Pastoring is hard. You might assume the people chosen by God to carry out his message and purpose would be the most emotionally stable and healthy, but that has never been the case. All you have to do is search the Bible to find countless men and women being used by God in amazing ways, while at the same time struggling to keep a pure heart and emotional strength.
- Noah saved civilization but drank himself to sleep after the flood.
- Jacob battled insecurity and fear, expecting to reap the deceit he had sown in his family.
- Moses had a temper and allowed past failure to traumatize him so badly that when God personally invited him to be the deliverer of Egypt, he repeatedly turned Him down.
- Elijah and David battled extreme mood swings and depression.
- Many of the disciples were egomaniacs with a thirst for power, and the Apostle Paul was tormented by something so significant he refused to talk about it.
Fortunately, for you and me, having all of our issues resolved has never been a prerequisite for being called by God.
I was not prepared for the emotional challenge of church leadership. Experienced pastors tried to warn me, some even tried to talk me out of vocational ministry, but like a young, naïve, idealistic leader, I plowed ahead oblivious to the emotional roller coaster that I was about to take a ride on.
With 13+ years’ experience behind me, I have learned that while all discouragement and frustration is not avoidable, many of the things that have caused me the most heartache come from an unhealthy place in me. My biggest problems are not my church people, facility, or location, without a doubt, my biggest problem is me. I have been amazed over the years at how many things seem to get better around me when my soul is healthy.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘My biggest problems are not my church people, facility, or location, without a doubt, my biggest problem is me’ @jasonisaacs” quote=”My biggest problems are not my church people, facility, or location, without a doubt, my biggest problem is me”]
That being said, let me give you 10 challenges that discourage church leaders and slowly steal our passion for ministry.
1. Lack of Progress
I’ve been told ministry is a marathon, not a sprint, but honestly most of the time it feels like running on a treadmill. I call it “Dream Expectancy Disorder.” It’s when you expect God to move as fast as you want to, but you constantly feel you’re hitting a wall because progress is moving slower than your ambition. Feeling frustrated because of a lack of progress really tests our trust and belief in God’s timing and sovereignty. Why would he not want more people saved? Why would he not want bigger churches? I am learning that God wants to grow me more than he wants to grow my church and He usually teaches his best lessons by making me wait.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘God wants to grow me more than he wants to grow my church and He usually teaches his best lessons by making me wait.’ @jasonisaacs” quote=” ‘God wants to grow me more than he wants to grow my church and He usually teaches his best lessons by making me wait.’ “]
2. No Numerical Growth
Similar to “lack of progress” a lack of numerical growth or even worse numerical decline is incredibly discouraging for a church leader. We know numbers don’t tell the whole story. We know not all big churches are healthy and not all small churches are unhealthy, but metrics are not always easy to measure in church leadership so “more people” makes us feel like we’re doing something that’s working. The challenge for church leaders is when we put too much of our self-worth in the numbers. The other day a friend of mine said, “If you don’t have any wins in your life outside the church, you will draw too much of your self-worth from church numbers” Wow! Drop the mic! We never want to stop growing, we want to fulfill the great commission, but we can’t let numbers or the lack of numbers determine whether we’re successful or not.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘If you don’t have any wins in your life outside the church, you will draw too much of your self-worth from church numbers’ @jasonisaacs” quote=”If you don’t have any wins in your life outside the church, you will draw too much of your self-worth from church numbers”]
Social media can be an incredible tool for ministry— sharing resources and ideas, drawing inspirations from other pastors and preachers— but when you are discouraged by your lack of results scrolling though social media can be salt in a wound. I’ve never heard a pastor say out loud, “I don’t want to resent Chris Hodges and Steven Furtick, but if they open another successful campus, I’m going to scream. Why them and not me?” But we all think it. We wonder why one church is baptizing more people in one day than we have in total attendance. We know God gives everyone a different calling and responsibility, but why couldn’t we have gotten one a little more glamorous? The devil loves to use comparison to get you to take your eyes off the difference you ARE making. If you look around your ministry context with fresh eyes, you will find some “wins.” And don’t forget, God will not judge you on someone else’s calling, he will only ask if you’ve been faithful to what he has called YOU to do.
4. No Help
Have you ever felt as if you’re carrying the burden of ministry all by yourself? If you have, you’re not alone. The day Elijah retreated to the cave ready to die, he told God, “There is no one left who is committed like me.” Moses’ father in law had to warn him he was headed for burnout if he didn’t set up teams of thousands, hundreds, and tens, to manage the people. Even Jesus returned from praying in the garden to find his disciples asleep, and He wanted to know, “Could you not keep watch with me for even an hour?” When your soul is most toxic, and your energy is depleted, it’s natural to look around and wonder why no one works and cares as much as you. You show up early and leave late, you make sacrifices, because you love it, but it feels like everyone else could take it or leave it. You probably have some leaders in need of training around you, but even if you don’t, Jesus told us what to do, “Pray that the Lord will send harvest workers.” It’s hard when you feel like you have to do it all yourself, but start today by training just one person. They may not be the right person forever, but they can be the right person for right now.
5. Secret Sin
As a spiritual leader, you’ve heard more spouses confess adultery than you care to admit. You’ve handed tissues to wives being abused physically, emotionally, or verbally. Your heart has broken for children trying to comprehend the divorce of their parents. You’ve paid out of your pocket to help an addict try to get back on his feet. The common denominator in every story is sin costs more and does more damage than anyone ever imagines. Unfortunately, pastors aren’t exempt from the downfalls I’ve listed. You would assume after witnessing the compound interest and collateral damage of bad decisions over the years we would avoid sin and temptation at all costs, but it doesn’t work that way. For pastors and leaders, though, the stakes are higher. When we fall, more lives are affected than we realize. If you find yourself on the brink of giving into temptation, and on the verge of making a terrible decision, let me give you the advice you would give me: confess! When we’re kids, we can’t keep a secret; when we’re adults, we live with them. The question is not “Will my secret get out?” The question is “Do I want to let the right people know right now?” Confession is scary because of unknown consequences, but the consequences will always be worse the longer you wait. Don’t be afraid of the consequences of confession; be afraid of learning how to successfully live a double life. Getting away with it is worse than getting found out.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘Don’t be afraid of the consequences of confession; be afraid of learning how to successfully live a double life. Getting away with it is worse than getting found out.’ @jasonisaacs” quote=”‘Don’t be afraid of the consequences of confession; be afraid of learning how to successfully live a double life. Getting away with it is worse than getting found out.'”]
You can always spot a gun-shy leader who has been beaten down by criticism. They don’t mean to be reluctant or defensive, but who can blame them? Year after year they’ve been misquoted, taken out of context, had their motives questioned, and never been given the benefit of the doubt. What started out as a passion for building the kingdom of God has mutated into a life trying to avoid land mines, and they have the scars to display their missteps. Even Jesus was criticized. Take a moment and process that statement. God’s son, who we know was blameless, was criticized and lied about. If God’s son wasn’t exempt from criticism, what hope do we have? Whoever created the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” obviously wasn’t in leadership, because words hurt, especially from those you give your life to serve. When faced with criticism you can hide, hate or take the high road, but only the high road will help you move on in a healthy way. It’s up to you.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘When faced with criticism you can hide, hate or take the high road, but only the high road will help you move on in a healthy way.’ @jasonisaacs” quote=”When faced with criticism you can hide, hate or take the high road, but only the high road will help you move on in a healthy way.”]
7. Lack of Resources
In all my years working with and being around pastors, I’ve never met anyone who said, “We have more money than we need right now.” You probably haven’t either. Interestingly though, statements about the lack of resources come from the mouths of leaders of all different church sizes. The need for more resources is not just a small church problem. If your vision is bigger than your budget, be encouraged, you’re in good company. The Bible is filled with men and women called by God to accomplish something beyond their means. Moses didn’t have the speaking skills required to approach Pharaoh. Gideon didn’t have enough soldiers after God dwindled his army from 10,000 to 300, and the disciples didn’t have enough food to feed 5,000 people. If your vision doesn’t exceed your resources and ability, you’re not dreaming big enough. The next time you pray, instead of asking God for more resources, try this instead, “God I believe I have exactly what you want me to have for this season. Help me to steward it well.”
8. Work/Life Balance
So much of pastoring is about serving and caring for the needs of others. When someone has a need, they expect a pastor to be available whether it’s convenient to your schedule or not. How many horror stories have you heard from preacher’s kids about having to leave family vacation early to return home so dad could perform a funeral for the sister’s next door neighbor’s boss of the lady that played the piano at church? Maybe you have a few horror stories of your own. How many wives secretly long for their husband to be home instead of missing dinner to counsel another person in need? Pastor, you are not called to be on call. You’re called “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” I’m not suggesting everything that needs to be done can be accomplished between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, but I am suggesting you can work smarter at church and work harder to be with your family. Remember that every time you say “yes” to someone in your church after hours, you are saying “no” to your family. Will there be exceptions, of course, but don’t let the exception become the rule.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘Remember that every time you say “yes” to someone in your church after hours, you are saying “no” to your family.’ @jeremyisaacs” quote=”‘Remember that every time you say “yes” to someone in your church after hours, you are saying “no” to your family.'”]
9. People Leaving The Church
When you’ve been burned by a leader or a giver leaving the church, it’s easy to become cynical and expect the worst from people instead of the best. Fear of people leaving can keep you from leading courageously; you start apologizing for vision, avoiding hard conversations, and trying to appease everyone instead of lead them. No doubt, every time someone leaves it hurts, especially if they leave in an unhealthy way, but people leaving is not always a bad thing. Don’t be afraid of fewer people, be afraid of becoming a manager instead of a leader. On my computer is an Excel spreadsheet titled, “Doomsday.” I created the file a few years ago when a significant change was happening in our church. A few key leaders had decided to leave, and I was convinced every person who tithed was going to leave with them. I created a doomsday scenario where I figured out how much money it would take to operate the church without most of the givers. How many staff would need to be let go? Would I be able to make a salary or would I need to find a part-time job? Could we keep the lights on? I laugh about it now, because in spite of my fears, God had the right people stay and the right people leave. As a matter of fact, eight of our top ten tithers have left since then, and our annual giving is higher now than ever before. I keep that file on my computer to remind me that most of the time my fears are more fake than fact, but they are still powerful.
[clickToTweet tweet=”‘Pastor, a fear of people leaving your church will keep you from leading courageously; you start apologizing for vision, avoiding hard conversations, and trying to appease everyone instead lead them.’ @jasonisaacs” quote=”Pastor, a fear of people leaving your church will keep you from leading courageously; you start apologizing for vision, avoiding hard conversations, and trying to appease everyone instead lead them.”]
Leaders are often loners. I don’t know why, but it seems we naturally keep our distance from people when we don’t have to be in “public mode.” It’s not a new thing; Moses seemed to be a loner— all that time on the mountain and in the tent. Elijah was definitely a loner. David spent a lot of time alone writing and practicing music. John the Baptist had disciples, but you usually found him in the desert. Jesus got away by himself often. John spent the end of his life alone on an island. It’s an interesting phenomenon really that someone can preach to hundreds or even thousands but not have a handful of people to call “friend.” A lack of friendships in ministry is incredibly dangerous; it can lead to burnout, a lack of accountability, and irrational perspectives, just to name a few. I read one time that Warren Buffet makes 90% of his money off only 10 investments. I think the same is true of friendship. You don’t have to have a lot of friends, but you better have a few that really matter. Your health, ministry, and soul depend on it.
When the leader gets better everybody gets better. My brother and I wrote a book called “Toxic Soul: A Pastor’s Guide To Leading Without Losing Heart” that talks about these 10 reasons at greater length plus provides solutions to help church leaders stay encouraged and recover their passion for ministry. If you find yourself in a season of frustration or discouragement, or maybe you know someone who is, I believe this book will help.