What to Remember When It’s Going Poorly


“Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Pastoral ministry is seasonal. I made this simple observation in my last article, “What to Remember When Pastoring Is Going Well.” Briefly, we thought through together the seasons of ministerial abundance. But what about the hard times? What should we remember when tragedy overwhelms us, or when we lose our way in confusion, or when we seem unable to please anyone and the congregation is stiff and cold—or even walking out?

1. Remember to accept hardship as ultimately from the Lord himself.

If the people aren’t responding well, maybe you’re the reason. Maybe, without realizing it, you’re doing something to put them off, sabotaging your ministry. It might not be you at all. But maybe?

“Who can discern his errors?” (Ps. 19:12), David asked. In verse 13 he speaks of “presumptuous sins”—proudly obstinate sins. But the “errors” in verse 12 are a matter of our obliviousness. We can offend our Lord and step on people with the best of intentions! So our loving Lord allows the negative impact of our errors to land on us. It hurts. But that shock and embarrassment—it is of the Lord. He is opening our eyes, so that next time we’ll be more careful, more sensitive, more respectful. Let us therefore deeply accept our Lord’s discipline and let our defenses down and have a good laugh at ourselves—and do some healthy changing.

We ministers, in accepting the Lord’s call to gospel work, have planted our flag for his kingdom with profound sincerity of heart. But sincerity is not enough. Indeed, our earnest sincerity can, by its very nature, make us feel more virtuous than we really are. We need others to help us discern our irritating mannerisms and discourteous words and unconvincing emphases. It’s like a guy with bad breath. Who will love him enough to tell him?

I believe that every man should be in regular conversation with other godly men, with this humble appeal as the agenda: “Brothers, help me see myself.” Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Who can be above it? Your dear wife will help you, of course. But she might be too biased in your favor. Let other men, whom you trust, help you too. The Lord himself will be in it all, honoring your humble openness. Brother, your ministry can become “acceptable to the saints” (Rom. 15:31).

Remember to stay teachable.

2. Remember that you are fully equipped in every essential.

I love 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 where Paul rejoices in his ministry. He knows what he has going for him, even with his modest persona and rattled nerves. Moving through the sophisticated cultures of our world, as Paul did then, facing both passive indifference and bold rejection, what can you and I count on everywhere we go? Nothing less than “the testimony of God, . . . Jesus Christ and him crucified, . . . the demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” What in all this world can compete with that?

Your church might be small in numbers, but you are mighty with divine power. You might be lowly in prestige, but you are exalted with Triune glories. You might be limited in programs, but you are immeasurable in eternal significance. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Stop resenting that big church across the street. Your small church is fully equipped in every essential with the truth of the gospel and the power of the Spirit. Your small church might well become Ground Zero for the next worldwide awakening.

How wonderful to remember that, with God, you just never know what he might do next! Stay close to him. Keep “swinging for the fence.” And the Lord will surprise you with encouragements and breakthroughs, as you give your all to him.

Remember to stay confident.

3. Remember that your rugged, cheerful endurance will prevail.

The power of faithfulness is so great, our Lord Himself claims it as one of his own glories: “the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” (Deut. 7:9). If our Lord doesn’t resort to a quick-fix but works faithfully over the long-haul, can we resent walking that same path?

We don’t like patient waiting. Amazon Prime is counting on us being impatient! But it is those who “wait on the Lord” who renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31). The medieval rabbi, David Kimchi, explained that that Hebrew word “wait” suggests stretching, lengthening, extending. So “waiting on the Lord” is not like resting in a hammock with a glass of iced tea; it’s like holding a plank position until our coach tells us we’re done. But that place of unresolved tension is spiritually creative and surprisingly refreshing. Our strength is renewed. So we fight on, and we will prevail, because the Lord will come through for us.

“We wait with patience” (Rom. 8:25). The early church understood that. Yes, they saw miracles. But look at Romans 16 and how Paul greets his friends: “They risked their necks, . . . he worked hard, . . . my fellow prisoners,” and so forth. They were powerless. But they prevailed. How? They waited with patience and refused to quit. They believed God is in no hurry, so they were in no hurry. They believed God is in control, so they felt no need to be in control. They believed God is powerful, so they didn’t get pushy. Bishop Cyprian wrote to his suffering people, “As servants and worshipers of God, let us show the patience that we learn from the heavenly teachings. For that virtue we have in common with God.”

One final thought. The world is racing toward final judgment. But God is with us. All his promises are true, all his purposes successful. And now it’s our turn, in our generation, to bear witness to his glory. How? Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going. And when we’ve done that, keep going! And that is how we prevail.

Remember to stay faithful.

Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is a Pastor to Pastors at Immanuel Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find him on Twitter at @rayortlund.

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