Church ministry—whether you’re serving as a preaching pastor, an elder, a missionary, or otherwise—is a lot like baseball. It’s an exercise in managing failure.
Here’s what I mean: Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in professional baseball history, finished with a .344 career batting average. This means the “Splendid Splinter” succeeded only 34 times out of every 100 times—he made an out in those other 66 trips to the plate.
That’s a lot of failure.
Ministry can be like that—or at least can feel like it. You preach God’s Word week in and week out. More often than not, you don’t see change in people’s hearts. Transformation can be maddeningly gradual.
Preaching, then, is not like mowing the lawn or building a dining-room table—there’s no visible “product” at the end of the sermon. God has called us to faithfully proclaim his Word and leave the results to him. But the “leaving the results” part isn’t easy for people with iPhones and microwave ovens. Without warning, anxiety can crash like a tsunami on the shores of a minister’s life.
Preaching weekly can leave us feeling a little like the mythical king Sisyphus who tricked Persephone, goddess of the underworld. For his shenanigans, Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it roll back to the bottom.
You prepare the sermon, preach the sermon, prepare the sermon, preach the sermon. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every Monday, discouragement lurks like the unholiest of ghosts just outside the study door.
To build a dam that will restrain the deluge of anxiety and chase away the apparition of discouragement, you need a strong dose of God’s truth. I want to suggest two passages that have helped me. I preach them to myself as a guard against two major thieves that threaten to rob me of joy, as both a believer and also a pastor.
Antidote for Anxiety (Matt. 6:25–34)
Jesus’s thesis is as easy to discern as it is consoling to comprehend: because God is your God, you don’t have to be anxious about your life. Our Lord here presents an argument from lesser to greater: since God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, how much more can he be trusted to take care of his own people?
And yet we worry.
When this happens, we’ve experienced failure at two levels: a failure to understand that God is our Father, and a failure to exhibit childlike faith—what Jesus here calls “little faith.” Jesus shows the absurdity of worry for God’s people, a reality that ought to be doubly true for those who get their living through studying and teaching his Word: worry cannot add even 3,600 seconds to your life. The person who dies at age 75 has lived more than 650,000 hours, so adding one to the span would seem an easy proposition; yet the Lord says we can’t do it. Worry adds nothing to us. I take great comfort in how Jesus concludes his admonition: “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34).
As pastors, we must trust and obey what Jesus says after he’s told his audience not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).
Pastors—and people in the pew—are to make God’s redemptive rule and right relationship with him the highest priorities, and we must concern ourselves with today, not tomorrow, trusting that God will provide for us, our families, and our congregation.
Jesus’s words here need not be limited in their application to the provision of physical needs—though that’s clearly in view and is of profound comfort to us—but may be applied to our need for spiritual sustenance as well.
Fuel for Faithfulness (Mark 4:26–29)
Our Lord’s words here ought to liberate us from the success syndrome—measuring ministry success on purely human scales. I pray through this pithy parable virtually every Saturday night before heading to the pulpit on Sunday. It’s a reminder of who builds God’s kingdom. Jesus says:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
For the man of God, here is the liberating truth: Everything is God’s doing. Are the people in your church growing spiritually? God is doing it. Are there lost people coming to Christ? God is doing it. Are there new members joining the church? God is doing it. Are you in a drier season in which nothing seems to be happening? God is doing it.
Keep planting the seed.
What does the sower do after he sows the seed? He goes to bed. The sower is responsible to sow seed, not make it grow. While he sleeps, the kingdom germinates. The sower doesn’t assist it. He doesn’t even understand it: “The seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.”
I relish this parable because it reminds me that I’m only responsible to sow faithfully. This is not a call to passivity. Do we diligently seek the conversion of lost people? Certainly. Do we labor intensely to see lives changed? Of course. That’s why you surrendered to pastoral ministry in the first place.
But is God’s under-shepherd under pressure to make it happen? By no means. If hearts are to change, God must do it. Elsewhere Jesus promises to build his church, over which even the power of hell won’t prevail (Matt. 16:18). God is sovereign over my congregation; I must rest in that truth.
That precious promise drives away anxiety and discouragement on those days when nothing seems to be happening in ministry, when I’m sowing but nothing seems to be growing. If I’ve been faithful, I can plant the seed and rest easy in Christ, knowing his Spirit will cause the seed to germinate and take root in human hearts, in soil made good by the Holy Spirit (see Mark 4:1–9). I need not pressure the people, harangue them, cajole them, or wring my hands in perplexity.
This parable comforts me with the truth Martin Luther grasped, the catalyst for one of the greatest revivals in human history: “The Word did everything, I did nothing.”
Brothers, let us give thanks that God has given us these passages to help us beat back the twin monsters of anxiety and discouragement. On every Lord’s Day, may the God of peace give you grace to sow the seed, trust him wholly, and rest in the promises of his all-powerful Word.