In It for the Long Haul

Forget metrics. The pastor’s job is to find success when it’s invisible.

Lee Eclov, Leadership Journal, Summer 2015

In It for the Long Haul

In the classic movie based on a true story, Remember the Titans, Coach Herman Boone takes a deeply divided high school team and builds them into champions, beginning with an intense, exhausting two-week camp in the heat of August. At the end of the ordeal, the boys start to gel as a team. Picture them in full gear, sweating under the hot sun, in long rows. They are running hard in place, glaring straight ahead as the camera moves up and down the rows with the coach. He yells, “What are you?” And they shout back, “Mo-bile! A-gile! Hos-tile!”

He yells, “And what is pain?”

They shout back, “French bread!”

He yells, “What is fatigue?”

And they shout, “Army clothes!”

Then the coach brings it to a peak: “Will … you … ever … quit?”

And they bellow, “No! We want some mo’! We want some mo’! We want some mo’!”

I wonder if we should do that drill in seminary. There are a lot of pastors who most definitely don’t want any mo’. Pain, fatigue, and all manner of hard hits have left us wishing we could just get off the field for a while.

I’ve read that only 10 percent of those who begin as local church pastors will stay with it until retirement. Of course, those aren’t all people who couldn’t take it anymore or who failed. But I read in one survey that 50 percent of pastors have been discouraged enough that they would have left the ministry if they could.

I love being a pastor and I serve a gracious church, but this is a brutal business. I’ve been at it for 35 years, so I know what people mean when they say, “No hurt hurts quite like church hurt.”

Shell-Shocked Survivors

I suspect that every experienced ministry friend I know has been traumatized at one time or another in ministry. Travis Collins, in For Ministers About to Start … or About to Give Up, writes that “75 percent [of ministers] report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation at some point in their careers.” One friend who left ministry for a season told me one of his elders actually said to him, “I consider you lower than an animal.” That brother had pastoral trauma.

“Even for the best of us, shepherding can be downright dangerous.”

Among our colleagues are near-martyrs who have sacrificed their ministry lives to serve Jesus. I realize that sometimes pastors are at fault, but even for the best of us, shepherding can be downright dangerous. Ask Moses. Ask David or Jeremiah. Ask Peter, Paul, Timothy, and John. Ask Jesus. A lot of pastors echo the martyrs beneath heaven’s altar, “How long, O Lord?”

The Weary, Wary, and Worn

Ministry trauma is unmistakable, but ministry weariness is subtle. Paul writes to all believers in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” That’s a tall order, at least when it comes to shepherding a church. Paul knew that. Weariness comes at us from all directions.

We grow weary of the emotional drain. Loving our flock isn’t easy. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 about the “daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”

Ellis Peters, in her Brother Cadfael mystery, The Raven in the Foregate, tells about a eulogy for a beloved monk, Father Adam. “‘A sad, kind man,’ said Cynric … ‘a tired man, with a soft spot for sinners.'” The author tells us he was “A sad man, because he had been listening to and bearing with the perpetual failures of humankind for seventeen years, a tired man because endless consoling and chiding and forgiving takes it out of any man by the time he’s sixty, especially one with neither malice nor anger in his own make-up. A kind man, because he had somehow managed to preserve compassion and hope even against the tide of human fallibility.”

And all pastors murmur, “God rest his soul.”

We wear ourselves out trying to make exciting things happen. Every pastor worth his salt is engaged in starting difficult things, church cheerleading even when we’ve gone hoarse, and plugging the leaks in a grand plan. Doing the ordinary gets old, of course, but so does attempting the extraordinary. Building programs, staff searches, and strategic planning can suck the energy out of a person. One reason I left my previous church was that I saw another building program looming and wasn’t sure I was up to it.

We get tired of being average and inadequate. We all have our ministry sweet spots that energize us, but most of us also have significant duties that don’t come naturally. Sooner or later those inadequacies start to burden the church. If we’re weak organizers, people get frustrated over lost details. If our best preaching strikes congregants as tedious, people start to check out other preachers.

A friend told me about a pastor who loved his people wonderfully but was pushed out by his leaders because, they said, “we need someone who can take us to the next level.” I shuddered and looked behind me.

We exhaust ourselves trying to be role models. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” I admit I sometimes get tired of having to be the good example. During a particularly difficult time years ago, I remember thinking, Why do I always have to be the good example around here? How about one of these other guys be the good example for a while?

I sometimes sense this in myself during sermon preparation. I have to apply the stress test of each text to myself ahead of the congregation or I couldn’t preach it with integrity. Not long ago I preached through James. The book’s relentless scrutiny just about killed me. God humbled me and gave grace, just as he promised, but it was tough going.

These pressures are dangerous to our spiritual integrity. We become too guarded, wary of the people we are called to love. We are tempted to play the part of the pastor, putting on our preacher voice and handling the holy as if the fire had gone out.

Taking care of ourselves is serious business, a stewardship of the highest order. The good news is that our casualties haven’t gone unnoticed. Jesus sees, and he has commissioned a whole battalion of ministry medics for the wounded. These tender healers offer counseling, retreats, prayer, books, and articles. Though ministry can be lonely, few pastors have to go it alone if we will reach out for help. A few years ago, an elder in my church who was also a counselor came in, closed the door, and after a few minutes of small talk, said, “Lee, you’re depressed, you’re angry, and you need to get some help.” I certainly did.

Looking for Success in Out-of-The-Way Places

One reason we lose heart is because we don’t know success when we see it. Many of us serve in a culture that puts a high value on metrics (what we used to call numbers). Even though numbers are never mentioned in the New Testament after the birth of the church, we keep counting. Numerical growth is the ministerial version of Yukon gold. Like prospectors dreaming of the mother lode, pastors will brave grueling deprivation hoping they strike it big.

When it comes to success in ministry, the Bible’s approach is counterintuitive. In an ultimate sense, numbers are striking and overwhelming, not a precedent for church leaders to strive for: “a multitude that no one could count … standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

In the meantime, there are measures of success that matter more.

“God calls us to work with believers who crumble, grumble, and grouse.”

Successful shepherds of a faithless flock. Some shepherds must lead a faithless flock through a wilderness of testing. That was Moses’ job for 40 years. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit now kindles the kind of faith in believers that was almost unknown among Moses’ congregation.

God calls us to work with less-than-perfect believers. They crumble and grumble under pressure. They grouse about their God-given food. They can be misers of God’s gifts on one hand and spiritual paupers on the other. They’d sooner go back to slavery than trek through trials to the land flowing with God’s promises. Still, God gives them a shepherd after his own heart, an agent of grace for Christians who barely know their birthright.

For many pastors, it may be all they can do to keep their jobs. Moses learned that some votes of confidence require divine intervention. Moses offers such pastors his own lament to God: “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?”

Success for these pastors may be the restraint not to hit people over the head with the rod of God. Success for them is simply not giving up on God’s people. Above all, success for them is pleading for their people in prayer. It turned out that Moses’ main ministry was standing in the gap, mediating for God’s grace. He trusted God for them until they finally learned to trust God for themselves. Moses was at his best when he prayed, even as the Israelites picked up rocks to stone him: “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” Thank God that Jesus is a “better mediator.” Thank God that the Holy Spirit groans along with us as we pray and persist through wilderness years.

God’s reward for such faithful pastors, who often serve in small, visionless churches, will be great.

The successes of weakness. Success for many pastors lies in the dubious distinction of being the congregation’s lead comforter. Pastors often can’t help but hurt in public. The flock watches the long illness, the blasts of criticism, the family heartbreak, or the depression. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 Paul retraces his own unlikely path to strengthening fellow believers. He says he suffered terribly—nigh unto death—and God comforted him. The Greek word for comfort is more than a mother cooing, “There, there,” to her crying child. The word has bigger arms than that. It is rooted in Jesus’ familiar name for the Holy Spirit—the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete who comes to our side to help in every possible way.

Several years ago Linda, the wife of my dear friend Bob, died at age 60. He called and we talked about this passage. Bob, a very perceptive pastor, said, “With God it is not just comfort; it is comfort with strength in it—with teeth.” He told me, “Last fall, when [we learned the extent of Linda’s illness] I realized what was ahead, I knew I’d need to learn how to be a servant to my wife in ways I had never done, and I wasn’t sure I could do that. Now I look back on all that I have done for her and I think, Wow! God gave me grace to do all that.

The Comforter came alongside him, bringing the treasure of Christ’s surpassing life into Bob’s clay vessel. Even when Bob was desperately weak, he was like a new Adam, slowing rising from the dust of the earth.

As a result, this son of second Adam had a capacity for life-giving within him, a kind of Midas touch for the dead. Thereafter when he pastored his suffering people he was even more of a comfort carrier than he had been before. He not only taught about Christ’s life, he not only demonstrated Christ’s life out of his own inward dying and his hope of Linda’s resurrection, but he conferred Christ’s life to the people he shepherded. As Paul predicted, that produced in Bob’s congregation “patient endurance in the same sufferings we share.”

The metric: “a radiant church, without blemish, holy and blameless.”

Successful pastors die. They are weakened by the poison arrow of Satan, with a message wrapped around its shaft reading, “You’re as good as dead.” But when that pastor (indeed, any Christian) lets Christ’s comforting life invade their tomb, angels come again to repeat their good news: “He is not here. He is risen!” Sometimes in a church’s life that is the single ministry that matters most.

The inglorious success of holiness. Nothing is more important to a church than holiness. Even thought it’s hard to find among many proposed measures of pastoral success, you can’t miss it in. Thanks to Jesus Christ, there are many holy churches, small and large, and many pastors, both prominent and unknown, who share with Jesus a desire to “present to himself a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

A Christ-like church creates a kind of gravitational pull toward the gospel. A holy church will necessarily be the most successful in offering theological wisdom, evangelism, championing compassion and justice, loving fellowship, and worship. But there’s no guarantee that a holy church will get bigger, nor that their pastor’s reputation will grow.

The high and holy God resides among the lowly and contrite in heart. Children, regardless of age, are the most at home with Jesus. On this side of heaven the beauty of holiness is often understated.

Like most of my pastoral colleagues, I’ve done all manner of things to help my church grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ. Last summer, many in our church read through the New Testament in eight weeks. I know we grew in holiness, but I can’t tell you how. Currently, we’re trying to find ways to share Christ more effectively, not only for the sake of the lost, but for our own sake as well. It is hard to say just how we will be different, but I have no doubt we will be more like Jesus.

My Simple Measure of Success

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2, Christian’s wife, Christiana, along with their children, make their way to the Celestial City. They come upon “a man with his sword drawn, and his face all bloody, who tells them, ‘I am one whose name is VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH. I am a pilgrim, and am going to the Celestial City.'” He becomes their rear guard lest “some fiend, or dragon, or giant, or thief, should fall upon [them], and so do mischief.”

I want to be like that man. A pastor, the guardian of God’s homeward bound pilgrims, the sword of God’s Word in my hand. That would be success.

Lee Eclov pastors Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.

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