This article is an adapted excerpt from our new book, Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime (TGC/Crossway). What does it look like for a pastor to lay down his life for the sheep over the long haul in a local church? This new work features wisdom from veteran pastors addressing real-life issues that pose serious threats to longevity in ministry. Order your copy today.
Dear Pastor Mark,
I hope this finds you well, dear brother. Today marks the 20th anniversary of my arrival here as pastor of this church. I’ll never forget how eager I was to serve as a pastor and how happy my young (and smaller, in those days) family was to transition from seminary to a small rural church like the one I continue to serve today.
I pray that I have served this congregation well these past two decades, that I have preached God’s Word faithfully, that I have loved them fully, but I must admit something: I’m surprised that I’m still here. On the day the congregation elected me, there were eighty people on the membership rolls. Today, there’s ninety-two. That’s not much difference. Sure, there have been several people who joined us over the years, and there have been a few con- versions too, but there have also been some who haven’t remained with us.
The small town our church serves is a macrocosm of our church. Population in the entire county was 12,000 when I first began, and today it sits at 9,800—not much happening here, and our young people always seem to leave for the city and the opportunities it offers for careers and, as much as I hate to say it, more prominent churches and preachers.
Honestly—and I hope this doesn’t sound prideful—I always thought I would serve a larger congregation in a more highly populated—and more significant—place. It seems nowadays, too, that a pastor has to build his platform through social media, but I haven’t really done that, because nobody is going to read the musings of a pastor serving in such an obscure place. Same with books—I have ideas, but who would ever read me when you have so many other good options by pastors who preach before hundreds and thousands each week?
Now that I’ve reached middle age, I sometimes wonder what might have been. Have you ever felt this way? Should I think about making a change at this juncture, maybe look for a new position in a larger place? Or is there genuine merit in doing the same thing week in and week out for the same people for a lifetime? As you can probably tell, I’m beyond discouraged and am being tempted by anxious thoughts about what I’ve accomplished for the Lord.
Your wisdom would be much appreciated in this moment.
Dear Obscure Pastor,
Your question, as I understand it, is, “How can we be filled with joyful contentment in pastoral ministry even when our setting is one of anonymity and obscurity?”
That’s a great question—and important, because it addresses a tension most of us face. On the one hand, I would suppose we all, at least occasionally, wonder what it would be like to be widely known in ministry circles. That’s understandable. Fame is not a bad thing in itself. I have a number of spiritual heroes. (Several are contributors to this volume!) And their “fame” is the vehicle God used to bring the blessing of their influence to me in my remote setting. I praise God for their fame! And just as their being widely known has been the occasion of great blessing to me, I can only imagine what a thrill it would have been to know that God had used me to bless so many.
But the fact is, few of us called to ministry will ever be famous. And many—if not most—of us will labor our whole lives in settings where no one outside our churches will ever know our names.
Is Contentment Even Possible?
You’re wondering if it’s possible to be content in such an environment. If our contentment depended on our being widely known, then contentment would certainly be an impossibility.
The good news is that true contentment does not depend on the breadth of our ministry. I know that for a fact. God sovereignly and graciously placed me in my current pastorate nearly three decades ago. We have witnessed the problems plaguing much of rural America—the shuttering of manufacturing plants, negative population shifts, and school closings. And I have to admit my inability to protect our church from being affected by many of these changes.
I’m certain that few outside my isolated church field will ever know my name. Yet God has been faithful through it all to sustain within me an ever-deepening sense of contentment.
So, yes, I would say that it is possible to be deeply and joyfully content even when no one outside your church will ever know your name. The question is how.
It seems that at the heart of your question is the idea of “being known.” I think that shows us the way forward. It has been my experience that we can overflow with joyful contentment in all circumstances if we simply abandon the futile effort to seek contentment through “being known by others” and focus instead on three superior joys.
1. The Joy of Knowing and Being Known by God
The first—and most important—key to contentment is to focus on the irrepressible joy found in knowing God and being known by him. In knowing him, we find a joy that no amount of fame could ever afford—and no degree of obscurity can ever take away. Through the years, I’ve been encouraged by passages like Jeremiah 17:5–8. Its words wonderfully address the question before us:
Thus says the LORD:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah’s warning in 17:5–6 speaks directly to your issue. When we look to the approval of man and seek that approval by our own machinations, aren’t we guilty of “trust[ing] in man” and having hearts that are turning “away from the LORD”? Certainly. And what does he tell us will result from this misguided aim? Not contentment but spiritual barrenness. We will become “like [shrubs] in the desert,” and we “shall not see any” of the good we desire come to pass. If we pursue contentment by means of men’s applause, then we will certainly (emotionally and spiritually) live in the desert, in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. We’ll be destined to experience the exact opposite of what we seek.
But what a magnificent promise the prophet holds out for us in the next verses! If we turn from trust in man to place our trust in the Lord, if our focus is not on being known by man but on knowing God and being known by him, look at the results. There’s a spiritual vitality and fruitfulness certain to afford us contentment—regardless of our circumstances.
I strongly encourage you to memorize and meditate frequently on this and similar passages (e.g., Psalm 1). They will send “rivers” of contentment-producing power flooding into your heart. I have found that to the degree I immerse myself daily in the pursuit of joy in God—and by grace am enabled to know and enjoy him—I discover that desires for the praise of man are driven from my consciousness. Let me encourage you to place the highest possible priority on knowing and enjoying God. Use all God’s means of grace to the fullest extent possible in your fight for joy in God.
There is real freedom in this grace. When we spend ample time in communion with him through the Word and prayer, he fills us to overflowing with his joy. That sets us free to focus all our efforts on serving others. And don’t forget the words of Jesus: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Wanting to be noticed by others and wanting others to make much of us and meet our needs are a prescription for pastoral frustration.
Unfortunately, I’ve often heard pastor friends voice a desire to move on to another church because their current church does not sufficiently appreciate them or “do enough for them.” But if your joy is based on how much others are taking notice of you and meeting your needs, then you’re going to be frustrated more often than not! Lack of contentment can absolutely kill our effectiveness in ministry.
We must also bask in the joy of being known by God. God has often used his Word to assure me that he knows me, that he takes notice of me and my ministry. I’m thinking, for example, of Colossians 3:22–24. Paul is speaking there to “bondservants” about what should and should not motivate them in their work:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
We who are privileged to be in ministry are also “bondservants” of the Lord. We should do our “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” We know that the Lord is watching our work and that nothing we do in service to him goes unnoticed by him.
How can I be full of contentment even when no one outside my church will ever know my name? One big reason is that my Lord knows me. I can easily handle the fact that “no one outside my church knows my name” as long as I know that he does.
2. The Joy of Making God Known
Another key for contentment in quiet, out-of-the-way ministry settings is the joy of making God known in the place where he has planted us.
There is great joy to be found in abandoning the endeavor to be known in favor of the far more fulfilling aim to make God known. This second key flows out of the first. As we search the Scriptures daily, seeking to know God better and praying that he will “make known [to us] the riches of his glory” (Rom. 9:23), God graciously shows us more and more of his beauty. This beauty fills our hearts so that we find great contentment-producing joy in sharing with others what God shows us about himself and his great salvation.
Often our sense of contentment is threatened when God, in his good and wise providence, calls us to endure a “lean season” despite our best efforts to proclaim Christ and invite sinners to him. And one factor that can fuel discontentment during these seasons is our tendency to compare our situations and capabilities with those of other pastors. I recall a conversation some years ago with a gifted and faithful pastor from another part of our state. He told me that in the fast-growing area where he ministered, his church averaged 25 visitors each Sunday, mostly believers looking for a church home. If even a fraction of those visitors became members, he said, they were certain to have a “fast-growing church” on their hands. Obviously, not every situation fits that pattern. We must not envy pastor brothers who minister in such situations. Certainly, they face challenges we know nothing of.
Just as we should not torpedo our own contentment by comparing our geographic and demographic situations with those of other servants, we should also avoid comparing our giftedness and temperamental tendencies. I’ve known and highly admired faithful men who were gifted to accomplish great things in their churches in a remarkably short span of time. I’ve often marveled at the gifts of such men—while being painfully aware that I’m not one of them. Yet I have sensed that, by God’s grace, he has gifted me (and called me) to devote myself to a ministry demanding patience and perseverance over the long haul.
We have “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6). Much contentment can be found—especially during difficult seasons—by simply allowing God to give us clear insight into the gift mix he has granted us and then trusting him to give us grace to use those gifts as best we can in the situations where he has seen fit to station us.
3. The Joy of Knowing Others
The final key God has used to sustain contentment in my obscure ministry setting is the joy found in knowing others.
Great contentment results when we lay aside the ambition to be known and instead pursue the far more rewarding joy of knowing others—really knowing, loving, and caring for others, especially the people we’re privileged to shepherd. These joys are multiplied when God calls us to the high privilege of devoting our labors to a particular people over a lifetime. These joys to me are increasingly inexpressible as the years file by.
There is a depth of love and joy between pastor and people that only a “long marriage” can produce. How wonderful when, in God’s plan, he gives us those years! God has differing plans for different pastors. But it’s best not to prematurely pass over the significance of God’s sovereignty in placing us where we currently serve.
We must be ready to depart immediately for other fields of service should God lead us to do so, but we must also be so content in him and so full of love for our flocks that we’re delighted to serve them for a lifetime should that prove to be God’s will for us.
I’m incredibly grateful that God has allowed me to stay where I am all these years. Incomparable delights result when God gives us such a love for a people and such joy in knowing them that we grow oblivious to the fact that no one outside our church will ever know our names.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Jesslyn—that’s a name I delight to know, the name given to a baby girl born about a quarter of a century ago. How privileged I felt to be with her family at the hospital the morning she arrived, to see and share their joy.
Another name I rejoice to know is Gaston—that’s the name Jesslyn gave to her firstborn son 20-something years later. How gracious of God to allow me to be with Jesslyn (and her family) both on the day of her birth and on the day she first gave birth. Those are the kinds of gifts God gives us when he graces us with long pastorates.
Gerald—that’s another name I love to know, the name of a man attending our church when we arrived nearly three decades ago. He was what you might call a “good man.” He was a man of towering physical strength, an outdoorsman, a hard worker, a good provider. He evidenced no marks of regeneration. He had a stern, intimidating countenance. Honestly, I feared him. His life apart from Christ took a toll on his marriage, but he had a godly, praying wife who never gave up on him—and never gave up on God, praying for her husband without ceasing. God gave me the privilege of sharing the gospel with him and witnessing his radical conversion. His marriage was saved, and he blossomed into a faithful servant of Christ and his church. He never lost his strength but added to it a beautiful quality of gentleness.
Two and a half years ago, he was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable form of cancer. He proceeded to walk that dark journey with victorious faith, and like Abraham, “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom. 4:20). What a privilege it was for me to walk that journey with him, one that recently led to “the river’s edge.”
There on the banks of that river, we fed together on passages like Psalm 27:1: “The LORD is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” And I thrilled to hear his words to us all, assuring us that through his faith in Christ alone, he had “no guilt in life, no fear in death” and was “ready to go home.” It was as if he were calling to me from the midst of “the river” to let me know that he could “feel the bottom, and it was good.”
How grateful I was to preach the gospel to all who gathered to honor my friend Gerald’s memory and to see his widow radiant with joy through her faith in the Savior I’ve been privileged to commend to her all these years.
Here’s my point: I’m convinced that the opportunity to know people like Jesslyn and Gaston and Gerald—and to walk the long journey with them and their families—has brought me far more joy and contentment than any amount of notoriety ever could.
One Family in Christ
In nearly 30 years of belonging to my beloved church family, I have found my heart increasingly knitted to theirs. We have shared so many experiences. They have grieved with my family in our losses, and we have felt theirs. The losses my people absorb are my losses. Their gains, my gains. We are truly one in heart. One people. One family—in Christ.
May all these joys be yours in abundance. And may “the joy of the LORD [be] your strength” (Neh. 8:10) as you serve him!