Broadly, if not universally, these are extremely tough times to be a Pastor. Compared with the searing persecution of previous generations, or the relative penury of our nearer forbears, we do of course have it easy, but Pastors today are facing unique pressures. Following the shutdown of our public worship services globally, the diminishment of our ‘in-person’ ministry departments, and the disjunction in fellowship felt by so many, it was, perhaps, inevitable that trouble would follow the Covid-19 crisis. This has whipped itself into a perfect storm by the harshness of political and public discourse, the ubiquity of social media, the widespread un-gracing of language and conversation, and societal divisions over public health measures around the ongoing worldwide pandemic.
In a previous post I shared about Pastors, covid, and criticism, but here I simply want to issue a word of encouragement to my fellow servants of God. Stories are emerging across the world of the same problems and pressures being exerted on ministers and ministry teams, and it appears that we may be on the brink of a cascade of ministry attrition, where pastors simply feel the need to step away from their charges. This would be a tragedy beyond telling, given that the global church will desperately need leadership, biblical counsel, and preaching as it endures through, and emerges from, the pandemic. In this post I want to offer three reasons why Pastors should keep going. I’m aiming here, not so much at the idea that Pastors should remain in their churches, but that they should leave behind all thought of abandoning ministry wholesale.
- You bear a commission from Christ, and that counts: one of the easiest things to forget in the fires of ministry hardship is that our commission for this work comes from Christ Jesus himself. We are sensory people, and will respond to verbal and visual stimuli much more quickly than we will to the unheard voice and unseen presence of our risen Saviour. When the cares of our hearts are many, when the criticisms of our ministry are manifold, when the encouragements of the work are minimal, these tend to be the factors we focus on. Fellow Pastor, please don’t let this be the only evidence you survey when you think of walking away. Christ Jesus has commissioned you, there has been a time in your life when you heard Christ call you to lay down your life, to sacrifice your own ambitions, and to follow him into the work of the gospel. This reality may count for nothing in the eyes of the world, its reality might be far from your thoughts, but it is there nonetheless, and it counts.
The Apostle Paul faced the lions of non-Christian culture, and the wolves that could threaten God’s people from within. He wrestled with personal criticism, and the Corinthian letters reveal to us a man who did not bear the wounds of ministry lightly. Paul understood that his perseverance did not rest on his own personal grit, but on God’s grace, and God’s commission to him. In 1Corinthians 9 Paul is offering a defence ‘to those who would examine me’, and there betrays some of the inner workings of his heart when it comes to inclination and compulsion in serving Christ.
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. (1Cor 9:16-17, ESV)
The obligation to bear our stewardship and to fulfil our ministry can sustain us even when the inclination of our heart bears us in a different direction. We can discharge our ministry as a duty when we cannot pursuit it as a delight, precisely because we are commissioned to make Christ known. This ought not to be the normal course of our service, but it is the universal course that all who preach the gospel have to take periodically. We mustn’t push ourselves to the point of physical, emotional or mental collapse, and time-out is advisable if we are close to that happening, but in the absence of such an emergency it serves us well to go back to the why of what we are doing – we serve Christ because he called us, and that counts.
2. Your weakness is often the way God works, and that is powerful: one of the effects of the Covid-19 crisis has been that we now see our insufficiency in a way that we never could have before. In some ways we had previously become quite capable and accomplished in talking about ministry, and fulfilling our charge, and that is a bad thing. Seminars and hot-button books, slick Twitter accounts abounding in clever quotes, the bravado of planting, consolidating, revitalising, can all trick us into believing that we are elite infantrymen when in fact we are raggle-taggle militia whom God enlists for his glory.
Our global pandemic has forced us to say things like ‘I can’t’, and ‘I don’t know’ much more often than we ever have before. We have come to understand ministry insufficiency as something so much deeper than some jitters before we enter the pulpit. Many of us feel that we have been driven into a cul-de-sac by Covid-19, and the struts and supports which we have invisibly leaned on, which we have unconsciously relied on, which we have made idols of, have been taken away. We stand before our yawning weakness in circumstances which God has not yet providentially taken from us, our sides burn and smart with the prick of the thorn, and God says this is good. We are, perhaps, serving in a situation with little affirmation, with no visible growth, with a sense of ten steps being taken backwards for every half step we take forwards. We perhaps feel mistreated and misunderstood, we feel reputational defensiveness, and we feel most of all that there is nothing we can do.
This is precisely the space where God can get the most glory. In 2Corinthians the Apostle Paul is on the backfoot, he is in the impossible position of feeling the need to defend himself, knowing all the while the futility of trying to do so. The affection of the Corinthians has waned and Paul’s influence on them seems impotent. Added to this is Paul’s own personal condition which he longs to be rid of. God’s answer in all of this is grace. The ‘thorn’ was given to Paul ‘to keep me from becoming conceited’ (2Cor 12:7) and God’s response to his request to have it taken away was ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. That was it. Paul was to be left in a position where he implored God, not for healing but for strength in its absence. This thorn was a daily reminder to Paul of the real dynamic of ministry – a suppliant seeking a sovereign for the mere strength to be sustained.
With some exceptions, the calling from Covid-19 is not for us to run, but for us to bow. To own the idolatry of self-reliance, to seek God to sustain us through the suffering and hindrances that pertain to us at present, and to trust that God’s power will be perfected. Our exclamation should match that of Paul,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.(2Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV)
3. Covid-19 will pass, that is certain: one of the great tricks which suffering plays on us is that it robs us of every tense, apart from the present. We struggle to revisit God’s good mercies to us in the past, and we feel a complete incapacity to see hope in the future. We find ourselves in a permanent space, with an unyielding sense of dereliction, and a horizon which recedes ever closer toward our calamities.
Given the lingering nature of the pandemic, medical science and governmental policy’s combined inability to render it powerless, and the stubbornness of circumstance in terms of reigniting normal life, we can come to believe that this is all that there is, and all that there ever will be. This is a lie, and a dangerous one at that. We fulsomely and philosophically reject a view of history which is cyclical or interminable, and yet we can believe in it at the point of conviction. What we are facing now is impermanent, it is transient, and it will pass, that is certain.
One of the factors which leads many people to make unfortunate decisions about their welfare is to lose hope that anything will change. As Pastors we can look at the redundancy of our current service, perhaps even the hostility of others, the terminal decline of our evangelistic outreach, the collateral impact of all of this on our families and relationships, and believe that the only change which will ever take place is the one we precipitate: namely walking away from what God has given us to do.
Fellow Pastor, please let God lift your eyes beyond this moment, to see that a time will come when we will reflect on the events of today as the experiences of yesterday, when we will reclothe the reality of our problems in the rhetoric of providence, when we will trace the path which God was forging for us when we felt like we were going in circles, exhausted by the process. Fellow Pastor let God lift your eye above the inanity and mundanity of the current trudge, and see the final triumph of the gospel which Jesus guarantees; let him train your thoughts on the fact that even for Jesus when all seemed lost salvation history was reaching its pinnacle. This moment shall pass, and so too shall all moments, until we are consumed by the glory of Jesus, subsumed into the presence of Jesus for all eternity. Better days are ahead, most likely temporally, most certainly eternally.
Hold fast, press on, fulfil your commission, own your weakness, keep your hope, and pray for others in your position as you do.