Every leader faces discouragement at some time. Many leaders try to battle their discouragement with cynicism or apathy. Eventually these leaders stop leading altogether. Pastors are not immune to discouragement. Thom Rainer says, “Over one-half (55%) of pastors are presently discouraged. I suspect that if we surveyed pastors over just a few months, we would find that almost all of them experience deep discouragement.”
Does this pervasiveness mean our approach to overcoming discouragement is wrong? Instead of blaming others, commiserating with other pastors, grumbling to our spouse, or becoming depressed, what if we learned to listen to discouragement? There are lessons God wants to teach us through our discouragement if we know how to listen.
Discern the Source of Discouragement
When asked why they are so discouraged, most people will respond by stating things that are external. For example, pastors listed the sources of their discouragement as: conflict, criticism, church decline, family pressures, resistance to change, financial pressures, or comparing their ministry to more “successful” ministries.
However, Erik Raymond suggests that the source of discouragement may not be external: “Ministry doesn’t need to be as discouraging as you may be letting it be.” We need to look internally for the source of our discouragement. No one can make us become discouraged. They can’t steal our enthusiasm or quench our spirit. Discouragement comes from within – it comes from how we respond to situations that didn’t go the way we wanted. Discouragement shows us that our view of life is disordered. Here are some internal causes of discouragement:
Sometimes we become discouraged because we have overcomplicated things. We haven’t done the hard work of finding clarity – a simple, elegant approach to the problem. Working without clarity leads us to become overwhelmed by all that has to be done.
One of the most pervasive sources of discouragement is becoming overwhelmed by the expectations of ourselves or others. When we try to be superhuman, we will become discouraged every time. This is not an issue of too much to do, but of too little time discerning what is most important. Priority creates clarity. When we discern what is most important and what we must do, then we can be free to say no or to delegate work to others. Priority provides focus, and focus is energizing.
If, like me, you have a tendency toward perfectionism, you will spend much of your life in discouragement. When we expect perfection from ourselves or others, we will be disappointed every time. A friend once asked me, “Why do you expect people to give you what they can’t possibly give?” My expectations were killing me and hurting those around me. Learning to trust the Holy Spirit to grow people in his way and in his timing allowed me to relax. I learned that leadership is more about the journey than the destination. Rather than expressing expected outcomes, try inspiring movement in the desired direction.
In the study cited above, Thom Rainer says, “There was a significant pattern of discouragement related to the age of the pastor. The younger the pastor, the more likely he was to be discouraged.” The idealism of our youth will turn into discouragement when faced with the facts of reality. Young leaders want to change the world, but no one has told them just how hard that will be. They haven’t learned just how much they will have to sacrifice, suffer, and persevere just to see small changes become reality. Some ministries never survive this lesson.
Sometimes discouragement is just one symptom of a greater problem. Burnout and compassion fatigue are both marked by a lack of enthusiasm, energy, and hope. They come from a deeper problem of unhealthy rhythms of work, rest, and relationship with God and others. Many pastors who are suffering burnout or compassion fatigue will say, “I’m a little discouraged right now,” when in reality they need extended time off and the help of a counselor, mentor, or spiritual director.
Learning from Discouragement
When we see that most discouragement comes from within, we can begin to learn and grow in God’s presence. By reordering our relationships with God, self, and others, we can grow through discouragement.
Check Your Relationship with God
Is your relationship with God the priority of your life? Often discouragement is a sign of disconnection from God. We start following our own desires instead of God’s leading. We work in our own strength instead of relying on God. Failing to pray or read Scripture for the nourishment of your soul will leave you feeling discouraged. This discouragement is a gift from God because it calls you back to him. Bill Gaultiere says what we need is to “learn how to unhook from our relationships and responsibilities to be alone with Jesus in a quiet place for extended hours.”
Who is leading your life? Are you following your own mission, does the church drive you, or are you following the leading of God? Listening to God through his Word and prayer are essential to our spiritual health and leadership. When we are following God’s lead, we can trust in his timing instead of our own. We can rest in his gifts instead for striving for more. We are stewards who live to please God. This gives us freedom from discouragement when we don’t get our own way. When people don’t live up to our expectations, we can remind ourselves that they answer to God and not to us. When we are following God’s lead, we can trust others to be led by God too.
Develop Character by Meditating on God’s Ways
Pray this prayer of Moses: “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” Spend an extended period of time thinking deeply about God as he is revealed in his Word. Take a day or two, or make it the focus of your daily meditation for the next month. How do each of the following truths from Scripture relate to your discouragement? Meditate on each one to develop the character of Christ in you:
- God is in control.
- He is patient with you (meditate on the word longsuffering).
- God’s purposes are not frustrated – he accomplishes all his will.
- God is gracious and forgiving.
- Jesus wants to be in relationship with you.
- The Holy Spirit is your comforter and teacher.
- God will provide for all your needs.
- God’s strength is shown in your weakness.
- Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
When we look to God and learn from his character, we are encouraged and transformed.
Sometimes we get discouraged when people don’t live up to our expectations – whether it be our desires for their life or our interpretation of holiness. When we become judgmental Pharisees, we can expect to feel discouraged. However, when we consider how God is patient, gracious, and forgiving toward us, it frees us to offer grace to others.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.Proverbs 19:11
Over-responsibility – taking responsibility for something that isn’t our responsibility – is often a source of judgment and discouragement. Learning to allow others the freedom to struggle and even fail demonstrates trust in both them and God. We can provide support, encouragement, and inspiration without taking responsibility for others. By leaving the outcomes to God, we are free from the burden of responsibility and the accompanying discouragment.
Address Destructive Issues
Sometimes it is impossible to overlook a problem because it is destructive to others. We need to confront sin and call out poor performance or bad attitudes. But we must do this with grace and compassion – seeking the highest good of the other person. We must also be careful to not take responsibility for them. Instead, we must be clear that they are responsible to God first and to their family, their church, or their employer second. In these situations our discouragement is a sign of our love for others. We must be careful to act in both truth and love.
Pastors, what has helped you overcome discouragement in ministry? Leave a comment here or join The Pastor’s Soul Facebook group. Here are 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors by Douglas Wilson for further study.