Pull up a chair, and let’s be honest.
Sometimes, ministry can travel far beyond the realm of challenging, deep into the land of downright difficult, discouraging, and overflowing with drama. Anyone want to give a testimony? But despite the challenges—even the extremely tough ones—there are ways to navigate through the difficulty, distractions, and discouragement that occasionally block us in ministry. Note that I said through—not around. These moments drift into our lives to build us, not break us; to help us, not harm us. You may doubt my words. So, as a matter of proof, let me turn to my ministry files and share one of several personal and uplifting e-mails I’ve received over the years:
It has been great working with you in children’s ministry over the last four years. Unfortunately, I need to take some time off. Please give me a call when you decide to put Jesus back into the curriculum.
Yep—this is an actual e-mail I received several years ago when we decided to make a change in our curriculum strategy and style of delivery. Did we really take Jesus out of the curriculum? No. I even offered to dress up in a robe in an effort to appease the discontented soul. (Just kidding.) Yes, it was a harsh e-mail. No, it wasn’t the worst e-mail I’ve received. I have several e-mails similar in nature from well-meaning folks who felt they needed to let me know in some way that I was an idiot, I was wrong, I wasn’t right, I wasn’t listening to them, I wasn’t following God’s will, I wasn’t following their will, or I was off base.
I get it. And I hope you do, too.
IT’S A ROCKY ROAD
Ministry is tough. Listen to what Paul had to say in 2 Corinthians 11:26: “I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And during VBS and camp and when I decided to change the curriculum or start small groups.” Okay, I added that last part. The point is this journey of ministry isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s tough stuff. The bold, resilient, and enduring not only survive but thrive.
I’ve crashed through so many quitting points, I feel like I should have insurance for it. It honestly doesn’t get or feel any easier; you just respond to it differently. When it gets really tough, though, take a deep look into Joseph’s eyes. He’ll give you sympathy, empathy, and a great perspective.
“Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they came closer. And he said again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh-the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8).
Take note of that last line. Even after all the stuff Joseph had been through, he was void of resentment, negativity, or blame. After all his brothers had done to him and after all that had happened to Joseph, he tells his brothers, “It was God who sent me here.” Talk about forgiveness, answering evil with good, and loving those who harm you! Joseph was the poster child. He’s also a reminder about how to respond to difficulty, discouragement, and drama in ministry.
THE POTHOLES CAN SWALLOW YOU
I remember stopping a program that had existed at church for several years. Wow. You think you get flack for starting something new, just try stopping something that’s been around for a while. Can I get an “amen”? This action resulted in the single most devastating comment I’ve ever received from someone. I had a rather long meeting with a few folks who wanted to encourage me to continue the program in question. I let them know that this particular program would, unfortunately, not be continuing. There was a volley of several hurtful comments, but the one that took the prize came from a lady who said she and her family were going to leave the church, write a letter to the pastor, and-for the grand finale—start praying for evil to happen to me and my family.
What do you say to that? “Hey, thanks. Maybe we can grab a latte sometime?”
Stunned, I quickly retreated to my office, closed the door, and stared at the Navajo White wall for almost an hour. I’m sure this is why most children’s pastors have offices with no windows to jump out of. I started second-guessing myself. Was I right to make the change? Was I really the idiot that these people apparently took me for? I was on a slippery slope of really depressing questions.
So please, if this is where you are today—stop! Let’s say you did make the wrong choice. You blew it; the new program is a bust. That’s the worst-case scenario, right? Don’t beat yourself up over it. Call it an experiment and move on. Easier said than done, I know. But be encouraged: The things that are the toughest for you right now will be hilarious illustrations later. Keep a file; you’ll have a book in 10 years.
REALIZE THE CONSTRUCTION NEVER ENDS
I literally have a file on my computer that I call “Stuff I Have to Deal With.” It contains disgruntled e-mails, comment cards, and conversations with parents, staff, and bosses. I also have one that’s simply called “Encouragements.” It’s filled with e-mails, comment cards, and conversations with parents, staff, and bosses. It’s bigger than the first file, and it’s a reminder to me that encouragement will ultimately prevail. Yes, it may be tough today, this week, this month, this year, or longer. But hang in there knowing that joy will ultimately be unveiled.
God will bring to you that right message, unexpected phone call, encouraging e-mail, or (my favorite) a $10 Starbucks card. The joy is in front of us, not behind us.
Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. If you give up, you’ll miss out on the joy of a child becoming a follower of Jesus, the joy of seeing a leader move to the next level, the joy of watching parents “get it” and create healthy environments for their families.
The bad-attitude folks are few and far between—but they’re loud and obnoxious. If you’re anything like me, I tend to focus on the negative feedback. When I do, I allow the joy to be stolen from me. Yes, it’s hard; yes, it’s frustrating; yes, sometimes we daydream about a job with no interaction with others. But that’s not why you and I were created. How do I know? Because you’re reading this article.
THREE OFF RAMPS TO A SMOOTHER RIDE
There are some really practical rules you can use to help handle the toughest parts of ministry.
1. Develop Thick Skin and a Sensitive Heart
I guess another way to say this is, “Have a magnet in your heart and a compass in your head.” If I were to look back over the past few years, I’d say I wish I’d developed a more sensitive heart rather than thicker skin. The key is to simply have balance in both.
2. Respond, Don’t React
I like to use the 24-hour rule when I receive an e-mail that has the hint of negativity. That’s because sometimes my emotions hijack my fingers, and in one quick moment, I’ll have written a slightly sarcastic response and hit the send button. Yes, it’s true. In these cases, I’ve reacted, not responded. In situations like this, I’ve learned to apply the 24-hour rule that says I can’t respond to a negative e-mail until I’ve waited 24 hours. Usually my emotions have returned to normal, and I have a better response.
3. Outlast Your Critics
I have a personal theory. I think there are about 15 people who drive around together in a van from church to church. They spread their discontent with just about everything that’s going on. They thrive on pointing out your mistakes, correcting your path, and adjusting your perspective. They’re so negative it’s like they’re earning some kind of award for it. No matter what church you go to, you’ll meet these people. So don’t be surprised when their van unloads. My point is, the goal is to simply outlast those who are critical of you. Eventually, they will get back in the van and head over to another church.
• • •
I like what Oswald Chambers said in his reflection on John 13:38: “Jesus doesn’t ask me to die for him, but to lay down my life for him. It’s much easier to die than to lay down your life day in and day out.”
That’s it, isn’t it? The day-in-and-day-out doing life together, making a difference together. Words like enduring, persisting, continuing, and persevering are the backbone of strong leadership and earnest resolve. If you’ve never been discouraged or experienced the tough road of ministry, God bless you. It’s coming. For the rest of us tattered, war-torn, and battled ministry warriors: Hang in there. You’re loved and valued, and you’ll reap a harvest. Don’t give up.