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When Ministry Becomes Hard: Help is at hand
"Uphill Struggle" The end of a long, steep climb out of a valley.Personal Photo

Just because God called you to ministry does not mean that ministry will be easy. The Bible is full of people, particularly the prophets, who were called by God and yet who faced very difficult trials as they did what God wanted them to do.

There are times in the life of any ministry when the work is just plain hard. Sometimes much harder than anyone ever thought it would be. Ministry can be difficult and wearying. And yet, as the ministry leader it is up to you to rally the troops and lead them forward. What to do? How do you keep your own spirits up so you can inspire everyone else? A previous post has ideas for staying inspired when you have a long uphill road ahead of you to fulfill your mission. Those ideas are good in any scenario. This post, however, has ideas specifically for when the work is very hard and you are getting discouraged.

In Hard Times, Rely on Established Practices

This first strategy for dealing with hard times is to go back to basics. Hopefully, you have already established regular routines and practices that keep you grounded in your faith, vibrant in your relationship with the Lord, and well connected to other people. When you are thrown into a crisis or a prolonged time of tough slogging, these routines and practices are there to support you.

Too often, we try to be the hero and forge through difficult times relying on our own strength. But it is through working with other people that our combined skills, gifts, experiences, and education provide the breakthroughs. You are not designed to do ministry (or life) on your own. This is why God gives people different gifts and roles.

One of the striking things about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer coped with being thrown into a Nazi jail was how his regular observance of the Church year continued in his small cell, giving him a sense of connection with his family and friends on the outside who also observed the Church year. While he was indeed alone in his cell, he knew he was not suffering alone. Even when they could not physically be with him, it comforted and strengthened him to know they were engaged in the same Christian practices at the same time as he was. If just the idea of solidarity had such a powerful effect on Bonhoeffer, how much more of a powerful effect should we experience when people are physically with us and able to help us?

The Practices

Make four practices part of your regular routine so they are available when you especially need them in hard times. If these four aren’t yet part of your routine and you are already in the midst of a very hard time, it’s not too late to turn to them.

  1. Pray and discern how God is leading you.
    1. Psalms 13 (when you feel forgotten by God), 69 (when you are in great distress), and 34 (encouragement for when you hope for rescue) are great examples of David’s prayers in hard times. You can pray emotional prayers just like David did. Be real when speaking with God. He’s big enough to hear the raw you and he wants you to be honest in your prayers.
    2. Read my post A Leader’s Intimacy with God for some ideas on building your relationship with God. The most important point of that post in the context of hard times is to remember that the ministry you lead is Christ’s ministry, not yours. Let Jesus carry the ultimate responsibility for your ministry.
    3. I have some posts to help you with discerning God’s voice, a skill that is absolutely essential to successful ministry leadership.
  2. Ask for help. Often leaders mistakenly think it’s lonely at the top and they have to bear their troubles and trials on their own. That is absolutely not true! It is only lonely at the top only if you want it to be lonely at the top. There are people who want to help you, but they may not know you want help. They may be too intimidated to offer help. There is no shame in asking for help: it is the wise thing to do and wise people will respect you for asking. Asking for help acknowledges that you are only human. And it shows people you respect them and believe they have what you need. Asking for help lets other parts of the body of Christ contribute what they can to overcome the obstacle. Don’t let pride prevent you from asking for help.

    Years ago, I pushed my infant daughter in her stroller on a long and steep walk up out of a deep ravine. Near the end, I suddenly felt I was being pushed ahead and the load became easier. You can see why in the above picture. When my family got behind me to push me up the last part of the hill, what was hard became a lot easier.
  3. Connect authentically with peers and others. When you meet, put aside the usual success-focused chatter and get real. People are generally afraid to be the first one to get real, so be the one to take the risk. It’s highly likely that the response will be encouragement and support. I take this risk when I meet ministry leaders and almost every time the conversation suddenly turns to something far deeper than where the conversation started as they open up in response.
  4. Remember God’s support. God promises to give wisdom when we ask for it and we know he also equips us for our tasks. But God can also work in people and circumstances around us in ways that only he can do. Ask God to support you. Even though he supports you anyway (he did call you, after all), explicitly asking makes you more aware that God is with you.

Overcome Feelings of Inadequacy

Wondering if you are the right person to lead when faced with a severe challenge is normal. Didn’t we all feel a sudden pang of inadequacy when the COVID-19 pandemic was first declared and we learned how disruptive it would be? I know I did. But thankfully, the Lord God likes to work through people who feel inadequate. God used Moses, Gideon, Esther, and others who felt they didn’t have what it would take to fulfill their missions. After the first pang of inadequacy, I felt God’s comfort and strength as I followed the advice I’m giving in this post.

What should we remember when we feel weak and inadequate? Well, when Paul had a weakness and asked God to take it away, the Lord said to him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:9a

Awareness of a weakness or perceived inadequacy should simply drive you to turn to God for greater awareness of his grace. Remember that God equips everyone he calls with what they need to fulfill their call. Part of that equipping might be the people God placed around you. They share a call to the same mission, but they have different equipping than you have. This is what God did by providing Moses with Aaron. The group of you can then work together on your shared mission and by doing that, the group helps you fulfill your call.

Fight Imposter Syndrome

There is a thought pattern arising from feelings of inadequacy called Imposter Syndrome. You have it when you doubt your skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”1 It can really debilitate you. If you suffer from this, challenge it with this thought: you were called by God who knows you inside out; he knows your weaknesses and yet he still called you. You are not an imposter. You are exactly the person God wanted for what you are doing. Success with your call does not depend on perfection or on you alone. It depends on your obedience to God.

There are also things that only God can do through his Spirit. So don’t try to do his work. Do everything you can and pray for God to do the rest.

Deal with Weariness and Despair

Over time we can become weary and even despair when we look at the enormity of the problems we address through our ministries. I wrote a post that addresses this exact issue. I reread it as I wrote this paragraph and, at least for me, I find it tremendously encouraging.

Contemporary Circumstances

There are two issues that are really challenging right now related to the pandemic and social conditions.

COVID-19 Pandemic Issues

The pandemic has been especially hard on pastors. They have had to deal not only with all the changes to how their churches worship and conduct their programs, but they have done this while enduring the many opposing opinions held by members of their congregations. Their concern is: how will pastors be able to lead their congregations forward in unity once the pandemic is over?

Before going further, I and every other Christian must say a huge "Thank you!" to the pastors who have guided us and helped us stay steady in our faith and Christian life throughout the pandemic. To every one of you I say, "Thank you! Well done."

If this is an issue you are troubled by, please see my post Making peace in your church. Now is the time to provide leadership like never before to help your congregation navigate through and out of the pandemic. Show them how it is done in God’s kingdom.

Something else to think about is just how far we’ve come since March 2020. Who would have thought churches everywhere would be streaming their services? That virtually everyone would get comfortable with video meetings? This past year, you have likely led with more strength than you ever have because you have guided your congregation through all the tumult and disruption. Congratulations! Celebrate what you and your team did. It’s beginning to look like the end of the pandemic is in sight, at least as I write this in the first days of July 2021.

Social Issues

Another issue is troubling, especially for older leaders who have seen the whole world they once knew turned upside down and the pace of upheaval accelerate rapidly in recent years. Like waters rushing through rapids, postmodern thinking has swept us up and carried us swirling down the river into a strange new world without objective truth, the antithesis to everything Christians believe based on God’s own revelation in Scripture. In these tumultuous times, some leaders wonder if they are the ones to take their ministries into a future that looks so contrary to God’s way for humanity.

If this is your concern, it may be helpful to remember that the Church has twice before had to adapt to a complete change in how the world works. The first time was due to the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the second was the decline of feudalism. Both times, the Church ultimately figured out how to adapt and through bursts of creativity recovered from the losses it had suffered in the transitions.

Remember, The Spirit Will Guide Us

We can be confident about our future because Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit precisely to guide us2 so we can handle issues like we face today. Take heart that the Holy Spirit continues to breathe new life into the Church each and every day. The end of the Roman Empire resulted in the birth of religious orders that led to renewal in the Church. Today we have multiple movements within the Christian church creatively testing ways forward. It may take time to assess these new ways of being the Church, but the Spirit will help us discern what to do. Be confident. Be patient. Keep giving God your best.

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In The End

Just because God called you to ministry does not mean your ministry will be easy. Ministry can be very hard and there is no denying that. But even in the midst of hard times, God provides the people and the equipping you need. And whatever is not provided is what God has left for himself to do.

Let’s not become discouraged in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not become weary. Galatians 6:9

CCCC’s members can discuss this post in The Green.

Key Thought: Knowing God’s perspective changes everything.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome
  2. John 16

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