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Down, But Not Out - Discouragement in Ministry

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DTS Chapel, November 28, 2006

Click to view this article in video on the Dallas Theological Seminary website.

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with you and this distinguished faculty, which includes so many who have impacted my life. It is a joy to be able to speak with you students. And I so appreciate my husband, friends, and co-workers who have come today as well.

Let me ask all of you—have you ever been disappointed when things did not go well? Have you been discouraged to the point of losing hope? Have you ever felt that you should simply quit trying?

Several weeks ago, I watched some people who never quit trying, who never gave up when they faced disappointment—a group that was down but not out. My husband Gary and I were in Chicago, and we attended the Northwestern-Michigan State football game. Although we had no allegiance to either team, we were excited about enjoying a cool, crisp fall day at the stadium. For the first half of the game Northwestern dominated, and the second half began the same way. There were 9 minutes and 54 seconds left in the third quarter when they went up on Michigan State by a score of 38-3.

Gary and I were a bit bored with the game so one-sided. I was getting cold since the wind had picked up and the clouds had rolled in. I wondered if we could leave early without hurting our friend’s feelings. But at that point the game changed. Down by 35 points, Michigan State began to look like a different team, seemingly able to score at will. Their players were convinced that although they were down in the score, they were not out of the game. Their fans, who had been quiet for most of the game, cheered more and more loudly with each scoring drive. With 13 seconds left on the clock, Michigan State kicked a field goal to win by a final score of 41-38.

It was the greatest comeback in NCAA Division One history!

Although they were down, and it looked hopeless for them from where I sat, they never saw it that way. They refused to let the discouragement of being 35 points down take them out of the game. They were down but never out.

As you move into ministry, expect to be down, but don’t let it take you out. Don’t let disappointment and discouragement lead you to defeat.

The apostle Paul’s ministry brought difficulties, disappointments, and even discouragement, but he never quit; he never let it take him out of the work that God had called him to do. At the end of his life he was able to write these words in 2 Tim. 4:6-7: “For I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time for me to depart is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith!”

Knowing that he would soon be executed by Nero, Paul wrote this final epistle to prepare his protégée Timothy to fulfill and complete his own ministry after the passing of his mentor. Through this letter to his young friend, Paul helps prepare us to meet the difficulties, disappointments, and discouragements of ministry as well.

In this letter Paul advised Timothy to expect disappointing and even discouraging situations in the future.

So how is that encouraging? Why would Paul refer to the difficulties of ministry when Timothy needed encouragement? I suggest that unrealistic expectations are often the cause of later discouragement and even defeat. In order to be truly prepared for ministry in the real world—whether on a church staff, as a layperson, or perhaps as a missionary—we must expect ministry to be often difficult and sometimes discouraging.

Rob Bell describes the problem: “To be this kind of person—the kind who selflessly serves—takes everything a person has. It is difficult. It is demanding. And we often find ourselves going against the flow of those around us.”iPerhaps that is why Warren Wiersbe observed: “Depression and discouragement are occupational hazards of the ministry.”

When our expectations are unrealistic, we risk losing hope and giving up!

Just one year ago we got a new puppy named Libby, of the same breed as our previous dog. So we expected her to be similar—to go through the puppy stage with a few losses in the learning process. But this dog is much more crazy and active than our previous dog! Her mouth never stops biting. Whatever gets in the way is chewed up. We have found the evidence of her chewing ability all around the house: legs of end tables, my only pair of glasses, and my favorite sandals. My husband had to resole his best sandals after she chewed them; and then she did it again! It has been a very discouraging year, and we have come close to giving up! I don’t think it would have seemed nearly so bad if we had just anticipated a hard year of training and prepared to face it!

Now, that situation is not serious, but those same kinds of unrealistic expectations can actually defeat those of us in ministry.

We expect to plant a church that reaches the twenty-some-things and to be loved by those we serve. Or we read the latest book on the “whatever church” and expect the same results. Then, when these things never happen, or at least not as quickly as we would like, our disappointment becomes discouragement, and we determine that we have failed and should quit. Or we just quit trying.

Craig Brian Larson says: “Unrealistic expectations curtail the joy and often the longevity of ministry. They can cause me to give up either in deed or in heart. I don’t have to resign to quit. I can simply decide this job is impossible and it is foolish to try.”iiIf the Michigan State football team had decided that winning were impossible, it would have taken them out of the game although they would have continued playing.

Instead of telling Timothy to be encouraged because his ministry would be a great success, Paul did just the opposite. In 2 Timothy 1:8 he called Timothy to embrace the same kinds of experiences that he was having: “So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me, a prisoner for his sake, but by God’s power accept your share of suffering for the gospel.”

What kinds of suffering was Paul calling Timothy to accept and share?

If we had time to study the entire book, we would see that Paul was not only dealing with the difficulty of persecution, but he also faced disappointment with believers who let him down. 1:15 says that everybody in Asia turned away from him. 4:10 mentions that Demas deserted him because he loved the present age, and 4:16 says that all deserted him when he went to court. How discouraging it must have been to look around and see that his co-laborers were no longer there, that his friends were missing in action when the situation became risky!

There were other difficulties as well. Paul warned Timothy about people such as Alexander, Hymaneus, and Philetus who opposed him or strayed from the truth. Ministry was hard; there were people who disappointed him and others who obstructed the work. At the beginning of both chapters 3 and 4 Paul alerted Timothy that things would get even worse in the future.

Hardships confronted Timothy from every side —persecution from outside the church, disappointment with believers—even co-workers, and opposition from within the church. Paul called him to expect them and to be ready to face them.

What about today? What happens in ministry to discourage those of us ministering to others in any capacity? What should you expect in your future ministry?

I asked some co-workers and other friends in ministry this question so that I could help prepare you. In my very unscientific poll, I asked for the 3 most discouraging things in ministry. The #1 answer was disappointment with other Christians. Their lack of commitment, misplaced priorities, self-centered attitudes, and refusal to serve within the church community were very discouraging to those who answered my questions. The conflict and criticism that comes from other believers appears widespread, if those in my survey are representative.

Ranking behind the disappointment with other Christians was the lack of visible fruit in ministry. The people in my friends’ congregations, Bible studies, or small groups act like the rest of the world. It can be hard to believe that God is doing anything when all we can see of the person’s life looks no different year after year.

We believe that Jesus’ promise in John 15:5 is real and will come to pass: we will bear much fruit when we abide in Him. So what is happening when we are walking with Him and yet don’t see the fruit of our work?

Larson says, “The fruit may take a year, three years, thirty years. But if I am spiritually vital, if I work hard and pray with faith, sooner or later God will build his church. . . God has an interesting perspective on life—eternity—and he has a way of working with that perspective in mind.”iiiI sent my questions to Vickie Kraft, who has had many, many years of ministry to women in our area. She had this to say about lack of fruit: “Sometimes, even often, we'll hear that God used us in someone's life, but that can't be the condition for our service. At this age in my life I meet people who tell me that God used me years ago to invest in their lives, so we have to live long in the same place for this, I guess!!”

So great! When we don’t see fruit, the answer is to stay put and live long enough to finally see it!

My friends and co-workers say that ministry is discouraging because people let us down, because we don’t see any fruit, and because of a number of other disappointments. Ministers are often let down by the mounds of administrative work they must do when they feel called to love on people. The overwhelming needs of the people in our churches and nation discourage us. Some of the women have encountered a lack of respect and value by male staff members. Both men and women are disappointed when they have no voice in decisions or are micro-managed by domineering people. Some are devastated by the lack of support and interest given their particular area of ministry by the other staff or elders. One friend who finally quit said, “It makes ministry discouraging to return to day after day when your ministry is viewed as insignificant and irrelevant in the whole scheme of the church.”

Timothy faced many of the same challenges we face today: disappointment with church people, even leaders; lack of support when we need it; and lack of visible results. Paul didn’t simply tell Timothy to expect ministry to be hard and disappointing, he also encouraged him to persevere. Over and over he essentially said—it may appear hopeless and you may get down but don’t be out.

How? How was Timothy to make it through such hard times and not give up?

In 2 Tim. 1:6-7 (NET) Paul said, “I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Here at the outset of his letter, Paul reminded Timothy of God’s gifting and calling. When we face the expected difficulties, disappointments, and discouragements in ministry, we, too, should review our unique missions.

I asked my friends how they are encouraged when they faced discouragement. Several said that they, too, go back to God’s call on their lives.

One friend on a church staff put it this way:

“Years ago I made a very personal decision and commitment to Christ: I AM NOT going to quit. Lord willing I will be in ministry until the day I die. I will never consider a different job, with higher pay and better benefits. I will not look for a way out when things get hard. My decision about ministry has been made so it removes the ‘you don’t have to do this anymore’ option and helps me get on to other positive options for problem solving. I pray regularly that I will not do something along the way to disqualify me from ministry. And when I am tired, afraid and uncertain I have already decided to just DO IT SCARED!”

Paul had that kind of commitment to his call in the face of persecution and hardship:

In 2 Tim. 1:11-12 he said: “For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher. Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do.  But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day.”

Paul’s call resulted in his suffering, but he did not allow that to discourage him to the point of quitting. Instead of focusing on his own circumstances, he looked to Jesus: “I know the one in whom my faith is set.” It is essential to know God intimately when facing criticism, conflict, and opposition.

Almost everyone I polled said that when disappointments come, they turn to Jesus and walk with Him. They meet Him in prayer and in His word and are encouraged by His character and His promises to continue to follow His call rather than being out.

Paul knew His God so well that he expected God to turn any situation, no matter how much it looked like a loss and use it as a victory. That meant that he not only remembered his call and the One who called him, he also entrusted the disappointing or discouraging situation to God, expecting Him to use it.

We see this in 2 Tim. 2:8-10: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David; such is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship to the point of imprisonment as a criminal, but God’s message is not imprisoned! So I endure all things for the sake of those chosen by God, that they too may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus and its eternal glory.”

When you face discouragement, do what Paul did, remember your call and know the one who called you. Then, you, too, can entrust your situations to God, knowing His character and promises so that you are down but not out.

Finally, Paul relied upon the friendship and encouragement of others to help him make it to the end. A primary purpose in writing Timothy was to ask him to come to Paul in Rome. Just as Paul wanted the personal encouragement that the presence of his co-laborers and friends would bring, the respondents to my survey turn to prayer teams and others in ministry when they are down and close to being out. The Michigan State players said that a key to their comeback was the encouragement they gave one another on the sidelines. We need to find supporters to do that for us so that we do not give up and get out of ministry.

Ministry can be tough, disappointing, and even discouraging. But God is bigger than our perspective of the situation.

A few years ago I faced the most difficult and discouraging situation of my life. I had been teaching the bible and serving as a lay leader in my church for years. Previously I had dealt with disappointments, but never before had I been knocked down so badly that I thought I could never get back up.

This time a couple in my church attacked and opposed me so that I was truly ready to quit serving God. I answered the phone one night to hear them assail my character for an hour. Although I wasn’t surprised by their dislike of me because of past experience with them, it still hurt, and it hurt badly that anyone would ascribe such motives to me. Because, as they put it, they “needed to warn others about me” and had, I felt that they had compromised my ministry. I began to believe that God would be better off without me in the way of what He wanted to do.

What do you do in that case? I did just what Paul did; I did what my friends do: I spent lots of time with God and His word; I had friends who encouraged me and prayed for me; I remembered that God had called me to use the gifts that He had given me. He was greater than the slander; He was in control. The situation actually helped God lead me here to DTS, which opened the door on my church staff. The opposition and criticism that hurt so badly became the catalyst for redirecting me to my current ministry.

However, that situation still haunts me. Why is there an unresolved conflict in my life when I did all that I could do to fix it? Who out there heard the slander about me? What do they think? Just last week I was very discouraged reading an email from someone who totally misunderstood something I taught that is online. I tried to reply, but it would not go through. When such things happen, I think back to the previous situation and wonder if all of this means that I should quit. Once again, I must go back to my call and to my God and receive His encouragement.

What about you? Are you prepared to make it through the tough and discouraging times in ministry?

Be sure your expectations are realistic. Your plans will not always work; your co-workers will not always come through; your sermons and your leadership will not always be welcome; and you will face opposition and conflict. Expect those things so that you aren’t constantly facing disappointment. When discouragement inevitably comes, though, remember what we have talked about and look back to Paul’s example: remember your calling; draw near to the One who called you; entrust all that happens to Him: and find encouragement through other believers.

Never give up on your ministry because you are discouraged. Like the Michigan State football team, you may get down but never consider yourself out. God brings victory out of defeat. Trust that He will do it!

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Messages, Women's Articles