In a recent statistic, it was reported that 16,000 pastors leave the ministry every year. The cause for their departure varies from minister to minister. But overall, the number one reason has been discouragement.
Now to the man and woman sitting in the church pew, this may seem like an absurd reason to leave the ministry. In fact, I can hear many church people thinking to themselves, “What could pastors possibly be discouraged about? Why they must have the easiest vocation there is: they work primarily from home (which, of course, allows them to see their own family throughout the day); their main responsibility is to preach every week (and how difficult could that be – just prepare something to talk about); they don’t have to punch a clock and answer to an employer who is always looking over their shoulder; and above all, they have more free time than anyone I know, to come and go as they please. So, what could be discouraging about a job like that?!”
Well, to any church member who reduces the work of pastoring to such a superficial, shallow, and non-spiritual vocation, as has been just described – they are naive at best and a block-head at worst. Sadly though, the aforementioned description of pastoring is how many people in the church judge the ministry to be. Pastoring the church to them, is nothing but a “cakewalk.” In fact, there are church members who actually scorn pastoring as not even measuring up to real work. Thus, to hear that 16,000 pastors are leaving the ministry every year, due largely to discouragement – causes great perplexity for many people in the church.
But their perplexity is rooted in an ignorance of what the real work of pastoring the church calls for by God’s own mandate. God commands His under-shepherds to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). When this work is carried out with faithful earnest, it places the pastor in a vulnerable position where they are open to the most severe attacks of discouragement, and even depression. But why is this?
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) once spoke to this very issue as a part of his Friday afternoon lectures he deliberated to his ministerial students at his Pastors’ College. He titled this particular lecture, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” And in the course of this message, he addressed the question as to why pastors would succumb to discouragement and depression. Among a host of answers he gave, one of his responses truly nailed what is at the root of pastoral work, and how the nature of this work plays right into grave discouragement. Spurgeon observed:
“Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? Passionate longings after men’s conversion, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment. To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin – are not these sight enough to crush us to the earth? The kingdom comes not as we would, the reverend name is not hallowed as we desire, and for this we must weep. How can we be otherwise than sorrowful, while men believe not our report, and the divine arm is not revealed? All mental work tends to weary and depress, for much study is weariness of the flesh; but ours is more than mental work – it is HEART WORK, the labor of our inmost soul. How often, on the Lord’s day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.”
As Spurgeon rightly put it: the work of pastoring is more than “mental work,” it is heart work. It is the pastor’s own heart spending and being spent to exhaustion, as he gives himself fully to the Lord’s call and to the Lord’s people. Moreover, it is heart work from the standpoint of where the pastor is actually ministering to the church. He is working to reach their soul – nourishing them in the faith, building them up in Christ, and doing all he can, by what God has given him to help the church grow and mature as faithful followers of Christ.
Mark it down: there is nothing easy about this kind of work. For not only do pastors have to work on the spiritual state of their own hearts – both as a Christian and an overseer of the church – but they also have to be much at work on the hearts of God’s people. And this is where the work of pastoring becomes most discouraging and depressing. Consider again the words of Charles Spurgeon on this point:
“One crushing stroke has sometimes laid the minister very low. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor. Judas lifts up his heel against the man who trusted him, and the preacher’s heart for the moment fails him. We are all too apt to look to an arm of the flesh, and from that propensity many of our sorrows arise. Equally overwhelming is the blow when an honored and beloved member yields to temptation, and disgraces the holy name with which he was named. Anything is better than this. This makes the preacher long for a lodge in some vast wilderness, where he may hide his head for ever, and hear no more the blasphemous jeers of the ungodly. Ten years of toil do not take so much life out of us as we lose in a few hours by the traitor or the apostate…The trials of a true minister are not few, and such as are caused by ungrateful professors are harder to bear than the coarsest attacks of avowed enemies. Let no man who looks for ease of mind and seeks the quietude of life in the ministry; if he does so, he will flee from it in disgust.”
In light of these very pointed words by Spurgeon, I hope in some way it’s clear why pastors can be discouraged and depressed – and tragically, would even succumb to leave the ministry altogether. But of course, the pressing question we must raise is this: How can pastors overcome such discouragements that would bring them to leave the ministry?
Spurgeon’s answer to this question focused on what the pastor could do – and his counsel was very wise. For instance, he said the pastor should not be “dismayed by soul-trouble.” He also exhorted his fellow ministers to put no trust in frames or feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the needs of human help. Moreover, he said, be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world.
This is all good counsel to be sure. Yet, as mentioned, it is counsel restricted to how the pastor himself can minister to his own soul. But would it surprise you to know that the church body itself can take a direct role in the encouragement of their pastor to stay the course in faithfully shepherding the flock of God? The assembled congregation of God’s people have a divine mandate from God’s Word to hearten the man of God who labors to shepherd them. This mandate is in Hebrews 13:17. In this passage, it is revealed that a pastor’s summary labor is described as “keeping watch for your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” By “watching for your souls”, a pastor watches for dangerous doctrine and false teachings outside the church; he keeps alert for deceitful and divisive behavior within the church; and he stays attentive to the church’s spiritual development (cf. Acts 20:28-31; 3 John 9-10; Titus 3:10-11; 2 Timothy 4:1-2; Ephesians 4:11-12).
But how must the church respond to such spiritual “watching” like this, which the pastor conducts as a matter of good for their souls? Hebrews 13:17 answers this question with this imperative: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning…” Here’s where the church member has a direct responsibility in the encouragement of his pastor. As the pastor is faithfully keeping watch for the souls of his congregants, they in turn respond by letting their pastor lead with joy in this stewardship. And the joy springs from the church obeying and submitting to the leadership God has entrusted to His under-shepherds in the work of the ministry. This is how Hebrews 13:17 puts it in the whole:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
So, connecting the dots here – it is only when the church is obedient and submissive to the watchcare which the pastors are giving them for Christ’s sake, that the pastors are then enabled to shepherd with joy verses discouragement. What every local church must take into account from Hebrews 13:17, is that if they fail to let their pastors lead with joy due to either their own rebellion or apathy to his watchcare, they will in turn be the ones who suffer most. As this passage warns in its closing words: “…for that would be of no advantage to you.” The term “no advantage” means “harmful.” It would be harmful to the church to be the cause of their pastors’ grief in his work. Fanning out this consequence, A.W. Pink (1886-1952) observed:
“For the members of a church to so conduct themselves as to be a constant source of grief unto their minister is to despise their own mercies. It not only prevents their receiving his instruction into their hearts, which results in their spiritual barrenness, but it also saps his vigor, quenches his zeal, causing him to proceed with a heavy heart instead of with cheerfulness. What is still more solemn and serious, the Lord Himself is highly displeased, and the tokens of His favor are withdrawn, for He is very sensitive of the mistreatment of His stewards.”
One of the great biblical principles we need to take away from this is that Christ does not exercise His rule over the church directly but by mediation (John 13:20). Specifically, the Lord rules His church through those men He has gifted and given to the church for that purpose – namely, the pastors or elders (1 Timothy 5:17). Therefore, the church advances in spiritual blessing through the faithful leadership of its pastors (Ephesians 4:11-13). Hence, when the church obeys and submits to the watchcare of Christ’s under-shepherds, then believers can expect great spiritual blessing. This is because as they are liberating their pastors to lead with joy, they are at the same time receiving joy by the work God has enabled His under-shepherds to carry out in behalf of His people. Or as John MacArthur put it: “You will never find a truly happy pastor apart from a happy congregation, or a happy congregation apart from a happy pastor.”
So then, according to Hebrews 13:17, the church is responsible to encourage their pastors to lead with joy, only, as they obey and submit to the watchcare which any faithful pastor will give. When such a relationship like this is working and developing within a church, then that congregation will be greatly blessed with spiritual vigor, health, and maturity.