of the indefensible, and the justifier of those who have no excuses left, and that you welcome us here today.
So encourage my brothers and sisters today. Help us now as we look at your word. We pray this together in Jesus’ name. Amen.
You may have watched the movie Unbroken about Louie Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. Or you may have read the book. Zamperini crashed into the ocean during World War II and spent 47 days adrift before being captured by Japan. As a POW, he was then severely beaten and mistreated by someone who would later be included in General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. As I read the book and watched the movie, I asked myself: What would cause someone to stand up under all that suffering and persist to the end?
I want to ask the same thing about the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul talked about some of his sufferings:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
That’s a partial list written ten years before the letter we have in front of us. It’s not even a complete list of everything Paul suffered. By the time we get to 2 Timothy, Paul is “bound with chains as a criminal” (2 Timothy 2:9), abandoned by his friends, and facing death. It appears that Paul was executed shortly after writing this letter. Tradition says that he was beheaded soon after writing this letter. This isn’t the relatively comfortable house arrest we read about at the end of Acts. This is brutal.
This is why I want to look at 2 Timothy with you today. I want to ask the question: What would cause someone to stand up under all of that suffering and persist to the end? I figure that if Paul discovered something that would give him what it takes to go through beatings, shipwrecks, jail, and the desertion of friends, then maybe it’s something that will help us get through elders meetings. Whatever Paul had was field-tested, and it was enough to get him through to the end.
I love what Paul does, by the way, because it meshes so well with what we’re learning elsewhere. Simon Sinek wrote an excellent book in 2009 called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. It’s a great book. Sinek says:
Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money— that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?
When most organizations or people think, act or communicate they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY. And for good reason— they go from clearest thing to the fuzziest thing . We say WHAT we do, we sometimes say HOW we do it, but we rarely say WHY we do WHAT we do.
But not the inspired companies. Not the inspired leaders. Every single one of them, regardless of their size or their industry, thinks, acts and communicates from the inside out.
I think Paul would agree with that. Begin with what we do, and we’re going to get discouraged pretty fast. If we’re going to last, it’s not going to be because of what we do, but why we do it.
People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it…Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?”…when a company clearly communicates their WHY, what they believe, and we believe what they believe, then we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives.
What we need most of all today is not to focus on what to do. Don’t get me wrong: that has its place. It’s just not enough. What we need to focus on, if we’re going to beat the stats that I just mentioned, is why we do what we do. That’s the only thing that will sustain us in the long run.
In this passage, Paul mentions two things that will sustain us. Here they are:
First, remember your call..
Paul writes in verses 5 to 7:
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:5-7)
Why did you get into ministry in the first place? I didn’t have any illusions that it would be easy. I watched the pastor I had as a kid. My uncle was a pastor in California as well. I knew ministry would be tough. I remember my mother taking me for a walk and warning me that I was in for a world of hurt if I entered the ministry. She was thrilled to support me if that was what I did, but she wanted me to know that it wouldn’t be easy. I had no illusions that it would be easy, and it hasn’t been.
So why did I become a pastor? Let me ask you that question: Why did you become a pastor? It’s worth recapturing that why.
There are two areas in particular to remember as you think about your calling.
Remember who influenced you to follow Jesus. You are a follower of Christ, and in pastoral ministry, because of someone else’s influence on your life.
I don’t know who it was for you. For me, it was my grandmother, a saintly old woman with osteoporosis who was married to one of the most colorful and crusty men to have ever lived. I don’t know how it would be possible to watch her life and not believe that there is something to Christianity. I am a Christian in part because I could not believe that Jesus is not real after watching her life.
Then there’s my mother. I watched my mother deal with the incredible stress of escaping an abusive marriage, getting a job, and raising four children on her own. My mother wasn’t perfect, but I knew that she was not faking a relationship with God. If you want to find out whether someone’s faith is genuine, put them in that kind of test. Kids have amazing smell detectors, and they know if something passes the test or not, and my mother’s faith more than passed the test.
Then there was my Sunday school teacher, a man named Don Taylor. He had his quirks. He spoke loudly. There was nothing cool about him. Every year we would get promoted to the next grade, and so would he. I knew two things about Don Taylor. He loved God, and he loved us. I had compelling reasons to follow Christ, because there were great examples of faith all around me.
Timothy’s faith was deeply rooted. It went back to some of the earliest influences on his life. Paul clearly expects that this will be an encouragement to Timothy in the current pressures of leadership. In fact, Paul returns to this theme later. In chapter 3 he writes:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
You’re a follower of Jesus Christ because someone influenced you. They were probably quirky and flawed, but they are evidence of God’s grace in your life. Remember them. Think about them. But that’s not all:
Remember the beginning of your ministry. In his famous commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs talked about the Whole Earth Catalog. He said:
On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Thank you all very much.
I love that. Stay hungry and stay foolish. That’s a lot harder than it seems. When I think about the start of my ministry, that’s exactly what I had. I was hungry and I was definitely foolish. As time goes on, it’s easy to lose both of those. It’s easy to begin to coast and to lose a bit of the holy foolishness that should characterize our lives.
That’s probably why Paul tells Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, means that unless we fan our early gifts and calling back into a flame, they will die, and we won’t even know it. Donald Guthrie writes:
Every Christian minister needs at times to return to the inspiration of his ordination, to be reminded not only of the greatness of his calling, but also of the adequacy of the divine grace which enables him to perform it. Indeed, every Christian worker engaged in however small a task requires assurance that God never commissions anyone to a task without imparting a special gift appropriate for it.
It’s not even that we need new gifts. It’s what we think we need, but it’s not. I heard the story of someone in Texas who loved sugar in his coffee, so he took not one, not two, but three teaspoonfuls of sugar. As the waitress watched, he said, “Ma’am, we’re going to need more sugar for this table.” This Texas waitress looked at Andy and said, “Listen, bud, before I give you more sugar, you stir what you got.” There’s a lesson there: You don’t need more. Stir what you’ve got. Use your gifts.
You know a lot more than when you started. You have a lot more experience. You know what mistakes to avoid. But you’ve probably lost some passion. Paul tells us to go back to our calling. Again, Simon Sinek says start with why — not what, but why. Remember why you got into ministry in the first place. Think about your influences, and return to the inspiration of your ordination and the gifts and passions God gave you then.
There are two things that will sustain us, Paul says. The first is to remember our call. The second is:
Second, Remember your gospel.
It’s interesting that in a book that is probably Paul’s most personal, he includes one of the richest descriptions of the gospel that he ever wrote. Even in prison, he announced a royal message — a gospel — that closed with the Roman empire of his day.
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:8-14)
The appearance of Jesus, Paul says, beats the appearance of Caesar any day. Jesus, not Caesar, is the Savior and rescuer we’ve been waiting for. Through him, death has been defeated. N.T. Wright comments:
When you realize what the Christian gospel is all about—the resurrection of Jesus as the unveiling of God’s power, and the call of God to you here and now, putting that power to work in your own life, bringing the promise of your own resurrection in due course—then your entire world of values is turned upside down. You will be ashamed of some of the things you were formerly proud of, and proud of some things which previously would have made you ashamed. That is what Paul wants to happen to Timothy.
I’ve been pastoring for 25 years now. There were a lot of years of my ministry that weren’t characterized by what Paul talks about here. It’s not that I ever denied the gospel, but I also wasn’t living out of its power.
I came across a book called The Heart of a Servant Leader about a Jack Miller, Reformed pastor and seminary professor who quit the ministry because he was so discouraged. He spent the next few weeks too discouraged to do anything but cry. His daughter writes:
Gradually during those weeks it became clear to him that the reason for his anger and disappointment was his own wrong motivation for ministry. He realized that instead of being motivated only by God’s glory, he was hoping for personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval, his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and the seminary.
Instead of quitting ministry he took his family on an extended sabbatical to Spain and spent his time there studying the missionary promises of God through the whole Bible…As he studied, he was captured by the vastness of God’s promise to fill His kingdom with people from every tribe and nation. He also realized in a new way that the promise of the Holy Spirit’s help, comfort, and encouragement was not just for the disciples of long ago; it was for every Christian. He went back to the United States full of hope, not in his abilities, but in the power of the Holy Spirit to be with him, to change his heart, and to use him to bring all kinds of people into the kingdom of God.
This marked a turning point in Jack’s life and ministry. Not only did he go back to work with a renewed sense of purpose, he also had a new freedom to live and work only for God’s glory.
What Jack Miller has taught me is that if I don’t live out of the gospel as I pastor, I will become tired quickly, and full of anger and bitterness. When we live out of who Jesus is, and what he has done, then the world’s values are turned upside down, and we are free to live out of his resources rather than ours. Something happened to Paul when he thought of this, even though he was locked up in chains. Remember your call, but then remember the gospel as well. They will sustain you. They are both ways to focus on the why of what you’re doing.
Ministry is tough. As we’re going to see later today, it’s supposed to be tough. What will sustain us through the tough times?
I know for myself that the times I’ve struggled most in ministry have not been the times that my circumstances were tough. Don’t get me wrong — those times have been hard. But the times I’ve struggled most are when I’ve haven’t started with why. Right out of the gate, 2 Timothy asks us to go back and ask not WHAT should we do, but WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring this cause to life? Remember why you started. Don’t let the fire go out on your calling; fan it back into flame. Take a look back at the cross and resurrection as the unveiling of God’s power, the reversal of all its values, and the source of power for the ministry we have before us.
I’m so grateful to be here with you today. Like you, I want to be reminded that the only way we’ll get through tough times in ministry is to start with why.