Are you struggling with questions about success? Come on don’t be so pious! All ministers struggle with this question from time to time. The classic example is Joshua. After Moses died God chose Joshua to lead the people of Israel. Talk about big shoes to fill. Talk about an inferiority complex. Joshua struggled with this task. He needed words of encouragement from the Lord.
The struggle with success plays itself out in many ways. Sometimes we struggle with the “poor little old me syndrome.” We compare ourselves to the superstar preachers and that makes us feel small; or we struggle with the church-down-the- street syndrome (“The church down the street has welcomed more new members than our church”); or it may be a struggle with “location syndrome” (“why did God place me in this location?”); or we struggle with the last pastor syndrome. (“I am not as popular as the last pastor.”)
I had an interesting experience in my first church out of seminary. I served in a small rural church in Mississippi. The church I served was located about ten miles from town in a rural area. We defined the phrase “rural church.” There was a church in town that was “blowing and going” as we say. They had a nice building and were gaining many new members on a regular basis. I remember feeling somewhat envious of that church’s pastor. I thought to myself, “I will be happy when I don’t have to live under his shadow.” Guess what happened? Sometime later, I moved to another church about two hours away. The pastor from the previous town moved down the street from my new place of service. The same scenario repeated itself. His church appeared to do better than mine. In each of those situations the church I served prospered; however, the prosperity was not equal to the church down the street. I struggled with questions of success.
In studying Joshua’s experience, several lessons come to mind. First, take time to listen to the Lord. The Lord always has a word for our situation. Sometimes we are so busy that we miss a relevant word from the Lord. We need to spend time praying, meditating and bringing our struggles before the Lord.
Secondly, as God spoke to Joshua, He reminded him of his calling. God chose Joshua to be Moses’ successor. God’s call gives value and purpose. God’s call, in and of itself, is reason to celebrate. We tend to rate success on man’s standards and on man’s opinions. If we are following God’s call, that call, in and of itself, makes us successful. We are doing what God called us to do.
Closely related to the previous thought is that of faithfulness. God reminded Joshua to be himself. Every pastor cannot pastor a mega-church. Every pastor cannot write a bestselling book. Every pastor cannot speak on the seminar/conference circuit. The pastor who is faithful in the small rural church is successful. The pastor who is faithful in the traditional rural church is successful. The pastor who is faithfully working with difficult people is successful.
God told Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)
We will face many trials as we serve in ministry. Trials such as sickness and death of friends, divorce of fellow believers, personal sickness, family issues, and people issues, just to name a few. It is hard to say which trials will affect us the most. There is one trial that may very well be the most debilitating and most difficult to overcome. What is it? The trials created by our own personality quirks.
Let’s look at the topic. All of us have personality quirks. I love watching the detective show “Monk.” Monk reminds me of us. He is his own worst enemy. I know! Monk has deep seated personality issues that require professional help. I have always told congregations I served, “we are all one step away from insanity.” We may not be as quirky as Monk, but all of us have them. Consider these examples: OCD, the tendency to be a control freak, obsessed with work; paranoia, by insecurity and anxiety; and chronic worriers.
In the Bible the classic example of a man with a personality quirk was Jacob. Jacob had to be in control. He always manipulated circumstances so that he would come out on top. Have we not seen that in ministry? This is seen most clearly in Genesis 30-32 as Jacob played a game of situational chess with Laban.
The beautiful thing about God’s sovereign work in our lives is that he changes our spiritual dimension but also our personal/emotional lives. Over time God changed Jacob from being a control freak to being a man of faith. That required time and surrender. In Jacob’s life the masterpiece of God’s work occurred at Bethel (Genesis 35:16-26) when Jacob wrestled with an angel. This encounter moved Jacob to a new dimension in his service to God.
The tricky part is that we do not shoot ourselves in the foot while God fulfills His work in us. So what can we do to confront our quirky nature?
It is inevitable that we will face trials as we serve in ministry. My prayer is that my personality quirks not contribute to my trials. Occasionally pastors walk into my office and begin talking about church issues they are facing. The sad part is that sometimes the man is as much, if not more, a part of the problem. Even sadder is the pastor who cannot see his weaknesses. His pride blinds him.
Only by the grace of God do any of us contribute to God’s sovereign work in our world. Our sin, our sinful world and our personality quirks are formidable foes. My prayer is that God sovereignly change us, as He did Jacob. He wants to change our world through His imperfect servants.
The title of this article contains three disturbing words, “Quitting the Ministry.” You might be reading this article to see to whom the words refer. It could be you! It could be me! We do not relish the use of these words regardless of the source. We do not expect God’s men to quit. Secretaries quit, electricians quit, and plant workers quit, surely pastors do not quit.
The truth is, anyone serving in ministry has entertained these three disturbing words from time to time. The causes are many: difficult people, discouragement, burnout, depression, feeling ineffective, the list goes on.
When looking for Biblical inspiration it seems as if we can always look to Peter for an example. Peter experienced the full range of spiritual struggles while following Jesus. In John 21 we find an occasion when Peter seemed to struggle with his calling. Jesus had risen from the dead, but Peter and the other disciples had not discovered the full significance of this good news and its impact on their lives.
During this time, Peter and several of his fellow disciples decided to go fishing. We do not know the reason for the fishing trip. It could have been doubt, a time to relax, a need to raise funds, or a time of wavering in their call. Regardless of the reason we learn several valuable lessons about facing the empty times of ministry.
First, regardless of their reason for fishing, Jesus did not condemn the disciples for going fishing, nor did He condemn the motivation behind it. Were they motivated by doubt, discouragement, guilt, uncertainty, self- condemnation or similar negative emotions? Just because you get down does not mean Jesus is down on you. It is okay to withdraw and look for answers.
Also, there is nothing wrong with empty nets. As Americans we abhor failure. Jesus often uses empty nets to teach us His abundance. When we have tried our way and our methods (remember Peter was a fisherman by trade) and come up empty that leaves plenty of room for Jesus and His fullness.
John’s gospel tells us the purpose behind this fishing experience. “After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself.” (John. 21:1) Did you notice that word, “again?” Jesus wants to show us he can turn empty nets into full nets. Jesus reveals Himself again and again until we get the lesson. John said, “This is now the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.” (John. 21:14)
In the seasons of emptiness Jesus does His greatest work in us. We do not want to hear this truth, but it is truth we need to hear. As Jesus walked Peter and his comrades through this failed fishing trip He prepared them for their next phase of ministry. As we claim the promise of Romans 8:28 we can be assured that empty nets are a prelude to the Lord’s fullness and a bright future.