Ministerial Discouragement (And How To Handle It)

If you’re in ministry, especially pastoral ministry, you have suffered the nagging persistence of discouragement. The problem with discouragement is not the emotion itself, it’s perfectly natural to wrestle with discouragement from time to time, the real concern is how a minister handles discouragement. Unchecked discouragement leads to paralyzation much like king Saul quivered in fear at Goliaths mocking voice. Unresolved discouragement leads to deeper and far more difficult problems like full blown depression. Discouragement is usually at the root of ministerial bitterness, jealousy, fear, disunity, anger, competition, isolation, mediocrity, and stagnation.

It may sound strange, but the first step to overcoming discouragement is knowing that you’re not alone. Almost every great man of God in Scripture faced strong feelings of discouragement; a cursory examination of the Psalms makes that fact crystal clear. Even Jesus had moments of intense frustration that could easily be described as discouragement. How else would you describe weeping and lamenting over a faithless people (Luke 19:41-44)? Elijah literally watched fire fall from heaven only to enter into a severe season of discouragement. Gideon worked while hiding from the Midianites and scoffed when the angel called him a mighty man of valor. He was so discouraged that even angelic visitation didn’t invigorate him immediately. Biblical examples aside, you may look across town and assume that other ministry is floating on air without a care in the world; nothing could be further from the truth. They have their own problems, failures, obstacles, and fears that you may never see. In fact, the higher you go within any leadership paradigm the more terrifying the view. If you’re mountain climbing the higher you go the more success you achieve, but you’re also facing new complexities and dangers at the same time. In fact, the danger becomes palpable.

With that in mind, comparison is often the culprit that ignites ministerial discouragement. My friend Mark Brown says, “A spirit of comparison comes from a spirit of competition, and competition comes from a prideful desire to be better than others. God resists the proud.” When we are proud God resists us, starting the cycle of discouragement all over again. Prideful comparison is fundamentally ungodly and always leads to unnecessary discouragement. Remember when David disobeyed God and took a census of the people for the sake of comparison? It stirred God’s immediate anger. Resist comparison at all times.

One key difference between great leaders and average leaders is their ability to suffer occasional discouragement without displaying it for all the world to see. That’s not to say that they slip into denial, rather, they face it head on. It’s not to say that they don’t seek help and counsel, they do, but they do so privately with trusted advisors. When humanly possible, suffer discouragement in a way that doesn’t cause your followers to be discouraged. Like it or not, the flock will reflect the mood of the shepherd if you project fear they’ll project fear, etc. Wise leadership makes a conscious decision to lead by faith, and it refuses to be held hostage by the whim of fluctuating emotions.

Regardless, there are many reasons for discouragement, many of them completely valid and totally understandable. My greatest moments of pain have not come from the enemies camp but from within. We expect the world to be the world and for it to attack the Church, but nothing hurts more than “friendly fire.” Friendly fire wounds just as deeply and it is just as deadly as enemy fire. Moses experienced this on many occasions, but none more serious than when Korah instigated a rebellion so pervasive that it nearly destroyed Moses. Thankfully, God stepped in and protected his man as he always does.

There’s not a minister alive who hasn’t faced opposition from within his own camp. Here’s a few survival tips and sanity savers for those situations. One, remember that we do not wrestle with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Your real enemy is not an individual or even a group of individuals. Two, understanding who your real enemy is will help you choose the right weapons and mount a successful battle strategy. Ultimately, turning the battle completely over to God is probably the best option. Three, refuse to burn bridges or lose your cool when tempers and emotions are flaring. Leave the door open for restoration and restitution. You’ll be surprised at how many people will change if you simply give them grace and time. Four, avoid bitterness at all costs. I’ve seen many good people become the very thing that they abhorred because of bitterness. Five, forgive people even if they don’t deserve it; this is your number one defense against bitterness. Six, stay out of the mud. If you don’t, casual observers won’t be able to distinguish who’s dirty from who’s clean. Seven, keep the bigger picture in focus. It’s amazing how one detractor can make you feel like an entire army is attacking you. One critic, one liar, and one hater can become so amplified in our mind that we forget about the majority who are faithful and loyal. Spend less time focused on the troublemakers and more time focused on the peacemakers. Eight, remember not all numerical decreases are a bad thing. Sometimes you need to lose some losers to gain a victory. When God culled Gideon’s army down from thousands to three hundred it was a blessing, not a curse. Ironically, many great revivals begin with a numerical decrease making room spiritually for a numerical increase. Struggling to keep wolves and goats isn’t good for the shepherd or the sheep.

Finally, there is a common problem in the psychiatric community sometimes referred to as Depressed Therapist Syndrome. This occurs when therapists become so overwhelmed with the problems of their patients that they too become depressed. Similarly, pastors and ministers spend a tremendous amount of time counseling people in their darkest moments. We sit in hospitals, hospices, and funerals loving people and sharing their grief. Good pastors care, empathize, and grieve internally (if not externally). This can become a heavy load to carry over time, morphing into mild or even severe depression. There are no simple remedies for this burden, but there are some policies that alleviate stress factors. One, put limits on when you will counsel. Set up appointments rather than accepting random phone calls at all hours of the night. Two, take time off. Even God rested as an example for us. Three, develop strong relationships and trusted friends who will help you break free from lingering stress. Four, set aside time for family. Be present in mind and in body. Five, don’t put undue pressure on yourself. Resist the urge to approach ministry with an I-Can-Fix-It mentality. Only God can truly and permanently mend broken hearts, not you.

Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that he may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost (Romans 15:13).

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Robin Williams, Suicide & Hope

I have really hesitated to weigh in on the sad passing of actor Robin Williams, because I do not want to appear insensitive.  But I am concerned that the national media and the Hollywood machine is contributing to a pervasive societal problem that goes largely unreported: suicide.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention nearly 40,000 people commit suicide in the US each year making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.  Roughly speaking, someone commits suicide in the US every 14 minutes.

o-DEPRESSION-facebookSo here’s my concern; the media seems to be carefully glossing over the tragedy of the suicide.  For the most part I understand why, suicide is depressing and difficult to talk about.  No one wants to appear disrespectful or insensitive (I include myself in this number), but by rushing past the sadness in order to celebrate the past we might be unintentionally promoting suicide.

Consider the fact that Robin Williams has been largely out of the limelight for many years now, however, after this tragedy we are seeing 24-hour coverage, celebrations, and honorariums of his career.  On the surface this seems like a nice thing to do, but are we inadvertently sending a signal to the overlooked teen that suicide will be a sweet release and 15 minutes of much-desired fame?  Could we be accidentally signaling to the overworked, depressed, businessman who is struggling with a waning career and a broken family life that self-harm just might be a valid solution?

Before you call me crazy, remember that studies have already shown that copy-cat suicides are a genuine phenomenon.  Suicide contagion is real and it is dangerous.  There is a thriving subculture that promotes suicide as an honorable and worthy way to gently leave this harsh world. Therefore, we must be extremely careful how we discuss the suicide of Robin Williams or anyone else for that matter.

And what about the thousands of individuals who take their own lives in utter obscurity?  Isn’t it time for our culture to wake up and realize that we desperately need the peace that only God can give?  What about the false images of happiness that Hollywood promotes every single day?  What about the endless quest for fame and fortune that proves to be unfulfilling time and time again?  How many have been led to believe that godlessness, promiscuity, and substance abuse are valid pathways to happiness only to find themselves standing on the edge of a deadly precipice?  What happens when the beautiful who worship beauty lose their beauty?  What happens when the rich man who worships riches loses his wealth?  What happens when the superstar loses his stardom?  There has to be more to life for lasting happiness to be achieved.

There are thousands contemplating suicide right at this very moment.  They desperately need someone to tell them that suicide is not the answer.  They are hungry for someone to convince them that life is worth living.  They need something that transcends the darkness pressing in on them.  They need you to show them the light of Jesus.  They need you to demonstrate the joy of abundant life.  They need hope!