Help for the Feeling Ineffective Blues

feeling blue

I get these sometimes. I suspect most leadership-types do. You struggle feeling very effective at what you do. You wonder what kind of real difference you make. You suspect you lack something significant for making a greater impact.

I’ve learned over the years in pastoral ministry that evaluating effectiveness often boils down to gaining perspective over how I tend to feel. When a bout with this malaise hits me, I ask myself four questions to help get a more objective assessment of my performance.

One, who ultimately is in control?

This question immediately steps me back to look at the big picture. God is sovereign over every aspect of my life including my relative effectiveness/fruitfulness. He determines the breadth of my ministry. Remembering a text like 1 Cor. 3:7 proves very comforting. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” So does a verse like John 3:27. “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” I love that scene in the film Rudy where the young man desperate to get accepted to Notre Dame so he can play football for the university seeks counsel from the campus priest. Although wanting to help Rudy wherever he can, the pastor admits at a given point he can do only so much. He quips something to this effect: “After seminary and all my years of ministry I know two things–there is a God and I am not He.” Pretty good theology, Hollywood notwithstanding.

Two, what legitimately can I change?

Sometimes a lack of effectiveness can point to an aspect of one’s performance which really does need improvement. Recently my leadership team conducted a review of my role as a pastor at our church. It encouraged me to receive affirmati0n on several fronts, but the inputs definitely revealed some key areas where I can focus for enhancing my effectiveness. Since receiving that report, I’ve been asking the Lord to bring to the surface the two or three things He has for me as takeaways from the review so I can determine a strategy for addressing them and set some goals for change. When I can’t get perspective myself on this effectiveness thing, asking a wise, honest, and loving cheerleader for his assessment makes a lot of sense. When you do, don’t neglect to arm yourself with a Psalm 141:5 attitude. “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it.”

Three, where actually am I contributing?

Glass half-empty souls can struggle with this. We tend to focus on the downside of things. While doing frank evaluation of where one can improve, it’s important to balance things with gratitude for evidence of one’s contribution. Paul counsels the need for sanctified equilibrium when it comes to assessing our impact in the body of Christ in Rom. 12:3. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” One can fall off the horse in the opposite direction as well. We can tend to think of ourselves more lowly than we ought to think. Effectiveness rarely amounts to an all-or-nothing proposition; it’s usually a mixed bag. Don’t lose sight of the pluses when wrestling with the minuses.

Four, how realistically am I content?

This one hurts. It touches close to home. Too close. Often my feeling the ineffective blues stem from idols of the heart that simply desire more achievement than God deems wise to grant me. At the end of the day, when I’ve worked hard and done the best I can do by the grace of God, I must come back to assess my contentment quotient. Philippians 4:10-13 shows the way.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Whether an abundance or need in any situation, Paul spoke of  learning one of the world’s most elusive secrets–how to be content. This matters more than my effectiveness. Jesus, give me strength and keep my/our blues at bay.

One Cure for My Justification By Ministry Syndrome

Truth is I need multiple cures for this disease. Most if not all pastors struggle with it. It evidences itself in a tendency to validate one’s existence by perceived success in the gospel work.

It shows up a lot on Sunday mornings. We can measure it by how we feel about attendance at our services. High numbers in the house, doing OK. Low numbers, not so OK. Strong offering, sweet. Weak offering, bitter. Lots of sermon compliments out the door, flying high. Little to no “at ta boys,” or worse yet, critical comments, laid low.

In the Lord’s faithfulness to contribute further to the eradication of this affliction, He has added a new wrinkle to my life. It’s called your-new-building-won’t-be-ready-for-Easter-opening disappointment. A number of folks have asked me how I am handling the setback of the revised timetable.

My answer remains the same. It’s not wise to complain about answers to prayer. What I mean is this. I/we have prayed since the outset of the project that we wouldn’t allow the building which is a good thing to become a god thing which would make it a bad thing. In other words, we don’t want to turn the whole deal into an idol.

In my experience the most effective way God tests my heart for revealing something I delight in more than Him is to take it away from me or keep me from it. I figure having to wait for this blessing and especially not capitalizing on Easter for outreach purposes that might result in a full building (maybe even two services) and the perception of success are just, among other things, another way that Jesus wants to keep me far afield of the justification by ministry syndrome. He has answered my prayer in not letting the building become an idol. Best not to complain.

So, I am content. I think. Yes, I am pretty sure, it’s OK. God is in control. We’ll get the CO when we are supposed to get it and we’ll open the building when we are supposed to open it. Then I will have a whole bunch of other temptations no doubt to justification by ministry syndrome. Lord, have mercy.

Fortunately I know the one Physician with healing power and His prescription for keeping the perilous condition at bay, the gospel. There is hope even for me and my perpetual idol-making factory of a heart.

Tim Keller, in an interview addressing idolatry in pastors, said it well:

When you find yourself unusually discouraged because things aren’t growing or people aren’t listening to you — you have to catch yourself. You have to realize ‘This is an inordinate amount of discouragement, which reveals the idolatry of justification by ministry.’ Meaning, you say you believe in justification by grace, but you feel like and are acting like you believe in justification by ministry. You have to recognize you are making something of an idol out of ministry. When you do experience inordinate discouragement because things aren’t going well, you need to say, ‘It’s okay to be discouraged but not to be this discouraged. This is discouragement that leads to idolatry,’ and you repent.

To read the rest of what he had to say click here.

Are you trusting in anything or anyone other than Jesus for your justification?

You can bet your life as a child of God He will find ways to pry your fingers loose from whatever it is so that you more thoroughly cling to Jesus for His glory and your joy.

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

A Simple Strategy for Battling Burnout

Not many gray hairs graced the Acts 29 Network conference I attended this week in Orlando.

The brothers above (left), however, Ray Ortlund Jr. and Sam Storms, were among the exceptions. Scott Thomas (right), president of the movement, engaged them in Q & A at the close of the conference.

Among the questions submitted by conferees came a request for ways to avoid ministerial burnout. Since burnout, fatigue, and discouragement afflict lots of folks along with pastors, I thought I would pass on Dr. Ortlund’s excellent prescription.

Choose a promise of God for the particular season of struggle in your life and wave it daily as a banner over your life.

For example, if you find yourself facing financial hardship you might choose Phil. 4:19.

Caught in the clutches of anxiety? Commit Phil. 4:6-7 to memory.

Feeling abandoned or lonely? Claim Heb. 13:5b.

Suffering persecution? First Peter 5:10 fits the bill.

Fighting disease or illness? Second Corinthians 12:9 carried me through cancer.

Growing weary in waiting? Isaiah 40:31 will lift you on eagle wings.

You get the idea.

There is a reason that 2 Peter 1:4 refers to the gift of God’s promises as precious and very great. Among others it is because they will sustain us over the long haul and help keep us in the race, if we raid the armory of Scripture, load them in our hearts, and wield them like spiritual weapons in our everyday warfare.

Why not go to the Word and ask God to give you a promise right now for your circumstances whatever they may be?

Hope in the Haze of the Mundane

Sunday’s message from Zechariah 1:18-21 is now on the website. You can listen to the audio here.

Reflecting on the four craftsmen of this passage, Matthew Henry wrote:

Which way soever the church is threatened with mischief, and opposition given to its interests, God can find out ways and means to check the force, to restrain the wrath, and make it turn to his praise.

Lift up your eyes and see the justice of God in the glory of His Son.

Battling Weariness and Discouragement

As we saw last Sunday, Haggai 2:1-9 contains precious promises for warding off debilitating discouragement. Here are some more thoughts from Scripture for waging war on this paralyzing foe.

Proverbs warns, If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small (24:10). Everyone faces adversity. Prolonged struggles can wear us down. Tragic events can crush us. If we sink under the pressure, it tells us something about our strength quotient. No one wants to admit a shortage of strength, but the potential for that exists almost on any given day.

How do we cultivate a reservoir of strength that stands firm even in seemingly overwhelming adversity? Here are four strategies for waging war on personal weariness and discouragement.

  1. Understand that perseverance is a matter of obedience. Paul tells the Thessalonians in his second letter, But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good (3:13). The Galatians get the same exhortation: And let us not grow weary while doing good (6:9). Caving in when we encounter obstacles does not glorify God. He calls for pressing on in the fight.
  2. Consider the example of Jesus in persevering under trial. The writer to the Hebrews tells us to do just that in 12:3 – Consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. Our Lord’s face-like-a-flint march to Calvary under enormous affliction should temper the way we measure the extremity of our own adversities. Ponder the passion. Take courage from His courage.
  3. Come under the continual hearing of the word of God, especially its promises. Isaiah says, The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary (50:4). Apt words in the right circumstances lift the heart and strengthen the soul. When Paul tells us not to grow weary because we will soon reap if we don’t faint (Gal. 6:9) and to be always abounding in the Lord’s work because it is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58), those promises help douse the fires of discouragement and fan the flames of perseverance.
  4. Give yourself to persistent waiting on the Lord. Another great promise of the Scripture for the weary comes from Isaiah 40:31 – But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. The Hebrew word for wait comes from root that means twine or string. It’s the idea of strength formed from the intertwining of multiple strands. To wait on God is to intertwine our pygmy-like limited strength with God’s massive unlimited strength so that we gain His power and faint not. Waiting on God involves meditating on His character. The Psalmist says, I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (27:13). Waiting on God involves praying for His help and will. Jesus linked prayer and fighting weariness in Luke 18:1 – Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.

We simply don’t have the resources in and of ourselves to bear up under relentless adversity. We need a battle plan from God to see that we don’t grow faint and fail from limited strength.

John Newton knew something of this. He says this in his essay, The Snares and Difficulties Attending the Ministry of the Gospel:

It is a good and noble cause, and we serve a good and gracious Master who, though He will make us feel our weakness and vileness, will not suffer us to sink under it. His grace is sufficient for us, and if He favors us with a humble and dependent spirit, a single eye and a simple heart, He will make every difficulty give way, and mountains will sink into plains before His power.

Discouragement will not give way in our lives without the fight of faith. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Eph. 6:10).

Precious Promises for Warding Off Debilitating Discouragement

Capital Fund Campaign Sunday #3 has just about passed. You can listen to the third sermon from Haggai 2:1-9 here.

Here is the summary of the message, including theme, main points, and applications:

Encouragement for kingdom building work comes from taking God at His word in His powerful promises – the promise of God’s presence in the present as before (2:1-5) and the promise of God’s provision in the future beyond before (6-9). So as we persevere with this campaign and anticipate commitment Sunday on week five, May 23, I urge us to keep on considering our ways, evaluating our priorities. Let’s not waste this season. And let us claim these precious and powerful promises about His abiding, covenant keeping presence and His provision of all our needs, even beyond what we can ask or think. These are the antidotes for any debilitating discouragement that may come our way.

Two more Sundays left in this historic season in our church’s life!

Are You Weary in the Battle?

HolinessAnd make no mistake about it. The Christian life is a struggle, a battle, a war.

Paul made clear to the church of Ephesus that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).

In light of this perpetual warfare Paul exhorted Timothy, Fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12) and Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3).

As I prepared to start another work week with our early morning prayer time as a staff, I read a word of encouragement from J. C. Ryle’s Holiness that gave my prone-to-be-weary soul a burst of strength for the fight. In stressing that the Christian’s fight must be one of faith, Ryle urges special faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’s person, work, and office as the life, heart, and mainspring of the Christian soldiers character. He writes:

He sees by faith an unseen Savior, who loved him, gave Himself for him, paid his debts for him, bore his sins, carried his transgressions, rose again for him, and appears in heaven for him as his Advocate at the right hand of God. He sees Jesus and clings to Him. Seeing this Savior and trusting in Him, he feels peace and hope and willingly does battle against the foes of his soul.

He sees his own many sins, his weak heart, a tempting world, a busy devil; and if he looked only at them, he might well despair. But he sees also a mighty Savior, an interceding Savior, a sympathizing Savior—His blood, His righteousness, His everlasting priesthood—and he believes that all this is his own. He sees Jesus and casts his whole weight on Him. Seeing Him, he cheerfully fights on, with a full confidence that he will prove “more than conqueror through Him that loved him”  (Rom. 8:37).

So if you are weary this Monday morning as you reengage the battle fronts before you, I remind you with Ryle’s help to do so by faith in your unseen Savior casting your whole weight on Him.