Battles that the Pastor Fights
Every pastor is a unique person with his own gifting and personality, strengths and weaknesses; but most pastors also have several things in common.
Most of us battle insecurity. Too often we’re workaholics and perfectionists. We tend to obsess over what others think about us. We most always deny—especially to other pastors—that we care what people think about us. We battle discouragement. We don’t like Mondays.
And if we’ve been in the pastorate very long, we most likely have considered walking away and doing something else—anything else—with our lives. I once had a pastor friend who had grown so depressed that he tried to talk his wife into helping him intentionally disqualify himself from ministry. By God’s grace, I was able to talk him out of that absurd notion.
And given what I’ve just written, what I’m going to say next may sound odd: Despite the hardships (usually seasonal and not always present), I love being a pastor and don’t want to do anything else with my life—most of the time.
But there was one specific time when I wanted to walk away. I’d just finished my third year of my first full-time pastorate. That year had been hellish, to say the least. Year number two hadn’t been very good either. The first year? It was no honeymoon period.
But the event that made me want to run fast and far came after I finished preaching one Sunday morning in the spring of 2014. A fellow elder—to the shock of my family and the congregation—rose, ascended to the pulpit, and called for a vote of confidence on me as my wife and four young children looked on from the second row. His confidence in my leadership was shot—he called me “a failed leader.” If I was standing on the cliff of goodbye, those words pushed me over.
The congregation remained silent and refused to vote for or against me, but at that moment I knew: this was the end; I was done here—and maybe done in ministry altogether. Seven days later, I stood in the same pulpit and read my letter of resignation, trying unsuccessfully to hold back thirty-six months of bitter tears. I’m not normally the crying type, but the dam broke, and so did I.
The next morning, I told my family we were returning to my hometown where I would restart my former career as a newspaper journalist. I was angry at the congregation—and at God. My erstwhile elder’s words echoed through my brain. How could a failed leader be called to shepherd God’s people?
But I did the only thing I could: I read the Psalms. I read 2 Corinthians so many times that I memorized much of it. And I prayed for hours every day. What does a pastor who’s on the verge of leaving ministry pray? Here are a few things I prayed:
1. I prayed that God would help me take the long view.
Satan often uses emotions as weapons against us. This seems doubly true for pastors. I can’t tell you how many Mondays, especially during my early years as a pastor, I wondered if I’d be better at something else. Maybe my sermon had fallen flat or a critic had unburdened himself to me at the door or in email.
If ministry has taught me anything, it’s the lesson Jesus taught in Mark 4:26-29: I am not in control and nothing good happens overnight. Soon it became evident that I mustn’t make a rash decision based purely on emotion to quit ministry. Over time, God’s will would become clear. So I then moved on to number two.
2. I prayed for illuminating providences.
What were the facts telling me? Were other churches interested in bringing me on as pastor? Were there opportunities to preach as a guest in other pulpits? Were younger/newer pastors still seeking my advice? The more I thought about leaving ministry, the more doors opened in each of these categories. After leaving my first church, I was preaching somewhere almost every weekend.
One group from my former church wanted to plant a church with me as pastor. Not a good idea, but I hoped it was telling. Two other churches asked me to submit resumes for pastoral openings. Another called me, interviewed me, and within one week offered for me to be their only senior pastor candidate. I wasn’t given much of a chance to think and pray it over, so I turned it town; but the opportunity itself helped clarify things. I was praying that God would show me what to do, and he was making it clear: because he gave me a few illuminating providences, I was by no means done as a pastor.
3. I prayed that God would change my heart toward ministry.
I wanted to be drawn to another vocation. At one point, I nearly took a job out of ministry in my hometown. It paid well. I had known my potential employer all my life. It would be safe—a shelter from the pouring rain of criticism, a fortress from the gawking eyes that seemed to watch eagerly for my downfall. I also considered returning to newspaper journalism, my pre-ministry vocation.
But here was the rub: I still wanted to be a pastor. God wasn’t changing my desires. If anything, absence from the pastorate was making my heart grow fonder of it. To me, that was reason enough to continue to ask God for an open door for ministry in another venue. It’s easy to make good things, like pastoral ministry, into God substitutes.
4. I prayed that God would help me find my identity in Christ, not in being a pastor.
I’ll admit it: sometimes I wonder if my identity is bound up in being the man who leads the church and does most of the preaching. For many years before I surrendered to vocational ministry and attended seminary, I worked as a newspaper journalist. I pursued greatness in that field with every fiber of my being, often as working 70-90 hour per week. If you would have asked me who I was, I would have said, “I’m a journalist.” It sat at the core of my identity. And as I’ve searched my heart of the years since, I believe it was an idol.
It’s easy to make good things, like pastoral ministry, into God substitutes. Ask God to examine yourself and help you answer this question accurately: Would I be happy if I never served as a pastor again and “merely” existed as an active and faithful member of a solid church? One of my mentors asked me that while I was working through whether or not to remain in ministry. Ever since, I’ve prayed that God would enable me to hold onto pastoral ministry loosely and cling to Christ tightly, finding my satisfaction and identity in him. Pastoral ministry makes a poor god.
5. I prayed for humility, sanctification.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” Over the years, I’ve tried imperfectly to make that a tireless pursuit—killing sin and praying for God to plant and grow the Spirit’s fruit in me. Particularly during times of doubt, I’ve asked God to use my circumstances to make me like Jesus, to make me holy. One of the most frightening verses in all of Scripture is Hebrews 12:14, “Pursue holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Do you see why that’s frightening? If we aren’t pursuing holiness, then the question is more fundamental and serious than “am I really called to ministry?”
I’m convinced that seasons of affliction and doubt in ministry serve as opportunities for heightened growth and maturity. To paraphrase John Piper, I’ve asked God not to waste my suffering and doubt, but to make it a catalyst for raising up an abundant harvest of righteousness in me. Do we always know what God is doing when we suffer or doubt? No. In fact, I don’t think we usually know exactly what God is doing in or through us because the Christian life is a race of faith (Heb. 12:1-2). But we can rest assured that he is working in us and for us in 10,000 ways that our eyes cannot see.
6. I prayed for persevering grace.
It’s important, too, to pray for preserving grace. Often we think of God’s grace simply in terms of salvation. However, the God who saves us by grace also keeps us by grace. The entire book of Hebrews is a sermon on enduring grace.
The doctrine of perseverance of the saints may also be understood as God’s preservation of the saints (Ps. 31:23b). Write this over the door of your heart: “You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Heb. 10:36). Pray every single day for fresh waves of grace to crash upon the shores of your life and ministry.
If you pastor for very long, you’re going to doubt your calling. Don’t waste the opportunity for maturity. Let it drive you to your knees.
This is a guest article by Jeff Robinson, co-editor of Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime. This post originally appeared on crossway.org; used with permission.
Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Georgia, he also pastors Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. He is co-author To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy and co-editor of 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway, 2018) Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.