While we don’t like to talk about it much discouragement in ministry is common. I am thinking here especially of those who serve in professional pastoral ministries. At first this seems odd since those who are called to lead in church ministry are defined for it by their faith, their passion, their enthusiasm, and their obvious giftedness to lead and to communicate in a spiritual context. This image in fact makes their spiritual discouragement even more profound since they have expectations for themselves and from others to be people of strong faith. But the reality is, despite the impression of others, that pastors are very human in this regard and may often experience a deep sense of discouragement which they may effectively hide — sometimes even from themselves.
Some people are more prone to depression by temperament as something inherited or developed by their own insecurity or sensitivities. Since pastors seek to lead in the extension of God’s kingdom their engagement in the battle between truth and falsehood can be emotionally exhausting. Their work is challenged by opposing cultural trends often making it difficult to relax or “let down their guard.” Working constantly with people can be draining anyway and especially so in this context. And then there is the very real struggle that St. Paul writes about in Ephesians 6 — the struggle “…against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.”
Potential points of discouragement have to do with the intensity of the work involving long hours of concentration in study or engagement in counseling. It may also have to do with conflict in inter-personal relationships with other people on staff or in the lay leadership of the church. Or it may have to do with incongruities that one is dealing with in personal life — family, finance, health and matters along those lines. Sometimes discouragement may be more intense at certain seasons of the year because of the weather, or the darkness, or happenings in the church calendar. It certainly is inclined to happen when the church is facing some kind of crisis and their is a real or threatened loss of people or finance. Even the smallest critical comment, at times, can set off major feelings of disquiet. One of the greatest discouragements for a pastor is not having work or a place to serve. Ironically, pastors often experience greater discouragement when they attend a denominational conference or retreat because there they hear about the real or embellished good reports of other pastors.
In dealing with the reality of discouragement, first and foremost it is important for pastors to acknowledge the reality of this tendency. They should recognize that this is not something unique in their experience despite the tendency of other servants of Christ to continually give the opposite impression. On the other hand it is important to be candid about one’s discouragement in the right context — with trusted mentors and friends. One of the reasons I have come to appreciate the Psalms so much in recent years is because of the writers’ willingness to be candid about discouragement. A majority of the Psalms express discouragement and the need for God’s help in one form or another. Psalm 13 is a classic example: How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart everyday? It is helpful to recognize that even Jesus had to deal with the reality of discouragment due to the often dull and slow response of the disciples or by the evidence of his grief in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The mention of Jesus’ trial in the Garden of Gethsemane brings to mind one of the most important ways of dealing with discouragement. It is to go to God in prayer. We should seek the prayers of others (as Jesus did) in times of discouragement but even when they fail (as they did in his case) we know that it is in meeting with God that we will find solace and strength for our dark nights of the soul. During these times, of course, there is also great comfort to be found in the words of Scripture or in hearing God’s truth in one form or another — as in music. Encouragement often comes through sharing with good friends who are able to empathize. Journaling can be an effective way of dealing with discouragement. So can taking a course to sharpen one’s skills. Being occupied with some other constructive enterprise can be helpful. Sometimes it is simply a matter of getting more rest or of taking time for a change of scenery.
Though discouragement in pastoral ministry is inevitable and often intense it is through those experiences that God’s servant is better prepared for more authentic ministry. In the words of 2 Corinthians 1:3,4, as we experience God’s comfort, we are better prepared to comfort others — by the comfort we ourselves have received from God. As hard as the experience of discouragement may be, we need to remember that a proper response to it can effectively serve to be a source of great blessing to our own lives and the lives of many other people.