Having a tough year?

As church members choose conflict over peacemaking, appear more excited about politics than discipleship, give more weight to a pundit’s off-the-cuff opinion than your studied convictions, fall for sin rather than follow Scripture, reject the counsel of friends to pursue idols you know will hurt them, make time for school programs and sporting events but skip church, and criticize your leadership for recent decisions, groaning over such grievances and burdens feels natural.

You’re not alone. The invitation to murmur against your church tests all pastors and staff. But don’t get stuck there. Be careful not to grow accustomed to an irritable posture toward God’s people.

Moses’s Example

Moses never served as a pastor, but he did lead God’s people. Like you, he knew what it was like to lead sheep who bite, kick, and stray. So you probably get why he sometimes threw up his hands in dismay or smashed stone tablets. You might never say or do what Moses did, but you understand how he got there.

The invitation to murmur against your church tests all pastors and staff. But don’t get stuck there.

In Numbers 11, there’s already a beef between Moses and Israel. Israel regularly aired their criticisms against Moses’s provision, direction, and competence. And he fell prey to outbursts of anger for their stubbornness.

During one trial in the wilderness, an unhappy group appropriately called “the rabble” (Num. 11:4) spread complaints and stirred division that spread like a cancer. They moaned about how much better things were under different leadership. Despite God’s clear favor upon Moses, they wanted him out. They’d rather serve Pharaoh as slaves than follow Moses as free men and women. (Fortunately for Moses, email, online petitions, and social media didn’t exist.)

The continual complaints eventually crushed Moses. He responded by grumbling against the ones God put under his care (11:11–14). He asked God why he got stuck with them. He was annoyed and exasperated. The root of bitterness deepened. The divide between leader and followers widened. And the burden of leadership in ministry felt like too much to carry.

Every pastor knows the temptation to focus on troubles in his church. We can gravitate toward grumbling about the difficult people and the discouraging problems. When we do so, or at least when we stay there, our trust in God begins to weaken, and our love for the people wanes. Before long, we burn out––or we burn bridges––as we minister from a posture of irritability rather than grace.

Paul’s Example

Paul wasn’t sheltered from tough situations or trying people. He went toe-to-toe with false teachers, experienced apostasy and betrayal, knew slander and gossip, and worked through conflict and division. People questioned his apostleship, favored other leaders, and badmouthed his authority and gifting.

We burn out––or we burn bridges––as we minister from a posture of irritability rather than grace.

But what stands out from Paul’s letters is the way he consistently chose gratitude over grumbling. He oversaw sinful congregations and imperfect parishioners, but this didn’t overshadow the good work of God. And by keeping his eyes on the good gifts and growth, he found reasons for thanksgiving.

One example comes from Colossians. Paul says when he thinks of the church there, he gives thanks for them (Col. 1:3). Don’t you want that to be true of your mindset toward your church?

At the forefront of Paul’s mind isn’t the false teaching, a divisive faction in the church, or unhealthy practices of asceticism. Paul eventually addresses these issues, so he isn’t ignoring them. But his first thought is thankfulness. His knee-jerk response to the church is celebration rather than complaint.

He thanks God for the Spirit-produced work of faith, love, and hope (1:4–5). He gives thanks for how the gospel of Jesus turns strangers into family (1:2), grants them an eternal inheritance (1:5), and ripens into fruit spreading out to the world (1:6). None of this is their work or Paul’s work; it is God’s. Paul knows this, and is grateful for the small and big things God is accomplishing in their midst.

Paul can take on a posture of thankfulness to God for an imperfect church because he trusts it is God who is ultimately responsible for their well-being.

Paul can take on a posture of thankfulness to God for an imperfect church because he trusts it is God who’s ultimately responsible for the church’s well-being. Yes, Paul has a role to play. Yes, he will encourage and admonish, teach and warn (1:28). But the church is Christ’s bride alone. The good work started in them is the work God will be faithful to finish (Phil. 1:6). Paul doesn’t put all the pressure of their growth, health, or perseverance on his own shoulders. He feels a healthy weight of responsibility and does what he can to shepherd them, but he entrusts them to God and lets him carry this weight.

Thanksgiving gives us a zoomed-out perspective. While it’s easy to focus on faults, failures, and frustrations, which leads to discouragement, by choosing to give thanks we open our eyes to how God is at work in and among his church. Prioritize gratitude for what God is doing rather than grumbling about what he isn’t doing. This isn’t simply being optimistic or tapping into positive thinking. It’s resting and rejoicing in the blessings of God we might be overlooking.

Practical Ways to Give Thanks

I’ll conclude with eight practical ideas to spur your gratitude for the church where God placed you.

  1. Recall God’s faithfulness and power throughout this church’s history.
  2. Thank God for saving his people through the redemptive work of Christ. Even if you struggle to see much fruit, the gospel always gives us cause to exult in the mercy, grace, and love of God.
  3. Observe how God is at work. Don’t minimize small blessings, steps in maturity, or minor growth. See and celebrate these things.
  4. Build thanksgiving for your church into prayer times, testimonies, and conversations among elders and staff. Just like grumbling spreads, so does gratitude.
  5. Cultivate an environment where people share how God is at work in their lives or what he’s teaching them. Sometimes we don’t know what God is doing because there aren’t opportunities for people to share these things.
  6. Live by faith as you pray with thanksgiving. Serve, preach, pray, teach, visit, shepherd, disciple, and fulfill your ministry by thanking God for what he will do before you even see the fruit of it.
  7. Talk with those new to your church. These people often are there because they see signs of health. They can be some of the most refreshing voices, because they’re quick to share how they see God at work or why they’re thankful for your church’s ministry.
  8. As you feel irritation and discouragement when you think about the church, redirect your heart away from grumbling and toward gratitude. Number your blessings. And thank God that you can entrust this church to his loving, wise care.