Recalibrating Sources of Encouragement: How My Sources of Joy Have Changed 10 Years into Ministry
For the last several years, I’ve attended a monthly gathering of pastors in my area. It’s interesting to hear (and overhear) the questions we commonly ask each other. Those questions often focus on Sunday worship attendance, budget, or remodeling and construction projects. From those conversations it appears that pragmatic church success metrics (bodies, budgets, and buildings) are alive and well.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that those measures are inherently bad or unimportant. People matter. Money matters. Space matters. But those aren’t the ultimate or primary measures of a church’s success. Neither should they serve as foundations for joy in the ministry.
In my decade of pastoring, I’ve undergone a shift in the sources of my joy. Perhaps I’ve had the naiveté of youth beaten out of me by the realities of pastoral labor. Have I grown jaded? I don’t think so. In fact, far from growing cynical, I think I’ve grown more joyful.
As a young pastor, I didn’t necessarily root my ministerial happiness in bodies, budgets, and buildings, but I often tethered it to externally verifiable criteria. I drank from the cisterns of productivity. I hoped for happiness in achievement. I was always looking for the elusive joy around the next big vision or ministry initiative: the next sermon series, the next membership class, the next baptismal service, the next discipleship group, the next book study, or the next missions project.
- I did this so much that I failed to see the grace-produced gospel-fruit growing right in front of me.
- The reconciled marriage between two church members.
- The forgiveness asked for and freely given by two church members after the Lord’s Supper.
- The grace given to two deacons after the death of their young sons.
- The consistent faithful plodding of nursery workers and Sunday School teachers.
- The church member initiating a discipling relationship with a new Christian.
I used to feel more joy over affirmation from public displays of gifting than observation of private acts of faithfulness. But now I’m far more encouraged by just watching a faithful deacon mow our church property than a compliment after a sermon, though those are sweet gifts of grace as well.
Here are five ways my sources of joy in the ministry have changed over the past ten years.
1. MY PACE: FROM FAST TO SLOW
First, my pace has changed. Early on, life was all about how much I could get done. I took joy in accomplishment. I was simultaneously completing two masters degrees while holding down a full-time teaching job and serving as a bi-vocational pastor. My pace was relentless.
Then, something happened: we added more children to our family.
It’s amazing how much having kids teaches you about ministry. Having children forced me to slow down. Parenting is a long work. And parenting is a great picture of pastoral ministry. Paul viewed it that way himself (1 Thess. 2:7–12) and emphasized leadership in the home as paradigmatic for leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3:4–5, Titus 1:6).
2. MY PATTERN: FROM ORGANIZATION TO FAMILY
I have some administrative gifting. I would have done well in some sort of middle management role. I have always had a mind for organization and structure. In the early years of ministry, I leveraged that gifting (I hope) for the betterment of our church. But, much of my joy in ministry was grounded in (to use a metaphor that Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have popularized) “building the trellis.”
Then, something happened: I began to understand that the trellis exists to serve the vine.
As I began to process this ministry mind-shift, I started viewing the church more relationally. I went from leading an organization to loving a family. Now certainly, the church is an organization. Administration is a vital spiritual gift and an area of ministry I actually enjoy. But it’s also an organism. The organization is meant to serve the organism. As Scotty Smith frequently says, our “to-love list” should always supersede our “to-do list.”
3. MY POSTURE: FROM STRENGTH TO WEAKNESS
I went from a bi-vocational pastor to a full-time pastor in the middle of 2014. With ten years of teaching in the rear-view mirror, I was ready to run, full steam ahead, into pastoral ministry.
Then, something happened: I had a car accident and broke my hip and femur.
Just as I was ready to plunge into ministry, the Lord laid me aside with a debilitating injury. I had surgery and months of rehab before I was able to preach again. And, when I did, I had to hobble onto the stage—at first with a walker—to open the Scriptures. If I’m honest, it was humiliating.
But it shouldn’t have been. My physical posture in those days reflected my spiritual need all of my days. I am weak.
More recently, I have been dealing with ongoing depression. Instead of seeing it as an impediment to ministry, I now see it as gift for ministry. Far from being something I should shun, I embrace it as a weakness through which Christ’s power can be displayed (2 Cor. 12:9–10). I have grown to appreciate and be refreshed by the Apostle Paul’s relentless vulnerability (2 Cor. 7:5–6).
4. MY POWER: FROM GRIT TO GRACE
Sadly, much of my early days in ministry were marked by a lot of grit. Now, to be sure, Scripture commends grit. Paul described his pastoral ministry in agonizing terms (Gal. 4:19). We’re called to work hard. We toil. We strive. We labor.
But we do this in the strength that God supplies (1 Pet. 4:11). We do this by grace (1 Cor. 15:10). We do this with his energy powerfully working in us (Col. 1:28–29).
My power for ministry is not in myself. Of all the things God has called me to do, apart from him, I can accomplish none of them. God himself must act in all the work he calls me to do. “O Lord, you have indeed done for us all our works” (Isa. 26:12).
For me, this means that prayer and patience have taken on a much more prominent place in my pastoral labors.
5. MY PASSION: FROM MINISTRY TO GOD
It’s safe to say that for quite a few years I loved the work of the Lord more than the Lord of the work. I had more passion for ministry than for God. Over the last few years, I have had to learn all over again the lesson Jesus’ had to teach his disciples near the beginning of their ministries.
In Luke 10, the disciples returned from their mission trip with joy. “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’” (Luke 10:17). Jesus responded by joining in their celebration, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).
But then he issued this caution: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Man, what a party pooper! Or, is he?
Jesus knows where true satisfaction is found, and it’s not ultimately found in what we do for God. It is found in what God has done for us. Ministry is so volatile. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes you’re loved, and sometimes you’re hated. But what God has done for us in Christ never changes. Our identity is forever changed. Our destiny is eternally secured. Brother-pastors, let’s anchor our joy to God and what he has done for us.
As I gather with pastors in the future, I long to create a different atmosphere, one where the conversation becomes less about what we see, and more about the future we don’t yet see but is nearer now than when we first believed.