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5 Things That Can Steal Your Joy in Pastoral Ministry

Pastoral ministry isn’t supposed to be fun; it will not always make you happy but it shouldn’t ever steal your joy.

Joy isn’t affected by circumstances on the ground; or at least it isn’t supposed to be.

Joy is about knowing who you are and whose you are. It is about knowing what has been done for you and what has been given to you through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

The ups and downs of pastoral ministry can neither add to nor take away from the truth of your identity in Christ.

That is a fact.

And yet there are certain experiences that are relatively common in pastoral ministry that can threaten our hold on these realities.

Declining attendance

The church isn’t about you; it’s about Jesus.

Of course you know that, but sometimes you forget to believe it.

When attendance goes up it is hard not to feel personally affirmed by that. People must like your preaching. People must like you. The Spirit of God is using you. Jesus is blessing you because he trusts you more than the pastor next door. He knows that you have the right motives. He knows that you are honest and faithful and hardworking. He knows that you will take care of his people and so he has chosen to bless and prosper your ministry.

Of course, when the attendance goes down it is hard not to feel personally rebuked by that. People must not like your preaching. They must not like you. The Spirit of God has abandoned you. Jesus has rejected you. Jesus prefers the pastor next door. He has purer motives. He is more honest, more diligent, more faithful and the Lord is transferring your people into his superior oversight and care.

If you read your attendance sheets as an indicator of the Lord’s favour upon your life then you are headed for a nervous breakdown.

Churches go through attendance cycles.

The new church in town always gets a 3 year bump as all the nominal Christians seek out the newest voice, the freshest vision and the gift of a clean slate with the relative newcomer.

Seasons of explosive growth are often followed by times of consolidation and restructuring.

Changes in the local economy affect the movement of individuals and families.

And sometimes the Lord is just testing you to see how much of your own personal identity is wrapped up in things it really shouldn’t be.

There are a lot of potential reasons why the attendance patterns of a church may vary from year to year.

Don’t take it personally.

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t track attendance – of course you should. A good shepherd knows how many sheep he has. He knows their demographics and he knows their patterns and habits. This allows him to feed them, move them and stable them more effectively.

Take attendance.

Track attendance.

But don’t live and die with the fluctuations because it will steal your joy in ministry if you do

Board process

You don’t know everything, you aren’t always right and you don’t possess all of the spiritual gifts necessary to lead and feed the flock of God that has been entrusted to your care.

You know that of course, but sometimes, you forget to believe it.

A plurality of leadership is a great gift to the church generally and a great gift to you personally; but it doesn’t always feel that way.

There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the structures and restraints of congregational polity – or with any kind of polity. In my ecclesiological system, it does seem sometimes as though your personal expertise is being wasted. You went to school for 7 years to learn how to do this and then you can be voted down by some fellow who works part time at the hardware store.

That’s a tough pill to swallow.

In most versions of congregational polity the pastor is just one vote of 10 or 12 – in some versions of the system he doesn’t vote at all. It can seem like a recipe for frustration; it can feel like you are swimming with concrete flippers; it can seem like you are trying to steer a speeding bus through rush hour from the back seat while 12 other people hold the wheel.

It can feel like that; but on your better days, you know it isn’t so.

On your better days you know that if you can’t convince the brother from the hardware store that your idea is likely to bring God glory and to help God’s people raise their families and share the Gospel with their friends and neighbours then it probably wasn’t that good of an idea in the first place.

It was probably more about building your kingdom and propping up your ministry than it was about advancing the kingdom of God.

So let it go.

Run with the program that has been approved.

Preach from your pulpit.

Pray with your people.

Share the Gospel in season and out of season and disciple every man, woman and child you have access to.

And learn to appreciate your Board.

If God is truly Sovereign and if congregational polity is really God’s design (I think it is) then spend less time trying to convince 12 guys to agree with all your proposals and spend more time consulting with them as to their hopes, challenges, opportunities and triumphs as believers. Ask them what sort of things would help them better serve their friends and neighbours. Ask them what would better help them minister to their wives, kids and grandkids.

Maybe you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Maybe that brother from the hardware store is actually being used by God to curb your ambitions and to refocus your attention on the true heart and substance of your pastoral calling.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t lead; of course you should! Seek God’s will for your congregation. Bring your best ideas to the table, but listen to feedback and criticism. Improve the plan; alter the plan; and every once in a while, abandon the plan.

And then go back, read your Bible, pray some more, and try again.

Don’t let challenges with your Board of Elders steal your joy.

Staff departures

Young leaders don’t belong to you. They don’t need to repay you for the investment you made in them. The have the right to pursue opportunities to use their gifts and to explore opportunities in other parts of the vineyard.

You know that, of course, but sometimes you forget to believe it.

It takes between 5-10 years to really develop a young leader. For most of that time you will be pouring countless hours into them and providing them with opportunities to do things that you could do much better by yourself. You will be protecting them, promoting them and parenting them. And then of course, like grown children, they will generally leave.

Don’t take it personally.

A healthy church generally does enjoy a great deal of staff continuity. If leaders are being given opportunities, if they are being protected from overly critical members, if they are being trained and if they are being encouraged then generally speaking, they will want to stay if there is an opportunity for them to do so.

But they won’t all stay forever.

Most young youth pastors eventually go back to school or seek out an associate position or embrace the call to plant. If they can do those things within your church’s mission and locality then they probably will, but if they have to leave you to pursue those things then they absolutely should be free to do so.

None of us are irreplaceable.

None of us has claim upon another.

We all serve at the pleasure of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

He is the Head of the Church and while we may not always work with each other, we will always work for him. That is all you need to be concerned with. As long as the leaders you develop are serving Christ then you should be happy.

You have not lost your investment.

You have not wasted your time.

You have sown a seed.

You have watered the work in another corner of the vineyard.

And your faith has not gone unnoticed.

Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. (Proverbs 11:25 ESV)

God is really good at restoring what we give away. When we seek first his kingdom he will see to our resources. The one who hoards will never have enough, but the one who gives generously will be repaid.

Don’t let the departure of young leaders steal your joy in pastoral ministry.

Secret sins

Pastors are not perfect. You weren’t called to the ministry because you were more righteous than anybody else. No one actually expects you to have a perfect marriage. No thinking Christian assumes that you don’t experience temptation or occasionally make selfish and stupid decisions.

You know that, of course, but sometimes you forget to believe it.

You know you need to set an example and you know that you need to embody the message that you fearlessly proclaim from the pulpit. But take another look at that message. Take a long, slow, steady look and I think you will see that it is never really about the relative goodness of people. It is a message about the perfect righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.

As has been said many times: the Bible is not a story about good guys and bad guys. It is a story about bad guys that need Jesus.

Newsflash: You are a bad guy that needs Jesus.

You are a sinner.

You say things you shouldn’t. You think things you shouldn’t. And occasionally, against your best judgment and better intentions, you do things you shouldn’t.

You are one of those guys that needs Jesus.

Get over it.

And get on with it.

And don’t let anyone frighten you into hiding and concealing your sin.

I fear that some within the evangelical community; in understandable reaction to the several embarrassing scandals of recent years; are now suggesting a standard of discipline so rigid and so immediately punitive that we are unintentionally driving pastoral sanctification into the shadows. We are committing the age-old evangelical error: we are creating our next problem by how we are solving our current one.


Obviously there are some sins that immediately and irreparably disqualify a person from pastoral ministry. Having an affair with a congregant, molesting a child, embezzling funds; these are sins that will forever call into question the credibility and calling of a pastor. A person can be forgiven of such sins and can recover from such sins, by the grace of God, but they likely cannot and should not remain in or return to pastoral ministry. But we must create some reasonable space for pastors and elders to be transparent about their struggles with remaining sin.

I am thankful for the opportunity I had to be transparent with a brother pastor about my own struggles with the temptations of the flesh. Through confession, accountability and the firm application of the ordinary means of grace, we were both helped to grow and overcome and experience victory by the mercy and kindness of the Lord.

Thanks be to God!

But we did that at a time when there was permission and even encouragement for young pastors (and older pastors) to do so.

I wonder if that permission still exists today.

Your church has the right to expect that you are authentically saved. They have the right to expect that you are growing in the direction of Jesus Christ, by one degree of glory to the next. They have the right to expect that you will hold yourself accountable to the same standards that you hold everyone else accountable to in the church. But they don’t have the right to expect you to be perfect.

And I seriously doubt that they do.

If you have done a good job of preaching the Gospel then they probably assume that you are simultaneously saint and sinner. They likely expect growth but also struggle as you continue to resist the broken power of remaining sin.

So don’t engage in the soul-destroying deceit of hiding sin. Confess it regularly and appropriately. Seek accountability. Establish appropriate safe guards. Invest in life giving friendship. Receive correction and encouragement and don’t let hidden sin steal your joy in ministry.

Discipleship failure

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. You can tell people the truth, but you can’t make them believe it. You can warn new converts about dangers, pitfalls and snares but you can’t always keep them out of the devil’s clutches. You can pray, preach and pastor your heart out but that doesn’t always mean that everyone will listen, respond and grow the way you wish they would.

You know that of course, but sometimes, you forget to believe it.

There’s a little bit of prosperity gospel inside the heart of every earnest evangelical pastor. We forget sometimes that results are not guaranteed and that Proverbs are not necessarily promises. We don’t always reap what we sow. We don’t always get a good return on our labour and sometimes we raise up children in the way they should go and they do depart from it when they are older.

That doesn’t necessarily imply that there is some glaring deficiency in you as a pastor or in you as a parent. This world is fallen. Our work is resisted. And people are responsible for their choices.

If Jesus had a disciple that went sideways then likely so will you.

Paul had his Demas and likely so will you.

Our hard work and our earnest prayer and our faithful preaching do not guarantee results.

That isn’t how it works.

Nobody really knows exactly how it works. Jesus said:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26–29 ESV)

According to Jesus there is a fair bit of mystery associated with the question of why some seed takes and some seed doesn’t. But evidently, it is not merely a question of the skill and competence of the sower.

To be clear, a lack of fruit is reason to consider one’s ministry. Are you being faithful? Have you been called? Are you working hard? Are you praying often? Are you setting a good example? Are you trusting in the ordinary means?

Those are all very good questions to ask during a season of relative unfruitfulness – but if you ask yourself those questions and you are able to give of yourself a good report then you must follow the example of the farmer: You must go to bed; you must wake up early; you must sow your seed and trust in the Lord of the harvest.

You are not God and you are not in charge of the outcome.

Of course it is right to agonize over those who walk away. It is right to weep over those who make shipwreck of their marriages. It is appropriate to wring one’s hands and to bruise one’s knees in prayer over a wayward child or congregant – but it is not right to allow such things to change how we view ourselves as children of God. And it is not right to allow results or the lack thereof to change how we feel about God.

So do your job. Sow your seed. Sleep and repeat until the Lord calls you home and do not allow “discipleship failures” to steal your joy in ministry.

Be faithful.

Be thankful.

And carry on.


Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.