By Pastor Conor O’Hearn (HCBC Leander)
“If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
This somewhat lighthearted statement made by one of my mentors during a particularly difficult season of ministry, sums up a simple reality. Persisting in a calling to vocational ministry is not easy. This reality is illustrated by Barna’s recent survey that shows 38% of pastors (46% under the age of 45) are seriously considering leaving ministry. Some of the brothers and sisters exiting their church jobs are heeding the nudging of the Holy Spirit into the secular job market as ambassadors for Christ. Others are simply too beaten up, frustrated, and emotionally tired to continue in their current roles. Anyone in pursuit of a calling considers throwing in the towel at various points in their journey, but those who have persisted are not those who are smarter, more strategic, or more gifted. For centuries, those who have persevered in their calling through wars, famines, failures, political upheavals, personal losses, deep depressions and relational betrayals have done so not because of their talent or gifting, but because of their heart.
Here are 6 areas of the heart that can make or break your ability to persevere in your calling:
Prioritizing Your Character – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23 (CSB)
In his book “Leading Things You Didn’t Start” Tyler Reagin points out a simple, powerful, and often overlooked reality. The presence of, or the lack of, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the life of a leader is the most important thing about a leader. It’s hard to imagine someone who is filled with these qualities throwing in the towel when it comes to their calling. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes our ministry leads us to places of deep sadness and loss (it did for Jesus), but pursuing this fruit in our life helps us weather even the most difficult of trials. Let me put it another way. Your spiritual gifts won’t help you stay healthy during the intense pressures of ministry and life, but the fruit of the Spirit can and will help you continue engaging in service with a heart like Jesus.
Rooting Out Bitterness – “Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness—without it no one will see the Lord. Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.” Hebrews 12:14-15 CSB
Setting aside plenty of theological questions brought up in Hebrews twelve, can we all agree that allowing bitterness to take root in your heart only causes destruction for ourselves and others? I have seen bitterness take more people out of ministry than any other issue. If you let yourself harbor bitterness, your heart will inevitably become cynical and hardened. John Piper once shared in an article (which I have searched for and have been hard pressed to find) that those who remain in ministry for a long time all have one thing in common: they forgive. In ministry (and life) you will be misunderstood, gossiped about, wronged, and maybe outright betrayed. My advice to you: Ruthlessly root out unforgiveness and bitterness in your heart. Refuse to justify prolonged feelings of anger. Don’t take shortcuts when it comes to full, deep, and lasting forgiveness for those who hurt you. A sign that you might be struggling in this area is that you struggle to make genuine friendships where you practice mutual vulnerability and encouragement. Bitterness often causes us to become overly guarded, isolated, and lonely. Maintaining a vibrant heart, aligned with Jesus, and vibrant relationships with others requires bold forgiveness.
Working With God – “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” John 15:5 (CSB)
I can honestly say that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking that I work FOR God instead of WITH Him. Typically, the longer my “to do” list, the more I gravitate toward engaging with God as a means of getting the spiritual juice necessary to accomplish my ministry goals. As this issue played itself out in my life a few years ago I found myself struggling to stop, rest and find meaningful ways of recharging emotionally and spiritually. Viewing my relationship with God primarily through the grid of my service was causing me to miss a much richer way of living. Thank God for wise counselors (Yes, pastors see counselors). During this season my counselor challenged me to spend time in the evenings reviewing my day in prayer (ministry, family life, everything). He specifically told me to thank God for His presence in each aspect and celebrate with Him the ways He enabled me to engage the world around me. This quality “Father – son time” began to enrich my relationship with God, not only helping me realize that I was working WITH Him, but also that He wanted to celebrate with me. This activity taught me that I could enjoy God in my work and in my rest. If you begin to find yourself in a place where God is God of your work, but not your rest, find wise counsel to help you process this issue and work on your relationship with Jesus.
Processing Loss – “The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (CSB)
Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms are written from a place of loss, anger, or fear? It’s ironic that, especially for those in leadership, taking real-time to process difficult circumstances and negative emotions often plays second fiddle to first caring for the needs of other individuals or the broader organization. Nine months ago from the time I’m writing this, I lost my friend, boss, and the Lead Pastor of our church to a heart attack. This shocking turn of events left a staff, a church, and my family in a place of deep questioning and grief. In the midst of 100 organizational questions and hundreds of hurting people, the most important thing I had to do was process the loss. Your loss may not be a death. It might be a loss of friendship, a serious illness, or an unrealized personal dream. Whatever it is, taking personal time to grieve loss is one of the most important steps of leadership you can take for the people you shepherd. In those moments, your modeling speaks far more than your teaching. People don’t need an impervious leader. They need a leader who knows they need Jesus during times of personal loss. It will be difficult, but take time off, leave work early, don’t just push through. Grieving is a part of life this side of eternity. Taking time to process loss keeps you connected to your heart instead of ignoring it. It acknowledges a need for God’s comfort which will enable you to comfort others.
Focusing On Faithfulness – Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in the concerns of civilian life; he seeks to please the commanding officer. Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer ought to be the first to get a share of the crops. 2 Timothy 2:3-6 (CSB)
In this passage, Paul tells Timothy that faithfulness comes before fruit. Most of us live in a fast-moving, results-driven, “life-hack” seeking culture. One of the byproducts of this reality is that we are very quick to abandon our work when we are not seeing ministry growth and expansion. Should we create goals and measure organizational outcomes? Yes. Should we evaluate our strategies or ministry programs when there are periods of stagnation? Yes. However, sometimes our bent toward ministry fruitfulness keeps us from prioritizing personal faithfulness. There have been plenty of faithful leaders that haven’t experienced extreme ministry flourishing, and that’s in God’s hands. However, there have also been plenty of flourishing ministries founded on gifted leaders who didn’t have the faithfulness to see that ministry mature. Those ministries often crash. Faithfulness is a far better anchor for our hearts than the perceived successes or failures we face through the seasons of ministry.
Remembering Your “Why” – “For this reason we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
1 Timothy 4:10 CSB
It’s very easy to get bogged down with the daily tasks and challenges of your ministry. We all need weekly and sometimes daily reminders of WHY we continue to work. Our church has a vision for “Life-change through Jesus for every man, woman, and child” so once a week our staff team pauses to tell life-change stories. This simple activity anchors us to the reason we sweat and sometimes shed tears in pursuit of our calling. Stopping to be reminded of your “WHY” can take many different forms. But remembering the why is what connects our hearts to our daily activities.
Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.