Pastors get discouraged. But they don’t often come right out and say it, do they? Instead, like a disabled war veteran skilled at veiling his persistent pain, pastors tend to bury their grimaces under the surface and press on. But the pain persists. And so does the limp if you look closely.
I’m not breaking any news by saying that pastoral ministry is challenging and that the last two years have been especially so. I’m not writing this to engender sympathy but to provide perspective. I don’t want anyone’s pity, and I’m sure my brothers don’t either. At the same time, I don’t think pastors do a great job recognizing and processing discouragement. I also don’t believe that many in the church have it on their radar to encourage their pastor. So here, in the middle of what’s known as Pastor Appreciation Month, I want to speak for and to pastors, hoping to shift the winds of discouragement during this season.
Symptoms of Discouragement
When I look within myself or without towards my friends and colleagues, I see a variety of manifestations of discouragement. Guys are hurting. Here are ten symptoms of discouragement.
Spiritual Dryness: Pastors are trying to pray but feel like the prayers aren’t reaching the ceiling. In the past, it seemed like their prayers would light with the ease of a zippo lighter, but now they feel like they are rubbing two sticks together. Their hearts feel cold, and the wood seems wet.
Depression: Maybe not clinically diagnosed, but there’s an abiding sense that the dark clouds have moved in. And they’re not moving out. This can look like a bad mood. But it can be far worse, with inactivity, physical and mental atrophy, even suicide. This is far more prevalent than people want to admit or realize.
I’m not going out on a limb to say that your pastor is probably discouraged. It’s time to do something about it.
Insomnia: Many pastors aren’t sleeping. Burdened with the weight of current decisions, the regret of past decisions, difficult counseling situations, fear over the future, guilt over personal sin, and the compounding broken heart from people walking away from Christ or his church—they feel like they’re sleeping on a bed of thorns. Being exhausted and unable to sleep takes its toll. It fuels a cycle of discouragement.
Weight gain: Like most in the rest of the world, these last couple of years have reshaped us (figuratively and literally). And like others, pastors feel the need for comfort. Unfortunately, turning to food, drink, or recreation for our comfort will not only fail them, but it will also compound our problem by diminishing their physical health to match their spiritual counterpart. The extra inches on the waist may be a manifestation of discouragement. The tears of our hearts can land in surprising places.
Diminishing zeal: Pastors got into ministry because of a degree of zeal. Now they feel like they’re walking into a headwind of adversity that will not decrease. When walking in a snow storm up a hill, even the most ardent outdoorsman will entertain thoughts of turning back.
Resignations: It’s no secret that pastors are resigning in record numbers. Most reading this article can think of a few they know who’ve left the ministry. It’s hard feeling like they’re serving in a fruitless ministry. Pastors can even feel like the boat of ministry is taking on water because they are the Jonah; maybe things will be better if they get out. This is the reasoning and wisdom when sailing in the doldrums. It’s a painful place.
Knife fights: I’ve watched several guys who in the past seemed reasonable become far more argumentative. There may be a lot of reasons for this, but I think for some, there’s a reaction to how they’ve been treated in ministry. They punch back online or in print because they’re sick of taking hits in other ways. I’m not excusing a penchant for pugilism, but I think discouragement in ministry is a factor. When I see the Twitter tirades, I wonder how the brother’s last elder meeting went. There may be a million things going on, but I’m pretty sure he’s discouraged. I’m burdened for him.
Tribalism: Similarly, I think the increased tribalism amongst guys who used to be more broadly ecumenical can be partially understood in light of a yearning for unity. They’re sick of taking fire. They want to get a win. The tribe may help when they go to the conference, but the discouragement from the field lingers. It can’t heal the hurt. Sometimes it only masks it, and the encouragement deepens.
Distractions: Like the rest of society, pastors can be drawn after various shiny objects. When it feels like our heart is bleeding out and the work is arduous, distractions can quickly lure us. Unfortunately, we have a million examples of distractions today. If pastors are distracted, it may be because they lack discipline. But it might be because they are up to their necks in discouragement.
Self-Righteousness: Whether the source or the result (or both) of discouragement, self-righteousness is a problem. It’s just as rampant in ministry as in the pew. When we are self-righteous, then we are overvaluing our merit. We see the stinger in the tail when God “crosses our fair designs” and permits us to endure difficult seasons. Whether subtly or explicitly, the self-righteous pastor will feel, think, or say, “This isn’t fair. I’ve served you all these years, and this is what I get?!” Self-righteousness whispers, “It’s not worth it. Go and do something else where you’re appreciated.” This springs from and leads to discouragement.
I could list a dozen more, but you get the point. A lot is going on; I don’t think it’s all we see on the surface. Discouragement peaks out from under a million different rocks. And it’s never pretty.
The work of ministry takes its toll and those who pastor and care about pastors should keep their eyes and hearts open, and their prayers regular.
Antidotes for Discouragement
What can we (church members and pastors) do about discouragement? Here are a few practical antidotes for treating discouragement.
Encourage them: I’ve heard of many churches brainstorming ways to encourage and bless their pastors. Praise God for these faithful congregations! They may identify things such as giving him a sabbatical, increasing his salary, or sending him to a conference. These are all good things that he’d no doubt appreciate. But, there’s one gift that he will always need. It’s less expensive and likely more valuable. Encouragement. Since pastors get discouraged too, a congregation could bless their pastor simply by speaking words of encouragement to him. Talk to him about the Lord’s faithfulness, the power of the Word, the way God has used the ministry of the Word in your life, how you’re praying for him, etc. Imagine if a quarter of the church made it their priority to encourage their pastor? They might just save his ministry (Heb. 3:13).
Spend time with Jesus: Pastors, we need Jesus, not just orthodox theology. Thomas Goodwin reminded me of this point. He says that we can become guilty of gazing upon Christ through secondary reflections. Pastors can be active in the ministry, the study, and various favorite graces but not draw near to Christ himself. Goodwin says, “What a shame it is for believers themselves, who are his spouse, to look upon their husband no otherwise but by reflection and at second hand, through the intervention and assistance of their own graces, as mediators between him and them.” God forbid that we have any other mediator but Christ (1 Tim. 2:5)! So, brother pastors, spend time getting to better know, esteem, love, and value Jesus (Phil. 2:1, 4:8).
Finish the day: I can think of dozens of conversations I’ve had with pastors where they are overwhelmed. Never mind ending their lives as a pastor; they can’t even imagine finishing the month––or the week. They’re bent over, sucking wind, ready to be done. Here’s where the perspective needs to shift. In the middle of hard times, it’s not about finishing your career this year, the month, or even the week. It’s about the day. Faithfully finish the day. Your goal is to get to the end of the day, even through tears and grimaces, still trusting and treasuring Jesus (Heb. 12:1–13). You want to lay your head on your pillow and say, “Lord, thank you for keeping me in your fold for another day. You are a good and faithful shepherd.” Then wake up and, by God’s grace, do it again tomorrow. Stack enough of these days, and one day you’ll wake up, and the pastoral limp will be gone—no more pain. You’ll enter the eternal day, your everlasting sabbath. Then you’ll be home, face to face with your Chief Shepherd! Then it will be gain!
The work of ministry takes its toll, and those who pastor and care about pastors should keep their eyes and hearts open, and their prayers regular.