A Forgotten Remedy for the Stress and Fatigue of Ministry

pilgrims-progress-giant-despair The Apostle Paul was physically and emotionally wore out. Fear thunderstormed his soul. Conflict awaited him. He had no rest. Rather than hide this fact, the Apostle gave voice to it.  As pastors, the idea of giving voice to the hurricane that batters against the boarded up windows of our souls feels dangerous. But God has a help in mind.

Notice how Paul describes his experience to the congregation in Corinth.
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. (2 Corinthians 7:5)
Paul was a minister. But he was also a human being who needed comfort; the kind of comfort that moths and rust cannot destroy, the kind of comfort that digs down deep. Have you ever known this kind of soul-deep need?  You are in good company. This predecessor of ours, tells us the way in which God brought comfort to him in ministry.
          But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you . . . (2 Corinthians 7:6-7)
God comforted Paul, not by absence of stress, but by presence of a fellow friend in ministry.  Not by absence of fear but by shared testimony in in ordinary place on an ordinary day. Does this surprise you?

The Pain of Friendship in Ministry

 Many of us pastors guard ourselves from friendship with good reason.
First, we’ve known the sting of congregation members who befriended us only to use us or to hold us up on a pedestal from which, in their eyes, we fell. We provided a product or a good feeling. They were “in the know” and liked the power of it. But to know us and to stand with us in our weakness and sin as well as in our gifts and success wasn’t their aim. In the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian fell into the Slough of Despond, his friend named “pliable” left him there to fend for himself alone. Many of us in ministry know this pain. We say with King David:
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14)
Second, trying friendship among fellow ministers has offered us no joy-ride either. Competition, rivalry, turf, envy, guarded souls. Risking friendship with fellow ministers sometimes feels like walking into a mine-field. They too feel this way about us. We walk among fellow ministers like we are driving at night in a sketchy part of town. We roll up our windows and lock our doors. So, at some point, finding companionship among fellow pastors became an untrustworthy road for those of us in gospel ministry to travel.

Recovering Our Hope

The problem of course is that going friendless in ministry poses genuine danger and robs us of the inward re-fueling that God intends to provide for us. Paul teaches this to us by means of Titus’ visit. These two fellow-ministers didn’t do much. What they did looks puny and thin compared to the mountain and strength of pain and conflict confronting Paul. They shared time, place, ordinary presence. Nothing spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary happened here. And yet, by sharing stories, eating together, talking, laughing, praying, these two ministers gave the materials of friendship to each other. They cocooned. They opened the curtains, sat in chairs, and let the sun shine in for a moment. They spoke humanly of all that was on their heart and of the ache taunting their bodies. Paul learned in that kind of grace-moment, what he now shares with us.
The soul-companionship of a fellow minister is God’s means for providing down-deep comfort within the pains of ministry.
This makes biblical sense of course. God long ago established that, “two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). Jesus sent out his ministers, “two-by-two” (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1).
No wonder in the old story entitled, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian finally finds amid the pains of lost friendship and false friends, a true companionship with “faithful” and “hopeful.” Bunyan draws attention to this companion need as gift from God.
When saints do sleepy grow, let them come hither,
And hear how these two Pilgrims talk together,
Yea, let them learn of them in any wise
Thus to keep ope’ their drowsy slumbering eyes;
Saints fellowship if it be managed well,
Keeps them away, and that in spite of Hell.
“Let them come hither and hear how these two pilgrims talk.”  To keep from quitting and to finish well, we need companions to travel with.
What does this mean for us?
I don’t know fully. But I do know this much.
  • If we have embraced the unbiblical ideas of “individualism” and “competition” in ministry–the twin ideas that we need no one and that against all others we will be the best pastor and have the best church in town, we are in desperate trouble already; no matter how many followers we have on social media or in our local communities. “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” This friend, Jesus, is the one you need.
  • If we are afraid and wounded choosing self-protection as a strategy for getting through ministry; we become like a fortress surrounded by a mote with a drawbridge. We only open it if a would-be-friend can answer three mysterious riddles correctly. We have the trolls out, ready to eat them, should they stumble in just one part. This isn’t love. It is something else. Successful ministry based on this “something else” will eventually rot the roots of our lives. Risking friendship might hurt us, but so does resisting friendship. Neither strategy can save us. Only Jesus can.
  • If we are too important; we think we are not like other men and women, remember that pride comes before a fall. The grace that goes deep is our hope.
  • We are in need of a different kind of training. To learn the ordinary skills of human conversation, carving out time, wisely listening, sharing the matter of our souls with a trusted friend.
  • We begin to pray now in this way. “Lord will you provide me a friend in ministry? Will you teach me how to offer such friendship to another?”
  • We begin to look for a mentoring community, a spiritual director, or a fellow pastor, who doesn’t necessary look like us or belong to the same denomination. Remember, Titus was Gentile. Paul was Jew. What gave common ground for companionship was Jesus.

The Great Commission Relies upon a Small Fellowship

Perhaps this is why the Great Commission relies upon and is preceded by call from Jesus to a small fellowship. There were twelve. Now there are only eleven. There is pain in this story. But Jesus calls the eleven together. They worship together. They doubt together. They are sent together. Without this prior fellowship with Jesus and with each other, the Great Commission that Jesus speaks to them, isn’t feasible. We need help to remember that Matthew 28:18-20 is preceded by Matthew 28:16-17.

The minister, Leighton Ford was right. “Leaders in ministry need safe people, safe times and safe places in order to bear fruit over the long haul.” This kind of fellowship in Jesus is one of God’s primary means of providing the deep-inner-rest that you are longing for.

(This blog post was written for “Am I Called”–which offers encouragement to leaders in ministry)


Author: zeswine

Zack (Dr. Eswine) is often spoken of as a "Pastor to Pastors." He serves as Pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves Missouri and Director of Homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary. To learn more about his books and other resources, go to zackeswine.com

One thought on “A Forgotten Remedy for the Stress and Fatigue of Ministry”

  1. Hope I’m not building a moat around myself by wanting to take note of a mere mote of an issue, while praying I can be a proverbial friend in the process. I’m trying to hide my “rebuke” in order to show my “love,” and desire to avoid any wound as well as any kisses. It might take a bit of sleuthing to figure out what I’m saying, but no worries cuz it isn’t worth much. Thanks again for your ministry to those in ministry; may it bear much fruit in Christ.

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