Spiritual discouragement is nothing new for those in ministry leadership. Prominent Christian leaders through history have famously dealt with doubt, discouragement, and depression. St John of the Cross is credited with coining the term the ‘Dark Night,” which has since become known as the dark night of the soul. The likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, even Mother Teresa wrestled with their own dark night of the soul.
Mother Teresa wrote in her journal, “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Yes, ministry involves seasons of darkness. Sometimes they come on the heels of great victories and sometimes on the heels of great difficulties like years of a global pandemic. On this side of COVID-19, researchers haven’t decided whether we are going through a great resignation or a great reshuffle. But this much is clear, everybody is rethinking everything. Including many pastors and ministry leaders. Having faced decisions about keeping the church open or closed, masks or no masks, which political or social issue to weigh in on, how to handle people leaving the church… discouragement is a real problem for pastors.
At the beginning of 2021, Barna research reported that 29% of pastors had given serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry. By the end of 2021 that number was up to 38%. The study was repeated again in 2022 and, while the final numbers aren’t official yet, the percentage of disgruntled pastors has grown once more.
Maybe the most famous bible figure who dealt with discouragement like this, was Elijah. It seems that Elijah was suffering from spiritual depression; a specific kind of depression related to devotion to God and being in ministry. It was undeniable that God was at work in his ministry. He had accumulated a mountain of evidence that God was faithful, that his miraculous work would never fail, and yet, he was still discouraged to the point of giving up on his ministry and even his own life.
At the height of his depression, we see Elijah’s fatalistic thinking, and his tendency toward escapism and isolation. In 1 Kings 19:3ff, Elijah had expected nationwide repentance and political peace and prosperity after God’s powerful display at the top of Mt Carmel. Instead, Israel’s rebellion and the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s pursuit of Elijah continued. He reached his final straw:
Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and … went a day’s journey into the wilderness. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life … For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:3-4)
We could probably all diagnose the wrong thinking contained in these words, and yet so many of us resonate with Elijah’s feelings of emptiness, abandonment, and despair. What is the answer to our discouragement? What will God do? There are several things I will mention, but I want to zero in on one in particular.
3 Ways God Addresses our Discouragement:
- He pursues us.
Elijah was on the run, he was in hiding, he was ready to end it all. The bible tells us in 1 Kings 19:5, And he (Elijah) lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him.”
Brennan Manning coined a beautiful phrase I will never forget; he calls it the relentless tenderness of Jesus. As pastors, we talk a lot about pursuing God, but we must also remember his is a passionate pursuit of us. Psalm 103:13-14 says, As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame he remembers that we are dust.
- He addresses our basic needs
When the angel of the Lord found Elijah, he didn’t give him a pep talk or a leadership lesson. He gave him food, drink and a nap. Look at 1 Kings 19:5-6, And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.
We are not cogs in a wheel with God, we are his kids. And when a kid is sick you care for them. God knew that the most important thing Elijah needed was some Chicken noodle soup, ginger ale, a warm cloth on the forehead, and an episode of Price is Right from the couch.
- He positions the right people around us.
Here is the part I want you to see. One of the key antidotes to Elijah’s frustration is the right people in the right places. Like many pastors, Elijah suffered with a messiah complex. He thought he was the only one left and it was all on his shoulders to do the work of the Lord. One of the most freeing things that God does in addressing Elijah’s discouragement is to point out the people that God had already positioned for key roles.
God reminds Elijah that there is a remnant of 7000 who will remain faithful to God and his covenant. God says, “you are not alone.” But then in 1 Kings 19:15-16, he gives Elijah this command, And the Lord said to him, Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.
God was saying that there are available people to shoulder the load. In fact they are the perfect people. Already positioned. Waiting for Elijah to pull the trigger.
I wonder if God might not be eager to address your discouragement today by placing ready people around you. He gave Elijah three. Can I urge you to pray for three? Be on the lookout for three. Three high-capacity volunteer leaders who may be ready to step into a perfectly-suited role that will take pressure and stress off of your shoulders. You are not alone.