Pursuing Joy in Pastoral Ministry Michael White

June 2, 2017

In a letter contrasting the differing priorities of the heavenly communion of saints and the earthly, C. S. Lewis observes, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”[1] While on earth the culture at large pauses to pursue joy only on weekends and sporadic vacations, in Heaven its pursuit is a daily preoccupation. “In his presence there is fullness of joy,” and so beholding God is virtually indistinguishable from delighting in the full, forever pleasure that comes at his right hand (Ps 16:11).

Sadly, life under the sun is a dim reflection of life over it. Pastors are those who regularly confront this reality as they often walk with those in the grip of sin and its attendant brokenness. As one friend of mine often puts it, ministry consists of “high highs and low lows”—and those who have shepherded long know that these swings can come in close succession, or even simultaneously. This is the reality of life in our beautiful but broken world; creation groans and longs for redemption even as it displays the majestic glory of God.

Of course, biblical joy is far more than the saccharine happiness modeled by some; the church of Jesus Christ needs less entertainers masquerading as pastors, not more. Faithful shepherds will eschew the “pastor-as-cheerleader” or “life-coach” models popularized by some. Instead, they must be sober-minded (1 Tim 3:2), that is, they must rightly grasp the gravity of their calling. But in my experience, more pastors are overwhelmed by a tsunami of ministry sorrows than are tempted toward Six Flags over Jesus sorts of silliness. Broken marriages. Sinful stubbornness. Addiction. Devastating disease. Ungodly leaders. Apathy. These—and many more—are the sorrows that afflict the pastor. Like the Apostle Paul and his associates, pastors are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). Sorrows will surely find the faithful pastor, but joy must be sought. Pastors must be about the serious business of pursuing joy.

Genuine joy is found only in God’s presence, and no ministry will find joy unless it is centered on the great gospel of Jesus Christ and lived out in the vivifying power of the Spirit. Most critically, the pursuit of joy entails disciplined reflection on the gospel with all its manifold implications. But although the pursuit starts and ends in the gospel, I have found a number of practices to be personally joy-giving and joy-preserving, and I offer them here as prescriptions for any who may be ailing.

Pursue joy by:

(1) Taking the gospel seriously, but not yourself. Pastors are human—not hired holy men. We must, then, be the first to laugh at ourselves, the first to confess both our sin and our inadequacies, the first to say, “I don’t know.” When the church recognizes that even their shepherd is a fellow sheep, much of the pressure of pastoral ministry is diffused—allowing joy to resurge. Sadly, too many brothers would rather project an image of themselves that keeps their congregation at arm’s length.

(2) Cultivating a familial culture of grace. Church cultures are stubborn things, and few things rob joy like antagonistic and adversarial congregations. While change can be slow, leaders who model grace, transparently share their lives, and warmly embrace the varying personalities in a church can lead a church to become a place of joy. Biblical faith families overlook and forgive wrongs, deal patiently with crazy uncles, and above all, love genuinely.

(3) Maintaining appropriate boundaries. By its very nature, pastoral ministry can be all consuming. To make matters worse, the temptation for shepherds to develop messiah complexes or fall prey to people pleasing is great. (Workaholism with a spiritual veneer is an especially deadly combination.) As an antidote, pastors must discipline themselves to shut out the texts/emails/meetings that constantly beckon and engage their emotions and energies with their families. For me, playing with my children, simply talking with my wife, and escaping to the outdoors are each restorative.

(4) Prioritizing personal discipleship. In pastoral ministry, too often squeaky wheels get the grease and distract from the important work of disciple-making. But especially in hard ministry settings, the tyranny of the urgent must never crowd out the slower, longer work of developing future leaders. Pouring truth into a brother not only equips him for the work of ministry, but it can be life-giving in an otherwise difficult setting.

(5) Developing friendships with like-minded brothers. Pastoral ministry can be a lonely road, and ego can cause us to view brother pastors in neighboring churches as our competition. This lie must be rejected, and instead, mutually edifying friendships should be built where friends guard, exhort, and help one another.

(6) Borrowing from the future for the present. Full, forever joy at the Father’s right hand is our sure and stable hope. Ultimately, pastoral afflictions are momentary and light, preparing for us an eternal weight of glory that defies comparison. To preserve joy, then, we must implement the exhortation of Colossians 3:2–4: 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Press on brothers, that you may enter into the joy of your Master. And may the assurance of that day strengthen you until it dawns.

NOTES:

[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harvest, 1964), 92.

 

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