How Do You Keep Going?: The Emotional Struggle of Pastoral Ministry

I had always heard that the first few years of pastoral ministry were a honeymoon stage, but I think I skipped mine. I’ve not been in pastoral ministry long, four years now. But in those four years I have had experiences that I don’t think I will match after I’ve been at it for thirty years. My first church out of seminary ended up turning against me (and the senior pastor) after I had been there only six months. We ended up leaving. A few years ago I began counseling a friend who was struggling with drug addiction, only to have him disappear on me. I’ve wept with families who lost children, wrestled with husbands and wives who abandoned each other, and experienced my own father’s death. Last week I had to ask a man to leave because he was corning members of our church and telling them it was a bad place (we play “rock n’ roll and don’t use the KJV). I work at a church that ministers largely to recovering addicts and college students, and I find myself week after week weary and emotionally drained.

The last two weeks have been particularly brutal as we endured massive criticism from outside our church, including accusations of being a cult, and had one of our members leave. It has been a heartbreaking couple of days. And if I am honest, there have been times where it was hard to go into the office. I’ve always thought of myself as pretty tough-skinned. That comes partly from moving around so much over my childhood and leaving behind friends all over the east coast. But it’s not easy to be in pastoral ministry and to experience the emotional toll that it can take on you. So, I’ve been asking myself, for the last two weeks now, the same question: how do you keep going? How do you endure for the long haul?

Some pastors deal with this reality by being less invested in their people. They advocate a model of ministry that always keeps people at an arm’s length. “Invest less and you’ll get hurt less,” seems to be their motto. One pastor told me that it’s simply impossible to be friends with the people in your congregation. I find such expressions not simply sad, but ultimately I think they will lead to an ineffective ministry. No body can call me naive; even at only four years of experience I’ve felt the sting of betrayal, backstabbing, and abandonment. But I don’t think the model of our great shepherd allows us to engage in our ministry with anything less than total surrender of ourselves. Jesus didn’t keep us at an arm’s length while he tried to rescue us. He didn’t offer up some spare time for us in the afternoons, and give us just enough of himself to appease us but reserve most of himself for sanity’s sake. Jesus gave all he had to rescue us, he cared for us with total self-investment. When he was weary, he still had a level of compassion that compelled him to care for others (Mark 6:31-34). How can we, as his servants, be expected to do anything less? I can’t be less invested, because Jesus’ model doesn’t permit it.

I also can’t make everything in ministry about me. That’s hard to do, but it is really the key, I believe, to not just giving up on Monday morning. When ministry becomes primarily about me, about my relationships, my feelings, my wants, my ego it will become impossible to go in to the office. Oh, it’s easy to say, “Don’t take it personally.” But, of course, when someone calls you a “device of Satan” (as happened to our senior pastor recently), it’s impossible not to take it personally. But slowly we have to be willing to get over ourselves and remember that the ministry is all about serving the King’s mission. It hurts to be betrayed and mocked. It hurts to be accused of things that are entirely inaccurate and unkind. It hurts to be accused by people who don’t know you and refuse to talk to you. It hurts worse to be accused by people you’ve poured your life into. But the mission is greater than my “feelings,” greater than our church’s reputation. On Monday mornings I have to remember that I work for the sake of God’s Kingdom and not my own.

Pastoral ministry is not a 9-5 job. It’s not a career. People like to make those simple jokes about how pastors only work one day a week. But the truth is that when a friend gets ditched by his fiance I am not trying to pencil him into my working hours. When our church flooded last week I didn’t pull the “I am off duty” because it was 9:00 pm. Simply put, this is more than a job. As John Piper wrote, “Brothers, we are not professionals.” The only way I can get up and keep going is to remember that I serve a great King who has loved me beyond what I deserve and has called me to a ministry of sharing that love with others. I am not in this for the money (there isnt’ any), and I am not in this for the accolades (those are short-lived). I am in this for the King. That’s what keeps me going.

Comments

  1. This is excellent, Dave. Having been a Pastor at one time, your words ring so true. And it’s only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I hope to be one again some day, Lord willing. Loving people, bearing with them, binding up their wounds—there is really no greater life one could live.

    Keep Christ ever fixed as your heart’s highest treasure, and keep rehearsing those precious words you wrote above: “I serve a great King who has loved me beyond what I deserve and has called me to a ministry of sharing that love with others.”

    The gospel is strong to save—and to keep us standing. (1 Corinthians 15:1)

    I love you, brother! You are being used of God in ways you may never know until glory. May He be glorified.

  2. Good post, bro. You’ve been on my mind a lot lately without even knowing any of this stuff. We should try to meet up again soon. Shoot me a message or something and let me know what works for you; we could do some coffee and fellowship again. Lots of both. 😉

  3. robie day says:

    Dave,
    Thank you so much for this post. I am learning very quickly how emotionally draining pastoral ministry can be. I know you’ve had a rough week, but I hope you know how much of an encouragement your ministry has been to me. Your blog, your ministry in Portsmouth, and your online sermons and Bible studies have all been extremely edifying and uplifting. I think you definitely have this one pegged. We serve a great King and we must keep our affections fixed on him. Again, thank you for all that you do. I will be praying for you, your ministry and church, and those who fail to see the great things that God is doing through your ministry.
    Robie

  4. Appreciate your transparency. Praying for you my friend. So impressed by the Lord’s work in your life.

  5. P. Edgington says:

    Good post Dave…enjoyed with my coffee this morning. Understand why you have had trouble sleeping lately, you surely must have a lot of concerns running around in your head. Thanks for being who you are…..keep the blogs coming….even if your wife’s are the best!!! (haha)…..Prayers for you!

  6. Thanks Dave, we really appreciated this post. Lots of prayers sent your way!

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Thank you friends, all of you. Your responses have been very encouraging and the overall response to this self-indulgent (and probably whiny) post has been beyond anything I could have anticiapted or expected. I am very thankful for you all.

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