I once heard someone say discouragement is the “occupational hazard” of ministry. They’re right. Especially on a Monday.
In a park aptly named “Trinity,” I had my head down—literally and figuratively—as I journaled my discouragements and prayers, crying out in Davidic fashion: How long, O Lord?
We were three years into planting a church in downtown Fort Worth. Some core-team members—close friends—had just left, and the largely unseen fruit of our ministry didn’t seem worth the exhaustion.
Little did I know that I was about to get a kidney stone, then shingles, and then have to shepherd people through some difficult church-discipline cases. So I wondered if I should just bounce and go pastor an established church where things would be “easier.”
Godly patience requires God’s power.
But then God met me in my discouragement. My journal entry from that day reads: “God didn’t bring me to this church plant to be awesome, succeed, and never suffer. He did it because I would get more of him. Stop asking all the suffering and discouragement to go away, and rejoice in his grace to press me more and more into him.”
From that day I committed myself to patient, long-suffering, long-term ministry in one place.
Power for Patience
In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul prays a strange prayer: that God’s people would have power to be patient: “According to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy . . .” (Col. 1:11). Really? Do we seriously need God’s power just to be patient? According to Paul, the answer is yes. Godly patience requires God’s power. This is especially true in church planting.
It’s been said that younger leaders tend to overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term. I think this is one of the most important—yet most difficult—things to learn in ministry.
Younger leaders tend to overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term.
Every Christian is developing the Holy Spirit–infused fruit of patience (Gal. 5:22). So as church planters, we can be confident that the Spirit will produce patience in us, even if it needs to be the fruit of repeated repentance over a lack of it.
I remember the strong conviction God gave me to plant a church. But I also remember the just-as-clear warning from my wife that our marriage (that is, I) wasn’t ready. Patience. I remember waiting for that key staff member; for that attendance breakthrough; for planting our first church as a church. “Wait for the LORD,” David says (Ps. 27:14). Patience is a powerful virtue.
The knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover your city like the waters cover the seas (Hab. 2:14), with or without you. God doesn’t need your church to accomplish his purposes. So he’s most concerned—if we can attribute concern to the sovereign God of the universe—with you becoming more like Jesus. Which, thankfully, is a divine certainty (Rom. 8:29). And patience is one of the things that needs to grow.
Either way, if Paul plants and Apollos waters, but only God can give the growth, then you have to wait on him to do so. So church-planting pastors will need to be patient with (at least) three things.
1. Your People
People take a long time to grow—out of habitual sins; out of consumeristic tendencies; toward greater affection for Christ. How do I know? Because I take a long time to grow. It can be easy to get frustrated with people, forgetting that they are your ministry (1 Pet. 5:2). But your patience will serve them and show them how patient Jesus is with them.
But you also need to be patient in appointing leaders. It’s tempting to place people in leadership positions too soon, because you’re under water and need any help you can get. Be patient. It’s way worse—and far more work—to deal with the aftermath of a leader who was put in place too soon.
Thankfully, I was taught this early on, and thus moved slowly with a church member named Ryan. He went from volunteer, to volunteer leader, to staff, to fellow elder, and then—eventually—to church planter. This process took six years, and now we have a healthy church plant 10 miles away, and I have a great friend in ministry.
You probably can’t move too slowly with leaders, and you will almost always want to move too quickly. Be patient.
2. Your Vision
I’ve seen church planters try to plant a vision and not a church. Don’t do that. I thought my church would have a bunch of ex-jock meatheads (of whom I am the foremost), but God saw fit to send lots of college students and artists. The Holy Spirit plants people, empowered with gifts, on fire with gospel passions, shaped by certain experiences, and they shape the church more than you may think or expect or want them to.
And because we pastors deal with people, all of our hopes and plans for our churches must be marked by patience.
If Paul plants and Apollos waters, but only God can give the growth, then you have to wait on him to do so.
I remember being frustrated that—three years into our church plant—we hadn’t yet planted another church. Ed Stetzer said we should plant pregnant, but I couldn’t seem to find a mate. We kept praying and casting vision, and eventually God enabled us to plant a church several miles away. It took six years of God growing the fruit of patience in me.
Whenever I go golfing, I have to remind myself: You’re not good at this. Why are you getting frustrated? In the same way, you may not yet be good at this church-planting stuff. But don’t be discouraged. Jesus isn’t done with you. Through the fire and through the blessings, he is molding you like a potter with his clay. He is patient with you, pastor (1 Tim. 1:16).
Be patient with your preaching, and work hard. Be patient with your leadership, and don’t stop learning. Be patient with your character, and don’t stop fighting sin. The gospel frees us to be both patient and hard-working. Gospel grace compelled Paul to “work harder than any of them” (1 Cor. 15:10).
If you asked a hundred people to describe me, “patient” probably wouldn’t be high on their lists. But I know this: The sweetest and best part of your patient pursuit will be coram Deo—before the face of God. Wait on the Lord in all these things, pastor. Be strong and take courage, for he will not put you to shame (Ps. 25:3).