Stoking the Dimly Burning Wick

It’s another Sunday afternoon in the pastor’s house. He lives for Sunday mornings but dies by Sunday night. Like Elijah, he slinks from Carmel to cave in a few short hours. He wakes up eagerly with glorious expectations only to lay down fitfully with questions. Does anybody care about the things of God? Is there a bud on any of the trees? Is anyone hungry for something, anything resembling godliness? Does anyone like talking about the Bible? Do matters of the soul matter to anyone?

Inevitably these questions drift from “them” to “me.” Maybe it’s me. After some years we should expect some quantifiable growth, right? Even a pruned tree comes back in the Spring. Am I right for this church? Maybe we just want different things from each other. Am I even right for ministry? Maybe I misunderstood the yearning I thought God was giving me. Maybe folks were just tickling my ears when I asked them about pastoral ministry. Maybe I’m doing more harm than good. There are fewer people doing fewer things on a slimmer budget. Is the ship sinking or did I run it aground? I love what I do, but hate what I’ve done. Am I crazy? Have I preached the right gospel? Where are the classifieds?

Pastoral discouragement takes a painful on the best of us. I was asked recently how I would counsel someone in the scenario summarized above. Hence, this post. It seems I’m becoming something of an expert on pastoral discouragement! By God’s grace, may what follows be helpful for you or those you might find in similar circumstances.

Some introductory comments are in order. One, don’t do too much introspection on Sunday afternoons or Monday mornings. It’s not helpful. The evidence of grace is much clearer on Tuesday. But it’s just not that easy, is it?

Two, God has designed ministry to kill you. It killed Jesus and it will kill us. Paul spoke of his ministry perhaps more in terms of dying than living (2 Cor 4.11-12; Gal 6.17; Phil 2.17). He even lumped his concern for the churches in with the pain of imprisonments, beatings, starvations, drownings and muggings (2 Cor 11.23-29). Therefore, the pangs of discouragement are the sounds of a man giving his life away for God’s people. It’s the sound of man making his home in a cemetery, hoping that today will be the day life springs eternal. God will make sure Jesus is the only one left standing in the battle royal for souls.

I recently asked my childhood pastor if he ever wondered what he was doing in ministry? He said, “How about the first twenty years?” So for many of us we’ve got at least a decade more of this stuff to go!

With that said ask yourself these questions, in this order (think flowchart):

1. How is my marriage and family? Paul teaches us that a pastor’s home will influence the church far more than the reverse (1 Tim 3.4-5). The first place Paul expects the church to look for pastoral fitness is his home. Therefore, all the questions we ask about the church must first be asked about the home. Do I see fruit in my wife and children? Is there interest in the Word at home? Am I teaching my home how to pray? If not, then I cannot expect those things from the church. Improve these areas first and then see how God affects the church in turn.

2. If you can honestly answer “yes” to the above, then I’d ask the question to which I often hate the answer. Do I desire spiritual growth in my church because I love the people so much that I truly want them to escape hell and enjoy Christ (Rom 10.1)? Or, do I want spiritual growth because I want to be known as a pastor who grows people spiritually? In other words, do I want their growth for my sake or theirs (and Christ’s)? Do I want more fruit because of it what it will say about me or Jesus? Do I gravitate towards those who make me look good or Jesus look glorious?

3. If you can answer humbly to all the above, then I would ask if I overemphasize corporate concerns at the expense of individual souls. We must absolutely protect the corporate nature/integrity/purity of the church. But, I’m often guilty of emphasizing it so much that I fail to invest in individual souls. That’s like a shepherd caring for the flock, but neglects the sheep. That’s like a captain running a tight ship with little concern for the sailor.

I’m afraid this is one of the pitfalls of church reformation.  Look, we’ll not all be Capitol Hill Baptist Church. If not careful, we may do more lording for the institution than leading souls to Christ’s lordship (1 Pt 5.1-3). Am I finding out what makes folks tick and how I can best sow seeds of life in them? Am I connecting with people/families despite their apathy toward the church? Sometimes we may have to long endure bad doctrine, anemic constitutions and poor churchmanship for the sake of shepherding souls.

4. If I can testify to a consistent, careful (albeit imperfect) attention to souls, then it might just be that God has simply called me to an especially difficult ministry. Such is not all that uncommon in Scripture. Paul threw up his hands a time or two. Isaiah and Jeremiah had pathetic “track records.” God called Isaiah to preach until folks grew deaf! His preaching was primarily a ministry of God’s judgment. Timothy’s experience wasn’t all Hawaiian shirts and sexy staging. Biblical ministry is impossibly hard; that’s why not many folks/churches do it.

There are more churches than I’d care to count who have longstanding conflict and unrepentant sin. Even worse, they’re full of unregenerate members. If we preach to/on those issues then many folks will leave. That’s what they do when they don’t want to deal with conflict biblically. We must make sure that if we must preach to/on those issues we do so with profound humility and prayer.

5. If I can come to terms with #4, then !– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>do I preach and pray with the same passion as I would with hungry souls? Have I sloughed off my preparation because the church doesn’t expect much anyway? Has a critical spirit or hate set in that needs confessing and repenting from? Have I resorted to using a “bully pulpit” to take out my anger? Will I believe that when God says he uses foolish means, he means it? Will I pray that God help me love twice-dead sheep twice as much?

6. These aren’t all the questions by far (or maybe not even the right ones!), but they’re a good start toward clawing out of discouragement. Other practical questions might include the condition of the church before we came. Has it ever been a vibrant, God-centered, biblically-functioning body? What’s been the typical pastoral tenure? Have their pastors simply ridden out the honeymoon period, hit the wall and left? Sometimes we expect 3-year-olds to do calculus.

Discouragement is strangely a means of God’s grace. By it God breaks me down in order to kill more pride in my heart. Jesus doesn’t need me for his church to prosper, and that’s a hard realization to come to. I need Jesus for me to prosper. I’m not entitled to preach or be heard. I’m entitled to hell and anything less is God’s gift to me. Will I be content in Christ even if God has to strip my ministry to do it?

Also, find a way to get around other pastors. Discouragement shrinks our world. Brotherhood enlarges it. We’ve started a monthly pastors fellowship in our town. It’s only four of us and I’m the only Calvinist. But it’s a tremendous boon to my soul and it improves our churches’ reputations and faithfulness. Our church isn’t so bad after all! We simply read/discuss a book and pray for our ministries/churches. It’s amazing how members change when they know the local pastors talk!

While I hope this helps, I would much rather entrust you to those who’ve hurdled far more than I have. Take a seasoned, gray-haired, weathered, wrinkled pastor to lunch and ask him this question: What do you know now that you would’ve loved to know when you started? Some things we have to learn by experience, but many experiences would be different if we’d learned.

13 thoughts on “Stoking the Dimly Burning Wick

  1. Great post BJ. Glad you are posting on such things as this as I am sure it is will be helpful to any pastor who stumbles upon it.

    You said: It’s only four of us and I’m the only Calvinist.

    What happened to Preston?

    j razz

  2. Thanks for your kind words, my brother. I’m glad at least you “stumbled” by.

    God be praised that Preston is still with us, my friend. But because of his “real” job it’s hard for him to meet with us. Besides, and as you well know, and thankfully, he’d much rather hang out w/the untouchables than some preppy pastors.


  3. Great post once more, Barry. Thanks for sharing this with everyone. There is much pastoral wisdom here.

  4. In too many ways you have expressed my heart. I am so close to breaking and yet my love for the people my Lord has given me is beyond expression. Truly I must only look to my God and my source of hope for I do despair.

    All of that to say, I thank you for your post. It reminds me of many things, most of all that I have feet of clay and Christ is is supreme.

  5. Thank you for a timely article. By God’s providence your words are a direct response to concerns and questions I have been raising and even posed to another ( one who is your friend, I think).
    I think your “flow chart” is a usable thought process to lead to biblical attitude and actions. I will prayerfully put it into practice today.

  6. Jeff, God is your ever-present help, my friend. You will soon see God’s light breaking through the clouds. May he richly bless you, yours and your congregation.

  7. While I am not a pastor, I am a missionary struggling with several of the questions and concerns you raised. I appreciate you laying things out there, it was helpful to me.

  8. Blessings, Jamie, on your ministry. You may not be Pastor-with-a-capital-P, but you certainly shepherd people. God will supply ample grace to do so.

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