Christian ministry has been my life for the last 50+ years. Full time Christian ministry should not be considered a profession– it is a calling. No one should enter the ministry just because they think it might be a good job! A pastor should be God-called. A God-called ministry is for a lifetime.
So, is that what actually happens? In too many cases, the answer is a resounding “NO!” In no time at all we learn that ministry is not devoid of valleys, attacks, and the Enemy.
Ideally we enter the ministry for the long haul, but that does not always happen. I recently made a study of pastors who remained in ministry long term. Pastors are quitting ministry in droves according to many who follow the trends. (Most studies cite between 1500-1700 pastors leave the ministry a year!). Statistics reveal that only one of every ten trained full time ministers will still be in ministry after thirty years!
Why are pastor’s quitting? There are some unusual pressures on pastors. Among them, discouragement – or even worse, depression – takes a huge toll. Some of the causes for discouragement or depression are:
- the conflicts, complaining, and murmuring of church members
- a lack of fruit and spiritual maturity in members
- the apathy of members
- the members who leave the church for “no particular reason”
- the high expectations of the members
- being expected to perform tasks for which the pastor was not formally trained
- too many meetings and committees
- family concerns
- staff issues
- a lack of volunteers.
Wow! That is quite a list and I am sure it is not complete! All of these components result in a pastor feeling lonely or like a failure, which can lead to spiritual or moral failure.
If depression is such a spiritually fatal affliction (and it can be), what can one do to avoid it? I learned early on that there are times no one else can help us get through those valleys. There are times when one’s wife or friends are not readily available. What can we do in those times to avoid the pitfalls of discouragement?
A lesson from David…
A young man named David taught me a valuable lesson in this regard. His instructions are found in 1 Samuel 30. In this narrative we find David and his men returning home from the battlefield. As they approached their home base – a town named Ziklag – they noticed something very unusual. There was a stillness that disturbed them. When they got closer, they saw smoke rising through the tree line where their homes were located. They quickened their pace. As they got to the camp, their worst fears were realized – Ziklag had been raided and burned to the ground. All of their family members and possessions had been taken! Verse 4 describes the returning band’s initial reactions:
“Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep.”
Have you ever been there? Have you ever wept until there were no more tears? Have you ever faced a situation that seemed beyond your control – leaving you helpless, sad, defeated, and discouraged? Of course you have. No one gets away with living without disappointments and discouragements. Some of them are small, even trivial. But others are life shattering. This was a life shattering and life altering event in the lives of David and his men.
Pastors are people, too. We have life shattering events that take place in our personal lives just like everyone else. But, in addition, we help shoulder the cares of a congregation. The losses our members suffer taking a toll on us. I honestly believe that when a church family loses a member in death, part of us dies with them. Our tears are every bit as salty and genuine as are the blood family’s.
David grieved alongside his men. He grieved for his own loss, and he grieved for his men’s loss. I know that because that is what good leaders do!
David’s own family was taken hostage, his goods stolen, and his house burned to the ground. He had lost everything just as his men had. But he was saddled with an additional burden – his men blamed him and spoke of stoning him to death in verse 6! They were so broken they had to find someone to blame. David was their leader, so this must be his fault, somehow.
1. Encourage Yourself in the Lord
The secret that David taught me concerning how to overcome discouragement and, therefore, depression begins to unfold, in verse 6 we discover… “But David encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” The New King James Version says, “But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” The Hebrew word translated encouraged in the KJV and strengthened in the NKJV means “to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, or to be resolute.”
I imagine David beginning to talk to himself: “Hang in there David. Don’t give up, boy. God is still in control. Remember, He helped you with the lion and the bear. Oh, and don’t forget Goliath! It’s going to be OK, David. Keep on keeping on! This, too, shall pass. All things work together for the good…” Maybe those weren’t his actual words, but somehow, he mustered the courage he needed to overcome this devastating time in his life. He realized that this was not the end. There was something else that could still be done. When we run out of things WE can do, God is just getting started. Nothing is impossible with God. When we are at the end of our ropes, we can tie a knot and hang on by encouraging and strengthening ourselves in the Lord.
2. Inquire of the Lord
He didn’t stop with just encouraging himself in the Lord. In verse 8 David “inquires of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I pursue this troop? Shall I overtake them?’” In other words, he prayed. He sought the Lord. He asked God what he should do. Instead of focusing on the discouragement at hand, he sought a plan of action. “God, what do You want me to do about this?”
Bible commentators note that if David had asked God about his actions that led up to Ziklag being sacked, maybe this whole trial would never have happened. He was originally motivated by the fear of Saul, who was seeking his life, to go join up with the Philistines in battle against Israel! The Bible doesn’t say he prayed about that questionable decision. Often times we get ourselves in certain situations that seem hopeless because of our prior actions. If we would pray more before every decision, perhaps we could avoid some of the discouragements of life that can lead to depression. Nonetheless, NOW David prays to God for further instructions.
David got his answer from God. “Pursue, for you shall surely overtake them and without fail recover all.” (v. 8b). It is one thing to know what God wants us to do; it is another to actually do it. In this case David got his marching orders (literally) and acted immediately. “So David went, he and the six hundred men who were with him, and came to the Brook Besor where those stayed behind, who were so weary that they could not cross the Brook Besor.” (v. 9).
The Besor brook was a stream of water in the southern part of Judah that emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. Would you like to know what the name Besor means? It means “cheerful!” It is almost as if God is saying to David, “Take heart…cheer up…I’ve got this now!”
When God begins to lift our heavy burdens, when we realize we are not alone, when we once again have hope – the clouds begin to lift and we can smile again! The battle wasn’t won yet; their families were still help captive, but God was working! Whatever discouraging situation we face begins to dissipate after we have encouraged ourselves in the Lord, sought His will, and followed His plan for our lives.
4. Restore All
What follows next in the text is a story within a story. Verses 11-16 tell of David’s finding a young Egyptian who had been left for dead by the raiding Amalekite army. He had been with the Amalekites when they attacked Ziklag. He promises to lead David and his men to the Amalekite camp as long as David protects him and doesn’t return him to his slave master. David assures him he is safe and the Egyptian leads David to the Amalekites, who are celebrating their victory with food, dance, and wine. It was happy hour for the Amalekites! That all ended with David and his men descending upon the enemy, swords drawn, showing no mercy.
This part of the story ends with the enemy defeated and David’s men having recovered all – all their family members who had been kidnapped; all of their possessions that had been taken – everything was recovered and the Amalekite raiding party was either killed or on the run! With all this done, they return to the Brook “Cheerful” and divvy up the recovered property AND the spoils of war retrieved from the Amalekites. Now they were even better off (financially) than they were before the raid on Ziklag. They recovered ALL of the captives, ALL of their possessions, and now, in addition, they had the Amalekites’ spoils of war!
I can’t tell you how many times David’s formula has taken me through a dark valley. Many times I have: 1) encouraged myself in the Lord, 2) inquired of the Lord, 3) pursued, and 4) recovered all!
Repeat this cycle often enough and you will not let things get you down as before. God will deliver you so many times that you will know He will do it again! That gives us HOPE! Hope makes us smile in the face of difficulties. And that is how we can win over discouragement and depression.
Whether you are a pastor or a church member, David’s example will help you avoid and overcome discouragement and depression. This is one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the ministry.
Jim Baize is a contributor for a new book I am compiling. Ministry Lessons will be available late Summer 2019.