The swing of a pendulum can be a dangerous thing, correctives can oversteer away from one error and into another, and the way in which we conceive of pastoral work is no exception. A quick sounding of ideas and sentiments about ministry on social media will reveal a trend towards therapeutic models for pastors to understand themselves, their work, and their God. This is, of course, to be welcomed – particularly in the wake of a generation who had an iron clad, stiff lipped, emotionally discharged view of riding the waves of a work which will stretch any man to his limit. The danger, however, can be a tendency towards self-pity or defensiveness for those in ministry, and a disincentivising influence for those considering following where God is calling.
In this post I want to talk about encouragement for pastors, not the fact of it, but how we feel about it and how we respond to it. There is a legion of articles in the online world about handling discouragement, but what do we do when someone positively seeks to say helpful and healthy things about the work which God is doing in them through our ministry? Below are three suggestions about how we handle encouragement as pastors:
1. Don’t solicit encouragement, but do welcome it
One of the most contemptible sights to observe is a man who holds a continual courtship with encouragement, whose whole set and concern as a pastor is to receive the praise of people. This is a trait which is observable not just in those who would seem to be insecure and lacking in confidence, but also in the bully pulpit buccaneers who know exactly what to say in seeming boldness, all the while titillating their hearers and inciting praise of their ‘fearlessness’. Such an approach to ministry is not only repulsive but it is also idolatrous, making a molten image of the fluctuations of one’s heart, making affirmation the final arbiter of one’s worth and one’s work. Such a man should ask God to change his heart, or simply change his job.
We are not to be those who solicit encouragement, but when it comes, when a brother or sister takes a step towards us in love and in sincerity to express appreciation, we should welcome it as one of God’s sweet gifts to us. To do this, we will need to understand the nature of encouragement and the direction in which it points.
I once spoke to an older pastor whose ministry I had enjoyed during vacation. I was deeply moved and blessed by what the Lord had given him to say, and I wished him to know it, without flattery or simpering. His response was entirely disconcerting, his countenance resembling that of a man who had been dealt a sudden blow to the abdomen, and his ushering of me away from the door suggested insult rather than encouragement. I imagine that such a maladjusted response to a kind word might have been the affectation or actualisation of humility, but it seemed defensive and prohibitive of communicating gracious words in his direction.
Encouragement expressed by a sincere believer about one’s preaching, or one’s pastoral care, is not often a seduction from Satan for us to hoard the glory that belongs to God. Instead, it is a fellow Christian telling us that the Word has hit the mark, or pastoral care has reached their heart. We should welcome such encouragement, perhaps expressing joy that someone has found encouragement and help by God’s grace, through our labours. If we give the impression that we are above praise, or are crushed with embarrassment beneath it, then we are certain not to receive too much of it.
2. Don’t rely on encouragement, but do expect it
There are seasons in our ministry when encouragement is very thin on the ground. We can preach, knowing the help and unction of the Holy Spirit, only to be met by bland silence, by pointed vehemence, or worse, complete irrelevance by those whom we greet on the door as they leave. Ministry is marked by tough terrain, and there are periods that we pass through in which we can say with Paul that ‘no one came to stand with me’ (2Tim 4:16). Sometimes our preaching, our leadership, or our pastoral care treads the region of raw nerves in the hearts of God’s people or the life and history of a fellowship. Occasionally we are called to be pioneers, a low sun casting our long shadow into lonely and unbroken territory, where the howl of the wind is our only counsellor and carer. Those who have walked this way inevitably bear its mark.
We mustn’t, then, be dependent on encouragement. Like soldiers far from the comforts of home, there are times when our joys are rationed, and the fighting fierce. Ministry means pressing on in these hard passes, in these fearsome skirmishes. ‘Though none go with me’, we must tell our souls, ‘still I will follow.’
We should, however, expect that God in his grace will give us encouragement. These might be the floodgate joys of seeing souls saved, or the work of God growing, or our own gifts improving under usage. These encouragements might be major or meagre, deeply personal or plainly public, they might be verbal or tangible, they might be felt along the conscience, or given by a congregation, but there are often grounds to see the grace of encouragement at work. Paul could write his most heartfelt prose about encouragement from a prison cell, rejoicing in the solitary gifts that the Philippians had sent him. He could rejoice even in God drawing straight lines with the crooked sticks of false teachers, emboldened by his chains. He could see from beneath the heavy brow of ministry adversity, the sheer refreshment of Titus returning from Corinth with good news and affirmation. We cannot rely on encouragement, but should expect to find it at times, and where we find it we must treasure it.
That text message that a brother or sister sent in the dying hours of a Sunday evening, affirming that God had spoken to them through the Word, is one of the mercies of Christ to our souls, and we should receive it as such. My mobile phones predictive text jumps to ‘for your encouragement’ whenever I type ‘Thanks so much’ at the head of a message. I want that person who sent that blessing to know that as they have been ministered to, so they have ministered to me, often at that soul crunching interface of having laid down one’s tools for the day with a heavy heart.
3. Don’t let encouragement go to your head, but do let it reach your heart
Aside from the flatterer, or the power-broker apportioning praise to gain some leverage, encouragement is often God’s gift to us through our brothers and sisters. We often enter the pulpit as broken men, our consciences afflicting and convicting us with every inadequacy we possess, and we often leave it feeling that we have given far from the final word on what we had intended to say for the Saviour. We are prone to dejection and depression as pastors, and there are few metrics in the short term for what effect ministry is having on those to whom we are sent.
The Saviour who knows how to humble us so that we depend on him, is the same Saviour who knows how to help us with kind words given through his sons and daughters. We should receive encouragement as such. If we allow it to go to our heads, if we see it as an indication of greatness rather than of grace, then the Lord will quickly find a way to disabuse us of our misunderstanding.
Allowing encouragement to go to our hearts is an altogether different thing. It will give us a sense of buoyancy, it might lift us from despondency, it may even arm us for the next leg of the conflict of Christian service. Treasure such gifts from God, not as applause for our abilities, but as confirmation of ministry – that God is working through the clay, that the gospel is successfully emanating from our weak endeavours, that we are serving under the hand of a good God who knows how to help our hearts in our labour for him.