Posts Tagged ‘suffering in ministry’

There have been times in my life – and ministry – when I hit a wall and did not know what to do next.

I stared at the wall.  It was high.  It was deep.  It was solid.  It was thick.

And it looked impenetrable.

There was no way to go over the wall … or under it … or around it … or even through it.

But I tried.  I really tried.

I slammed the wall with my shoulder … and ended up howling in pain.

I backed up and ran hard at the wall … and the wall won.

I looked for something to carry me over the wall … but nothing surfaced.

I tried to dig my way under the wall … but the wall seemed to descend forever.

For all intents and purposes, I was trapped … and I hate feeling trapped because I prize options.

During many of those feeling trapped times, the Lord came and ministered to me through a single verse of Scripture.

Let me briefly share five of those incidents as a way of encouraging you:

*My first pastorate was very difficult.  I was 27 and the average age of the congregation was 60.  We met in a school cafeteria.  The church was filled with quirky Christians.  On a good Sunday, 50 people showed up.  After the board and I unanimously agreed to a tough decision one night, they quickly reversed themselves, and I was left standing all by myself.

I was afraid that I was going to be fired.

And then our church received notice that our city would be bulldozing down the school where we met so a developer could construct condominiums … and our congregation had nowhere to go.

I stood and stared at the wall.

One day, I read 1 Peter 5 … a chapter that has always encouraged me.  Peter writes in verse 10:

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 

I was suffering all right … more than I ever had in nearly ten years of church ministry.  And yet God promised that the suffering would be temporary and that He would make me “strong, firm and steadfast” through it all.

And He did.

*My second pastorate was even worse.  A sister church five miles away invited our group to merge with their congregation.  Our group said they would come on one condition: that I became the pastor.

I did not want to be a bargaining chip.

After doing some research, I learned that Merger Math usually goes like this: 1+1=1.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to pastor the merged church.  I wanted out.  I went to my district minister and asked him, “Please help me find somewhere else to go.”

He tried, but there wasn’t much of a market for a 29-year-old pastor who served a church of 50 people.

I stood and stared at the wall … again.

Then I read and preached on 2 Chronicles 20.  Three invading armies attacked Jerusalem unprovoked.  King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a time of public fasting and prayer.  The people ended their prayer with these words: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”

Then Jahaziel addressed his king and his people in verse 15:

“This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army.  For the battle is not yours, but God’s.'”

If you know the story, the people marched toward a hill overlooking the place where all their enemies convened.  The people began to sing and praise God, not knowing what to expect ahead.

But the Lord was working behind the scenes … and when the people of Judah reached the lookout point … their enemies were all dead, having killed each other.

When the deadline came for me to make a decision, I signed the contract to become the new church’s new pastor, remembering that “the battle is not yours, but God’s.”

*That ministry did well at first.  We even had 140 people one Sunday.  But the two groups that came together were incompatible both philosophically and personally.

A church of 80 plus a church of 50 should have resulted in a church of 130+.

Instead, Merger Math prevailed, and after 18 months, we were rapidly plunging toward 80.

And as the attendance and giving went south, I blamed myself for the merger’s failure.  I became depressed and withdrawn, not knowing what to do.

I had hit a wall once more.

Galatians 6:9 pulled me through:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

I wanted to give up.  But God had clearly called me to that church, so I tried to re-channel my energies.  Even though I couldn’t see the way ahead, I chose to believe that my ministry would “reap a harvest” … not at a time of my choosing, but “at the proper time” … a season of God’s choosing.

*Over the next few years, I gave the church my best leadership.  We revised the church constitution and bylaws … remodeled the worship center … reviewed the entire ministry … revitalized our worship service … and renewed our walks with Christ.

We were happier, but we didn’t grow.  I tried everything I knew, and nothing worked.

It felt like the wall was winning.

Feeling frustrated and desperate, I began to use the Lord’s prayer as a guide to prayer every morning.  I paid particular attention to Matthew 6:10:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

I told the Lord, “I see five options for my future.”  And every day, I’d pray through the options.  I told the Lord the option I preferred, but left the final call up to Him … and He chose the option I least expected!

In fact, it’s an option that most pastors and churches rarely entertain.

*Our leaders decided to sell our church property and start a new church with a new name in a new location.

We were an unlikely bunch to pull this off … and some people told us that.

Although God led us through the entire project, it was slow going at times.  And when the planning commission turned down our request for an occupancy permit, a prominent Christian leader predicted that our goose was cooked.

Once again, I had hit a wall … and it was the tallest, thickest, and widest wall of them all.

Somebody didn’t want our church to exist … somebody in the spirit realm.  During that time, I leaned heavily upon Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:13:

Therefore, pull on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Up to this time in my ministry, I had only experienced opposition from inside churches … but now our opposition came from outside the church in the form of that nitpicking planning commission.

But our church called a day of prayer and fasting … appealed to the city council … and won a 7-0 vote!

It took us 30 months to hire staff … sell the property … find a light industrial building … obtain an occupancy permit … and construct a worship center.  And due to the slowness of construction, we had 7 different dates for our grand opening … continually revising dates because things weren’t yet finished.

But on November 8, 1992 – one of the great days of my life – 311 people showed up for our first public service.

Over the next 5 years, we led many people to Christ and baptized 100 new Christians, becoming the second largest Protestant church in our city.

In fact, years later, Dr. Gary McIntosh asked me to write a chapter about our adventure in his book Make Room for the Boom … or Bust!

By God’s grace, I didn’t give up, and at the proper time, He finally supplied a harvest.

Now I’m in a different season of life.  Although I’ve learned a lot about the Lord’s ways over the years, I still hit walls now and then.

In fact, it feels like my wife and I have just hit another wall in our lives.

Rather than panic, we have to remember what the Lord has done for us in the past.  As Joshua told Israel in Joshua 23:14:

“You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed.  Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

I may fail the Lord at times, but He never fails.  Throughout my life and ministry, He has come through … not when I wanted Him to, or how I wanted Him to … but when and how He saw fit.

You may be standing in front of a giant wall right now.  You feel like you’re trapped.

What should you do?

I’ve found it helpful to ask God to give me a verse from His Word, and to live out that verse, trusting that He will eventually break down any barrier.

As Psalm 18:29 says:

With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.

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