“Do you ever get frustrated by how many people don’t seem to change?” I asked.
It was Monday. I’d just finished preaching another sermon. I’m encouraged by what’s happening in our little church, but to be honest, I sometimes feel discouraged too. People listen politely, but it’s hard to measure growth in people’s lives in the short term. It’s much easier to measure disappointment: people engaging in sin, people struggling with issues, people generally not doing the things that they most need to do.
It’s the pastor’s dilemma: growth in grace can be hard to measure, but disappointments abound.
When I get discouraged, I try to remember the incredible privilege I have to pastor. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent,” Paul writes (1 Timothy 1:12-13). I don’t deserve this. I get to love these people. I don’t deserve that privilege. Pastoring can be difficult, but it’s a privilege.
Remembering our need for grace helps. Paul remembers that he was an enemy of God who’s now been transformed by grace he didn’t deserve. It’s hard to be discouraged by others when we remember God’s grace in our own lives. It removes our right to be proud ourselves or impatient with others.
We can be grateful for these people, this church, and even these problems. We’ll never be free from problems until Jesus returns, but we can be grateful that God allows us to care for his people’s problems — people who are purchased by Christ’s blood, people whom he loves deeply.
Discouragement is usually a sign that we’ve lost sight of the privilege of ministry and of God’s grace in our lives.
Ministry, by definition, is supposed to be hard. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” Paul instructed Timothy. After unpacking this truth, Paul asks Timothy to pause and reflect on this. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:3,7).
Paul knew disappointment. He’d been beaten, criticized, abandoned, and more. He knew what it was like to carry anxiety for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28). Things got so bad sometimes that he once despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
“Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust?” asked Spurgeon. “To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin — are not these sights enough to crush us to the earth?” Indeed. The very nature of our work lends itself to occasional disappointment.
When things get hard, we can remind ourselves: What did I expect? Ministry is supposed to be hard. We should be surprised when it isn’t.
In the end, our ministry matters. We can trust that as we pastor well, practicing and immersing ourselves in what Scripture commands, we will save both ourselves and our listeners (1 Timothy 4:15-16). We can remind ourselves that the Spirit is at work, that God speaks through his Word, and that people are being changed from one degree of glory to another, even when it doesn’t always look like it (2 Corinthians 3:18). We can remember his promise: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
I’m no longer surprised when pastors like me get discouraged. But when we do, we can remind ourselves: ministry’s a privilege; it’s supposed to be hard; and it matters even when I can’t see it. And then we go on, as Mark Dever says, preaching, praying, loving, and staying. It’s worth it, even when we get discouraged.