This article is part of the How to Pray series.
Battles that the Pastor Fights
Every pastor is a unique person with his own gifting and personality, strengths and weaknesses; but most pastors also have several things in common. Most of us battle insecurity. Too often we’re workaholics and perfectionists. We tend to obsess over what others think about us. We almost always deny—especially to other pastors—that we care what people think about us. We battle discouragement. We don’t like Mondays.
And if we’ve been in the pastorate very long, we most likely have considered walking away and doing something else—anything else—with our lives. I once had a pastor friend who had grown so depressed that he tried to talk his wife into helping him intentionally disqualify himself from ministry. By God’s grace, I was able to talk him out of that absurd notion.
Given what I’ve just written, what I’m going to say next may sound odd: despite the hardships (usually seasonal and not always present), I love being a pastor and don’t want to do anything else with my life—most of the time.
But there was one specific time when I wanted to walk away. I had just finished the third year of my first full-time pastorate. That year had been hellish, to say the least. Year number two had not been very good either. The first year? It was no honeymoon period.
But the event that made me want to run fast and far came after I finished preaching one Sunday morning in the spring of 2014. A fellow elder—to the shock of my family and the congregation—rose, ascended to the pulpit, and called for a vote of confidence on me as my wife and four young children looked on from the second row. His confidence in my leadership was shot—he called me “a failed leader.” If I was standing on the cliff of goodbye, those words pushed me over the edge.
The congregation remained silent and refused to vote for or against me, but at that moment I knew this was the end. I was done here—and maybe done in ministry altogether. Seven days later, I stood in the same pulpit and read my letter of resignation, trying unsuccessfully to hold back thirty-six months of bitter tears. I’m not normally the crying type, but the dam broke. And so did I.
The next morning, I told my family we were returning to my hometown where I would restart my former career as a newspaper journalist. I was angry at the congregation—and at God. My erstwhile elder’s words echoed through my brain. How could a failed leader be called to shepherd God’s people?
But I did the only thing I could: I read the Psalms. I read 2 Corinthians so many times that I memorized much of it. And I prayed for hours every day. What does a pastor who’s on the verge of leaving ministry pray? Here are a few things I prayed:
1. I prayed that God would help me take the long view.
Satan often uses emotions as weapons against us. This seems doubly true for pastors. I can’t tell you how many Mondays, especially during my early years as a pastor, I wondered if I would be better at something else. Maybe my sermon had fallen flat, or a critic had unburdened himself to me at the door or in an email.
If ministry has taught me anything, it’s the lesson that Jesus taught in Mark 4:26–29: I am not in control and nothing good happens overnight. Soon it became evident that I must not make a rash decision to quit ministry based purely on emotion. Over time, God’s will would become clear. So I then moved onto number two.
2. I prayed for illuminating providences.
What were the facts telling me? Were other churches interested in bringing me on as pastor? Were there opportunities to preach as a guest in other pulpits? Were younger/newer pastors still seeking my advice? The more I thought about leaving ministry, the more doors opened in each of these categories. After leaving my first church, I was preaching somewhere almost every weekend.
One group from my former church wanted to plant a church with me as pastor. It was not a good idea, but I hoped it was telling. Two other churches asked me to submit my resume for pastoral openings. Another called me, interviewed me, and within one week offered me the role of senior pastor. I wasn’t given much of a chance to think and pray it over, so I turned it down; but the opportunity itself helped to clarify things. I was praying that God would show me what to do, and he was making it clear. Because he gave me a few illuminating providences, I was by no means done as a pastor.
3. I prayed that God would change my heart toward ministry.
I wanted to be drawn to another vocation. At one point, I nearly took a job out of ministry in my hometown. It paid well. I had known my potential employer all my life. It would be safe—a shelter from the pouring rain of criticism, a fortress from the gawking eyes that seemed to watch eagerly for my downfall. I also considered returning to newspaper journalism, which had been my pre-ministry vocation.
But here was the rub: I still wanted to be a pastor. God wasn’t changing my desires. If anything, absence from the pastorate was making my heart grow fonder for it. To me, that was reason enough to continue to ask God for an open door in ministry.
It’s easy to make good things, like pastoral ministry, into God-substitutes.
4. I prayed that God would help me find my identity in Christ, not in being a pastor.
I’ll admit that sometimes I wonder if my identity is bound up in being the man who leads the church and does most of the preaching. Before I surrendered to vocational ministry and attended seminary, I worked as a newspaper journalist. I pursued greatness in that field with every fiber of my being, often working seventy to ninety hours per week. If you would have asked me who I was, I would have said, “I’m a journalist.” It sat at the core of my identity. As I’ve searched my heart in the years since, I believe it was an idol.
It’s easy to make good things, like pastoral ministry, into God-substitutes. Ask God to examine your heart and help you to answer this question honestly: Would I be happy if I never served as a pastor again and “merely” existed as an active and faithful member of a solid church? One of my mentors asked this of me while I was working through whether or not to remain in ministry. Ever since then, I’ve prayed that God would enable me to hold on to pastoral ministry loosely and cling to Christ tightly, finding my satisfaction and identity in him. Pastoral ministry makes a poor god.
5. I prayed for humility and sanctification.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” Over the years, I’ve tried imperfectly to make that a tireless pursuit—killing sin and praying for God to plant and grow the Spirit’s fruit in me. Particularly during times of doubt, I’ve asked God to use my circumstances to make me like Jesus, to make me holy. One of the most frightening verses in all of Scripture is Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Do you see why that’s frightening? Pursuing holiness is more fundamental and serious than the question “Am I really called to ministry?”
I’m convinced that seasons of affliction and doubt in ministry serve as opportunities for heightened growth and maturity. To paraphrase John Piper, I’ve asked God not to waste my suffering and doubt, but to make it a catalyst for raising up an abundant harvest of righteousness in me. Do we always know what God is doing when we suffer or doubt? No. In fact, I don’t think we usually know exactly what God is doing in or through us because the Christian life is a race of faith (Heb. 12:1–2). But we can rest assured that he is working in us and for us in 10,000 ways that our eyes cannot see.
6. I prayed for persevering grace.
It's important, too, to pray for preserving grace. Often, we think of God’s grace simply in terms of salvation. However, the God who saves us by grace also keeps us by grace. The entire book of Hebrews is a sermon on enduring grace.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints may also be understood as God’s preservation of the saints (Ps. 31:23b). Write this over the door of your heart: “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (Heb. 10:36) Pray every single day for fresh waves of grace to crash upon the shores of your life and ministry.
If you pastor for very long, you’re going to doubt your calling. Don’t waste the opportunity for maturity. Let it drive you to your knees.
Jeff Robinson Sr. is the co-editor with Collin Hansen of Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime.
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