I was young. I was highly educated. (I had just earned a Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.) I was recently married, and I had just left a church where I was loved and had seen much success as a pastor. In my own estimation, I was a pretty decent preacher and a fairly competent leader. I seemed poised for greatness as I entered my new ministry field. As I stepped into my new pastorate I envisioned myself leading one of the fastest growing churches in the area. I envisioned many people coming to faith in Christ. I envisioned a “successful” ministry.
At first, it seemed as if what I envisioned for myself and my new church was going to come to fruition. In that first year, we saw people come to faith in Christ and new families join our church. However, in the years that would follow, that initial excitement would wane, and ministry would become a mixture of joy and struggle. People would still come to faith in Christ under my leadership, and families would still unite with our church through membership. However, the rapid growth that I envisioned never happened. As soon as one family joined the church, another family would leave in dissatisfaction over something they didn’t agree with. It was painful, and I took it way too personally.
In my mind, I was doing everything “right.” I was preaching the best I knew how, and I was trying to lead in the way that all the church growth and church health books prescribed. At one point, our church even brought in a church consultant and followed his advice. No matter what we tried, it seemed like we couldn’t gain any traction numerically. Families would come, and families would go. It was frustrating. After all, I began with such high hopes of a thriving, growing church, and it just wasn’t happening. I became discouraged; even depressed. Honestly, there were some days that I wondered if I was even cut out for ministry. I spent more evenings than I want to admit searching the internet for other career opportunities. I flirted with going back to school to get a business degree or going into counseling.
Even though we never saw the growth I anticipated, I was right where God wanted me. Through that season of ministry, God was doing a work in me. Looking back, here’s what I learned from my season of “unsuccessful” ministry:
(1) I need the struggle.
The reality is I entered that pastorate with much pride. I was on top of the world and thought I could accomplish any goal I set my mind to if I just worked hard enough. What God needed to do in my life was humble me. He needed to teach me that ultimately ministry is not about me accomplishing my goals or achieving my desire for success. Ministry is about His glory; not mine. God put me through a necessary struggle to humble me and remind me that I too often focus on me rather than His glory. Just like me, you need the struggle as well. You need for God to humble you and remind you that your life is to be lived for His glory; not your own.
(2) I need to endure the seasons of ministry.
There are different seasons of ministry. Some seasons are seasons of tilling up hard ground. Some seasons are seasons of planting. Some seasons are seasons of harvesting. You simply won’t always be in a season of harvest. Much of ministry is tilling up the soil and planting seeds of the Gospel. There will be seasons of growth, and there will be other seasons where it seems as if the growth is never coming. No matter what season of ministry God has us in as pastors, we need to be reminded that God is at work in every season. We also need to learn to be content and rejoice that we are chosen by God to be a part of His work. After all, as difficult as ministry might be, can you really think of any other work that is more rewarding than being able to shepherd God’s people? Yes, the work is difficult, and yes, it is even painful at times. However, in spite of the struggles and the pain, those of us who have the privilege to serve as vocational ministers get the opportunity to spend our lives serving Jesus and His people. I don’t know what season you are experiencing in your present ministry, but I do know that if you are submitting to His leadership, He is using you. I know there are many days of discouragement, but do not give up. Endure the season you are in.
(3) I am not laboring in vain.
While we didn’t see much numerical growth in the church I pastored after seminary, God was at work in many other ways that I unfortunately took for granted. We cultivated a renewed passion for discipleship and missions. We saw many men commit to intentional disciple-making relationships. We saw many of our members engage in God’s work overseas through short-term international mission trips. While we didn’t see people come to Christ in droves, our church members became much more intentional in sharing the Gospel. I was not laboring in vain. God was at work in the life of that church. We may not have seen the numerical growth I wanted to see, but He was at work in profound ways. The reality is, this side of eternity, I will not see all the ways God was at work during that season of ministry, but I am confident that He knew exactly what He was doing in that season of ministry. My friend, if you are struggling in ministry, know that your labor is not in vain. If you are faithfully serving Him, you can be certain that He is at work through you. Only eternity will tell the profound ways that God is using you in this very moment, even in you feel like you are struggling. More than you long to hear the accolades of man for pastoring the fastest growing church in the area, labor to hear God say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”