Let’s be honest: it has been a difficult couple of years. Some vocations have uniquely borne the burden of serving in a time of cultural upheaval and a global pandemic. I think of the heroic efforts of police officers and frontline healthcare workers to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Also, it certainly has not been an easy time for pastors to give thanks.
I have seen many thoughtful and helpful posts from pastors and church leaders detailing the difficulty of leading a congregation during this challenging period. A recent headline from the Barna Group’s research on pastors read, “38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year” That headline will startle many, but I doubt it shocks many pastors.
Almost every pastor knows at least one pastor who has been fired or quit the ministry in the past 6 months.
Honest conversations that do not gloss over the gut-wrenching ordeal many pastors have endured, and are enduring, in this trying period are good and necessary. Scripture also commands us to “Give thanks in all circumstances,” and assures us, “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thess 5:18). We must be clear, though, that we are not told to give thanks for all circumstances but rather in all circumstances. Likewise, Romans 8:28 does not tell us all things are good, but it does emphatically assert, “for those who love God all things work together for good.”
A faith that centers on a bloody cross with the Son of God on it, and an empty tomb, tutor’s us to understand, “Nothing is beyond the overruling, overriding scope of his providence.” Pastors ought to be skilled in pointing themselves and others toward gospel good in all circumstances. The pastor must always give thanks when remembering God’s grace and providence, and never stop proclaiming the gospel to himself and all who will listen.
Doing so is at the heart of faithful shepherding of God’s flock. To that end, consider the following three encouragements:
Lead with Gospel Logic
Suffering leads to glory summarizes the message of 1 Peter. Peter was not making a lofty, abstract point but rather a very practical one to sustain a persecuted people whom he referred to as “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). As Peter noted, the prophets had predicted “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10). Throughout the letter Peter exhorts his readers to endure the suffering before them, but whenever he mentions suffering, glory soon follows.
In the last chapter, Peter zeroes in on pastors, exhorting them as “a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ,” and he then adds “as well as a partaker in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). Pastors lead those who “share in Christ’s sufferings,” so they should “not be surprised at the fiery trial,” for they will “be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
The congregational shepherd must lead the flock as an example of embracing and living out the stunning logic of the gospel—the way of suffering that leads to glory. While no one should want suffering, when it comes, the pastor has a providential gospel opportunity to lead toward a greater understanding of and longing for glory.
Know that Sheep Need a Shepherd
As a young pastor, I had a situation in my church that I deemed a crisis. I turned to a more seasoned pastor whom I considered my mentor in ministry for advice. When I laid the scenario out to him, he simply looked at me and said, “Sheep need a shepherd.” That’s it. That is all he said. Then he started talking about something else. It turned out to be a more formidable lesson in pastoral ministry than I had ever learned in seminary.
We lead people. People with messy lives. They call us pastors because they need to be shepherded. The call us pastors because we give thanks to God.
Too often, when a pastor sees members of the flock thinking wrongly or acting unwisely in matters related to life, culture, politics, or church we only see an annoying problem. And, in one sense, it is a problem. But isn’t it also the reason they call us “pastor”? Rather than keeping us from ministry, isn’t it our ministry to teach the flock to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)?
Real life, concrete situations provide us genuine insight into how to faithfully disciple the sheep entrusted to us by the Great Shepherd. Could it be that what we often complain about is the very ministry Christ has given us?
It is Supposed to be Hard
An old football coach of mine used to constantly yell, “It is supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t, everybody would be out here.” You know what? On some of those difficult days—hot, sweaty, sore—having just picked myself up off the ground from a jolting hit, I would say to myself, “This is supposed to be hard!” and it would help.
I am constantly encouraging my children to throw themselves into whatever they do with their whole heart. I tell them, “Make it hurt!” and “At least fail!” In other words, do not act like the goal of your life is self-protection, seeking to never be hurt and never fail. It is supposed to be hard.
You would think that a people who trust and follow a crucified Lord and Savior, one who said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), and whose most well-known apostle often wrote from prison, would understand the admonition, “It’s supposed to be hard!” Jesus is dangerous. Many saw him as a threat. He turned the wisdom of the world upside down. Living according to his kingdom will turn your life upside down too. The wisdom of the cross and the wisdom of the world cannot coexist; one is always the executioner of the other.
Preach the Word
Pastors, as God-called preachers of the Word, stand at the apex of spiritual battle in this fallen world. The biblical response to this truth is not self-pity. It is privilege. Pastors have the privilege of spending and being spent (2 Cor 12:15), of giving our lives (Acts 20:24) for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations.
I love the account in Acts 14 when Paul was stoned at Lystra. Talk about ministry challenges! The text says bluntly, “They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (Acts 14:19). In the next verse, it simply says, “he got up” and “on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20). When he got to Derbe, what did he do? He preached the gospel (Acts 14:21).
None of these truths will keep a pastor from getting fired or even from wanting to quit the ministry at times. What they will do, if embraced and embodied, is keep drawing him back to Christ and the gospel. It is only there that we find the resources to get knocked down for dead and simply get back up and preach the gospel again and again and again. Of course, that is, until the day comes when we die. Even then, that body will get up again, by God’s gracious power, at the resurrection of the dead.
Until then, keep getting up and giving thanks no matter what. After all, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
 John Stott, The Message of Romans, 247.