Persevering in Ministry – Dangers and lessons learnt
We asked William Philip about persevering in ministry. His wisdom on this topic will be spread over three blog posts. Read the first in the series here. Today, we hear about why some people give up in ministry and lessons he's learnt to avoid that.
It's not uncommon to hear or read shocking statistics about how many people give up on full-time gospel ministry; what, in your experience, are the most common reasons people do so?
I’m afraid I think that one of the chief reasons is that many probably shouldn’t have been in full-time ministry in the first place. That may seem a harsh thing to say, but the simple fact is that pastoral leadership – especially congregational oversight – is a very tough calling, as Peter recognises when he has to urge those in leadership to step up and do so willingly and eagerly, not having to be compelled not to shrink back from the firing line. Not everyone who may have gifts in Bible teaching will also have the grit necessary to bear the burdens of leadership which can be a very lonely and difficult role, and I fear that too many are encouraged into such ministry because the sole focus of attention is on ‘word ministry gifts’ and not on a host of other personal traits which are also very important. But being a good bible study leader, a gifted evangelist, a great personal worker or even being a good speaker does not mean that leading a church is necessarily going to be for you. I would wholeheartedly endorse the words of William Still, one of my own chief mentors in ministry, when he says:
Not everyone who may have gifts in Bible teaching will also have the grit necessary to bear the burdens of leadership which can be a very lonely and difficult role
"It seems to me that there is one quality which a minister of the Word must possess to be fruitful. Along with Solzhenitsyn who spoke of this theme in his famous Harvard speech, I would say that this quality is courage: guts, sheer lion-hearted bravery, clarity of mind and purpose, grit. Weaklings are no use ... to go out and speak prophetically to men from God and declare with all compassion, as well as with faithfulness, the truth: the divine Word that cuts across all men's worldly plans for their own lives.” (Dying to Live, CFP 1991, p140)
He goes on to speak about the responsibility pastors have not only to speak truth, but to confront and rebuke error, and sin in the life of the church, and how difficult and draining that is. I know something of that in my own experience, and although I have learned over the years to develop the hide of a rhinoceros, there are times when I felt I have only just survived by the skin of my teeth. It is going to be very, very tough being a church leader if you are really going to propel the word of God beyond the walls of the pulpit right into the pews, and right down into the pores of the life of the church, which is the only way a church will be really changed and shaped by the truth of the gospel. It cannot be done without rumpus, ructions and division, and blood on the carpet, most of which will be yours!
So, I think you need to be very careful before propelling yourself, or finding others propelling you, in to full-time pastoral ministry without careful and realistic assessment of what kind of ministry role you really could or should be seeking. In my experience most people will be able to find their most effective ministry as part of a team, and by the nature of things that means that most will not be at their most useful as team leaders, but as team players.
What are the most important lessons you've learnt, from the Bible and your own experience, about how to persevere in full-time gospel ministry rather than give up?
The book of Hebrews is all about endurance, and it strengthens us to do that by pointing us in three directions, it seems to me.
First, and most important, we are to look upward to Jesus the great endurer who is the author and perfector of our faith, and ‘consider him’.
First, and most important, we are to look upward to Jesus the great endurer who is the author and perfector of our faith, and ‘consider him’. There is a wealth of resources in those two words, in the context of the letter which is all about the ‘betterness’ of the hope we have through the finished work of Christ. But not least is the fact that he began our faith when his Spirit, the Spirit of the Christ who endured all things, brought us to life. So to walk in the Spirit is to walk – indeed run – with endurance our race, and so reach at last faith’s perfection. It can seem, when you are up against it, that you long to be past this tiresome time of gritty persevering, and basking in the blessing of a more spiritually enriching experience. But no; what we really have need of (always), according to the apostle, is endurance! That is the sure sign of the Spirit’s life propelling you relentlessly to glory. So, when I ask someone how they are doing and they say something like ‘well, things are grim but I’m persevering’ I say ‘no that’s not grim, that’s glorious! The Spirit of him who endured all things is clearly at work, and I’m so encouraged to see that is so.’
Second, though, Hebrews 11 wonderfully points us back to the great cloud of witnesses of all the faithful who have gone before, as examples to encourage us that believers do endure, despite all their weakness, and all their sins too. The latter point is perhaps the most encouraging of all, as it reminds us of the tenacity of God’s grace even in the face of great sin, and the transforming triumph of that grace despite the deficiencies - which were many - in the lives of those named. We are to follow not the follies of the fathers (which were as many and varied as our own) but their faith, because if God was able to sustain to the end those who died seeing the promise only from afar, because they threw their hope on him, how much more will he sustain us to the end, and enable us to persevere, who live in these days which are in every way undergirded by better promises! I find it so wonderfully encouraging, having read the very chequered history of their lives as recorded in Scripture, where the sins of the saints are never airbrushed away, to then read the verdict of Hebrews 11 on these men: ‘by faith Abraham obeyed….offered up Isaac….by faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship…’ When we realise that what God sees and remembers as of abiding importance about our lives is so marvellously coloured by his grace, and not our sin, doesn’t that give us heart to keep on persevering in our race?
the great cloud of witnesses of all the faithful who have gone before, as examples to encourage us that believers do endure, despite all their weakness, and all their sins too.
Finally, don’t forget the example of those leaders who have taught and trained us, who spoke to us the word of God, and so shaped our own life and ministry. ‘Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’ (Heb 13:7) One of the great motivators for me to persevere in ministry is the example and inspiration of those who led me into faith and ministry in the first place, and who showed me how to endure faithfully, despite many struggles, sorrows and battles for the gospel. I remember as a ministry student, and in very early years in ministry, how just being at ministry conferences along along with many others, and seeing and hearing those 20, 30, 40 years further down the ministry track, was so immensely strengthening and encouraging.
When as a theology student all your beliefs were being shaken and rocked by those who wanted you to believe that no-one could hold to such views any more, just to see men in the flesh whom I knew, and respected, and to know that they still believed, these things, and they still preached these things, and that they were still going on, and their ministries bearing fruit, made me realise that so could I! And, moreover, when I do consider the outcome of their way of life, and their way of ministry, I am constantly reminded of the kind of ministry which does produce not froth which may impress for a time, but quickly fades, but rather the fruit which lasts, stands the test of time, and goes on bearing fruit down the generations.
I have photographs of some of my leaders in my study and my vestry, the men who spoke the word of God to me, but are now in glory, and they are a constant reminder to keep going, to keep imitating their faith, keep remembering that their God is still my God.