Years ago I was listening to a talk on church planting and the speaker was talking about discouragement in ministry. As he did he spoke of the high expectations from the church planter. He expects great things—fast! And what happens when the gap between reality and expectations only seems to grow wider? Discouragement, discontentment, despair, and even thoughts of quitting begin to grow like weeds in a neglected garden. It was a good word for me then and it remains so today.
Some weeks back I wrote about how the prosperity gospel has infiltrated our thinking. It is not just the chaos of Benny Hinn “slaying” people it is also the chaos of a heart that is fixed on getting physical things rather than spiritual, things of this life rather than the life to come. I believe there is a connection between expectations and prosperity thinking. More to the point, I believe that prosperity thinking has drifted into the pastoral ministry more than we care to realize it. And we see it with our expectations.
My Expectations Were Way Off
I’ll just go ahead and put myself out there and perhaps you will benefit. I’ve been in full-time ministry now for just over 10 years. I’ve had some bad days and some really bad days. But, overall it has been pretty positive. I don’t have anything worth complaining about. But guess what? I have complained. And do you know why? Among other things, my expectations for ministry were out of whack.
In my thinking and in my experience I basically had a ratio of about 80 / 20; 80% positive and 20% negative. Then stuff started happening. Strange stuff. Compounding stuff. Some days I felt like I couldn’t flip the field position (to use a football analogy); we were stuck in our own territory. Providentially, I was reading and studying the prophets and found myself properly warned and instructed. I started studying the topic of contentment and my heart was melted. Like a car out of alignment my pastoral calibration was off. My expectations were not commensurate with my experience. Further, my expectations were not lined up with the job description. This is a recipe for discontentment.
Scripture Calibrates our Expectations
While studying contentment I concluded that if I am not in hell I should be happy. I get mercy! I get life! I get hope! What am I discouraged about? In this study I felt like I got to know Paul better. How could he learn to be content (Phil. 4:11) without having difficult and blessing (Phil. 4:12)? How could I miss it? Suffering, disappointment and difficult are part of the deal (Phil. 1:29).
I missed it because of prosperity thinking. It has it devilish tentacles in everything. I believe that my ratios (80/20) were flipped. What would happen if I believed that I deserved 0% good and 100 % bad? Could I be content? What if expectations (based upon the NT tone, church history, conversations with other pastors, and increasingly my experience), were really about 20% good and 80% difficult? Could I be content?
I believe that this is the ballpark estimate of what a healthy and reasonable pastoral expectation should be. It’s going to be hard about three-quarters of the time. Pastors will spend most of their time underwater; they will come up and get fresh air only to go back under again. If we experience better times and the ratios balance out then God should be praised. However, if it gets worse, and the difficult time goes to 90 or 95%, then we should remember what we deserve. God has been and remains so kind to us. He never leaves nor forsakes us, even in the difficult times (Heb. 13:5-6).
Contentment in ministry comes when our expectations match up with our experiences. If a pastor’s expectations are off then he has no framework to deal with the difficulty that is to come. But if they are biblically grounded and informed by the gospel then he can stand firm in the winds of adversity and stay humble in the seasons of blessing.
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