The Preacher in Ecclesiastes warned us well, did he not? “Everything is futility” is his opening blow to our fragile lives (Eccl 1:2). And what he meant was not that everything in life actually is futility, but that everything becomes futility when it replaces God as the treasure of the soul. But in a subtle manner, it is often the good things that replace the best thing.
As pastors who have long aspired for and loved the ministry, sometimes we can begin to expect things from ministry that God alone is meant to provide. We can begin to let this good thing (ministry) replace Christ as the treasure of our soul. As Lewis Allen writes, we pastors have “big hearts, big dreams, and big desires. But the preacher’s greatest loves may be his greatest dangers.”
The Shock of Life Post-Seminary
In seminary, we pastors have all sorts of ideals and expectations of what ministry will one day be like – and many of those notions are good and noble. After graduation we are eager for opportunities to make an impact for the gospel. Yet, when we hop into the trenches of a local church with wounded and weary saints, we discover that the actual, in many ways, looks different than the theoretical. The classroom was simpler, cleaner.
This is what I call, “Post-seminary inertia,” which then leads to “Post-seminary trauma.” We sprint through seminary, graduate in pristine exegetical shape, imagining that our future church will share our zeal. It’s here we experience the inertia. When our expectations meet the reality of a real church filled with real people, the collision can be painful. And as you know, when two objects collide, there is always damage. This is the trauma.
In no way do I mean to make ministry sound like anything less than the weighty, joyful privilege that it is, but a life spent caring for sheep is not without its bumps, bruises, and bites. But I think most pastors would agree that ministry, in the midst of its challenges and difficulties, is a deep joy. Pastors must, however, fight to maintain their supreme delight in Christ in the midst of the struggles of ministry.
So we must ask ourselves the question: how do we sustain (and even increase) joy in the trenches of ministry? Below I offer what have been for me five ways to sustain and increase joy in the struggles and joys of ministry.
1. Remember to interpret life based not on your feelings, but your theology
The entirety of our lives must rest upon the sovereignty of God, and this is especially true for those in ministry. To sustain and increase joy in ministry, we need to remind our souls that despite the pain, confusion, or exhaustion of the moment, God is there. He is there in the less-than-clear counseling cases, in the silent waiting rooms, in the divided elder meetings, and in the quiet of our studies. His hand is upon us and with us, governing and guiding each moment.
He has forgotten neither his church nor his churchmen
One wonders if the genius of the book of Esther is that it portrays life how it so often feels. The name of God is entirely absent from this small book about God’s exiled people. His chosen people face persecution and difficult decisions, and yet God remains silent. He does not appear in a bush nor part any waters. And yet, there seems to be a calm assurance that God was in fact there, his hand, in its gentle sovereignty, orchestrating each event.
In the same way, in our lives and ministries, we can’t often see or feel the sovereignty of God; we spend much of our ministries seemingly praying into silence. But we must rely on what we know to be true—that God is there, silently and sovereignly bringing all that he wills to pass. He is there delighting in us and our feeble, kingdom-driven efforts.
2. Remember that even barrenness in ministry can be evidence of fruitfulness
Not everyone reading this is currently experiencing difficulty in ministry, but seasons of struggle and barrenness will come. My first ministry after seminary was at a church which, in many ways, was far different than me in its doctrine and philosophy of ministry. Each week seemed to be filled with a disheartening combination of opposition and apathy. I looked around at the barrenness of my ministry, and I began to grow angry, bitter, and disheartened. I had bigger, simpler dreams of what ministry would be like. But eventually I learned a critical lesson: God had never promised me success in the way I had dreamed of in seminary classrooms. And here was an even bigger lesson:
I didn’t actually deserve success; I was not entitled to it
I began to find comfort in the seemingly barren ministries of many of the men in the Bible, men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—hardly ministries of which to be jealous. In fact, God gave each of them exactly what he had promised — gut-wrenching, even perilous ministries that yielded little immediate fruit (cf. Isa 6:9-12; Jer 1:17-19; Eze 2:1-3:11).
And yet, their ministries accomplished exactly what God had intended. Although at the time seemingly fruitless, the ripple effects of these men’s faithfulness are felt to this day. We still talk of these humble, obedient preachers even millennia after their deaths. If we are faithful to put before our people the matchless supremacy of Christ through his word – no matter how our people respond, even the barrenness of our ministries is pleasing before God. Our names likely won’t be remembered even several decades from now, but we will have done our duty: to exalt the person and work of Christ.
3. Remember the power of desperation
Older, more seasoned pastors could say this with more scars and years to validate their words, but eleven years in ministry has taught me this: supernatural work requires supernatural power. In ministry, God has called us to labor for that which he alone can give.
Even the most basic fruits of ministry are unquestionably beyond our reach
Therefore, the secret that God wants to comfort wearied pastors with is the value of desperation—the power of spiritual neediness. The secret of ministry, in other words, is desperate reliance upon Christ to accomplish the things he alone can accomplish.
Remember that we are merely rough blocks of wood, and ministry is one of the chisels God uses to mold us into the image of his Son. Embrace the painful, slow process. The chipping and cutting and even breaking blows of ministry are, at times, wearying. But oh, dear friend, do not see this as God’s curse or disapproval, but just the opposite.
The searing flames of ministry are God’s gentle method of making us into more effective husbands, fathers, expositors, servants, counselors, and friends.
4. Remember what is at the heart of life and ministry
The hours of rigorous study and meditation on Scripture lie at the heart of the Christian ministry. There is no replacement.
If you lose your delight in the very words of God, you lose everything
The means which God has provided to awaken and increase glad-hearted affections for him is slow and steady meditation upon his words. Do not the ministries of the likes of Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Lloyd-Jones prove this true? As Jerome once wrote, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Let us learn of and love Christ dearly and desperately through his word.
But we can all-too-quickly start chasing the next ministry position, the next proof of success, or the next compliment to quench our weary souls. But this never-ending chase always results in compromise, pragmatism, and burn-out.
At the end of the day, the fight for joy in life and ministry is a fight for long, long meditation upon the supremacy and beauty of Jesus Christ. All power and joy for our preaching, equipping, counseling, evangelism, and administration must come from an overflow of our love for the living and abiding Word of God.
5. Remember that the “happily ever after” of redemption has already been written
To sustain and increase joy in life and ministry, you must have a robust eschatology that sees history as God sees it.
God’s view of history is simple: it is as good as done
The Father has already chosen the elect; Christ has already bought them with his blood.
We can turn to Revelation 5 and see the coming fruit of our present labors. The elect will be saved, disciples will be made, and the saints will persevere. We can read of saints gathering around the throne worshipping the Lamb. So we can, in a way, proleptically enjoy the fruit of our labors by contemplating in Scripture the coming glory of God’s plan of redemption.
And often our ministries will not grow and mature as quickly as we might like, but remember that God’s hand is upon it, pushing it forward at his pace. His slow pace is deliberate. Why? Because God wants us to slow down, to pause, ponder, savor, and celebrate all that he is doing in the world through Christ. He wants us to chew our food, not inhale it.
And when we encounter those inevitable dry seasons in ministry where the fruit is small and the harvest little, it is there that our understanding of the end is our companion. In those seasons, we must let the assured realities of the future shape our perspective in the present. Because when we do that, even in the worst of days, we can still humbly and expectantly proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb!” (cf. Revelation 5:9-10)
A Needed and Necessary Joy
Joy is easier said than done; in fact, it is supernatural. But not only is our joy commanded, God has provided every resource in Christ through his word, not only to sustain our joy, but to increase it. And so we must lean into and embrace his word in the trenches of pastoral ministry, because the pastorate is one of the places where joy is needed most.
Fight the good fight joyfully, dear friends.
 Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism, 47.