I recently listened to one of the fathers of our denomination speak about the “ups and downs” that he was experiencing in ministry. This man had planted a church in the PCA (which he subsequently pastored for many decades), oversaw quite a number of church plants out of that congregation and is currently planting a new church. What he said triggered painful memories of what I had experienced in seeking to deal with–what I like to call–“the roller coaster effect” of ministry. At times it felt as though I was on the most turbulent roller coaster during the first 5 years of planting New Covenant. Listening to this seasoned pastor talk about the ups and downs of ministry–so far into his own ministerial experience–also reminded me of the inevitability of the roller coaster ride of ministry. The roller coaster effect is true in a heightened sense for those who are called to parachute plant or plant in an extremely spiritually difficult part of the world, but it is equally true for all ministers of the Gospel who are seeking to carry out a God-honoring ministry of the word. Here are some of the things that ministers should keep in mind while persevering on the roller coaster ride of ministry:
1. The ups and downs are inevitable. When you step onto a roller coaster, you anticipate the ups and downs and know that they will come with great speed. This doesn’t make it any less frightening or thrilling when they come. There is, however, a sense in which ministers must remember that they signed up for all of the ups and downs in ministry. In Acts 14:19-23, we read about Paul–having just been stoned as Lystra–pressing on in the evangelistic ministry to which the Lord called him. Immediately after being stoned, he and Barnabas went to Derbe and “made disciples.” Here is one of the most extreme ups and downs that we discover in the Scriptures. One minute Paul is getting stoned; the next minute, God is using him to make new disciples. When he moved on from Debre to Antioch, Luke tells us that Paul “strengthened the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul teaches us, by both deed and word that we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable ups and downs of ministry.
One of the ways that we prepare ourselves is by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and not on our experiences. We have to guard our hearts from getting too excited about the highs and too discouraged by the lows. I have had some of the highest highs and lowest lows literally occur a day apart. This makes the challenge of guarding your heart all the more difficult. When Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Gospel, cast out demons and heal the sick, they came back with great excitement saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” Jesus’ response was quite unexpected. He said, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). We must resist the temptation to find our joy in the apparent “successes of ministry” and instead find it in the fact that we belong to God and that our names are registered in heaven. I feel as though I am only beginning to learn how to handle this dynamic, 9 years into pastoring the church that I planted.
2. We must find strength to endure in the Lord. When David was burdened by all of the affliction and trials that he endured at the hand of Saul, his own mighty men and the nations, he went and “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 23:16 and 30:6). Likewise the Apostle Paul told Timothy: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 tim. 4:16-17). Ministers must learn to turn to the Lord in prayer and in the word–pouring out their hearts before Him and crying out for His strength–when the challenges of ministry come crashing down on them. Ultimately, we need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to help us persevere on the roller coaster ride of ministry. We need the grace of the One who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Cor. 12:9).
3. We need other ministers to encourage us to persevere. The burdens of Gospel ministry are not meant to be carried alone. Just as we need the Lord to strengthen us, we need other ministers to help us persevere in ministry. I would almost certainly not be in ministry today if it were not for the encouragement, prayers, empathy, sympathy and exhortations of fellow ministers. We do others an enormous disservice if we give other ministers the notion that they should not be affected by the downs of ministry. On one occasion–while I was in the crucible of ministry in the early days of planting–I unburdened my heart to another minister. Instead of encouraging me from the word or in prayer, he said, “I’m afraid that if you don’t get a hold of this it will disqualify you from ministry.” Nothing is further from the truth than to insist that a minister is never to be burdened by the downs of ministry. The Apostle Paul opened his heart to the churches that he planted–telling them how he was “burdened beyond measure” (2 Cor. 1:8), “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” (2 Cor. 4:8) and that his “spirit was not at rest” (2 Cor. 2:13).
While fellow ministers may sadly become a detriment to one another, the converse is true. The great Apostle Paul needed the fellowship of a Barnabas (Acts 13:7-15:36), the companionship of a Titus (2 Cor. 7:6), the co-labor of an Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25; Phil. 4:18) and the camaraderie of a Timothy (1 Thess. 3:2; Tim. 1:2). Being surrounded by wise, godly, gifted and encouraging fellow ministers is one of the greatest aids in helping a pastor press through the ups and downs that he experiences in ministry.
If you feel as though you are riding on the roller coaster of ministry, do not lose heart. You are not alone. It doesn’t matter whether you are in the first season of the ministry to which the Lord has called you or the final chapter, the ups and downs never seem to cease. We need to expect the roller coaster effect, strengthen ourselves in the Lord when the trails come and draw strength from fellow ministers as we seek to endure to the end.