Surviving Ministry Stress

By Randy Sawyer

A few years ago I received the following correspondence from a brother in ministry:

More has happened since my last e-mail. One of the leaders decided to stay and continue the fight. Tonight I gave notice to our leaders that I’m burned out and have no fight left.I have struggled for two years and I’m done. I asked for a three-month sabbatical effective immediately. I know you understand. Concerning the ministry . . . it is now up to God. Unless the Lord changes hearts I will be seeking other employment. I’m not sure about staying in the ministry.

Here is a good pastor, capable leader and gifted speaker whose only goal is to spend his life in ministry yet after being assailed by so many for so long, he has decided to seek other employment.

Everyone in ministry feels this way at some time or another. Stress drives dozens out of the ministry every year, and dozens more remain in the work only because they aren’t trained to do anything else, or to save face with their peers. The admission that we have reached our limit should not solicit the scowl of self-righteous disapproval.

The apostle Paul knew stress in bringing the gospel to the gentile world. One of the most inspiring passages on ministry is found in II Corinthians 2:12-4:6. The whole section is set against the backdrop of ministry stresses.

Acts 18 tells the story of Paul’s 18-month ministry in Corinth that resulted in the establishment of the Corinthian church. From there he moved on to Ephesus, and finally to Jerusalem.

Five years later a conflict broke out between Paul and the Corinthian believers. The struggle was due, in part, to infiltration by certain teachers who challenged Paul’s apostleship, integrity, theology, style of preaching and ministry and personality.  These events caused him much grief.

He wrote three, perhaps even four letters seeking reconciliation with brethren there. In II Corinthians 2:12-13 he writes,

“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother. . . .”

Paul had sent Titus to Corinth to ascertain their response to his last correspondence. When he arrived in Troas, though the door for ministry was wide open, he could not continue the work, because he had not heard from Titus. Things in Corinth were still confused.

Sovereignly Guided

Eventually Titus did arrive with word that the Corinthians had received his pleas with a repentant spirit (II Corin. 7:5). In 2:14-17 Paul responded to the difficult situation. It’s almost as if, somehow, between verses 13 and 14 he regained his perspective. Maybe Titus came in at that time. Whatever the case, in spite of the immense stress he was able to shout,

“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place.”

Here the embattled apostle shows us how we can be confident in a day of confusion. He tells us that in spite of the chaos of the age, and the stresses of life and ministry, we can have confidence, because in Christ we are sovereignly guided. The text actually reads, “thanks be unto Cod who always leads us. . .”

Paul was confident that nothing in life is beyond our Lord’s control. Sovereignty is not a word Free Will Baptists use often. Because of our inability to totally understand the inner workings of the sovereignty-free will dynamic, we are often pushed to one of two extremes: either we give away free will to protect God’s sovereignty or we surrender divine sovereignty to defend man’s freedom. Regardless of the battles we face, our Lord is never taken by surprise nor rendered helpless.

Supremely Victorious

Further, Paul’s words teach us that we can be confident amid confusion because in Christ we are supremely victorious. Verse 14 continues, “Thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” With this expression the apostle illustrates the truth that no matter what the circumstances, believers are always victorious in Christ. He compares the Christian’s victory with the spectacle of a Roman victory triumph.

A victory triumph was an awe-inspiring parade awarded to commanders who successfully prosecuted war against a foreign power. The imperial city was treated to a procession which included standard bearers, followed by the conquered general and his defeated troops, then priests swinging incense pots, and bulls and other stock ready for sacrifice to Jupiter, and finally the conquering general riding on a golden chariot drawn by four gallant steeds, followed by his family and the Roman legions garbed in their regimental regalia. The crowd, by then whipped into a frenzy of emotion chanted, “Lo, triumph; Lo, triumph.”

With this imagery Paul declares that the Christian warrior is always triumphant in Christ. By His death, burial and resurrection, Christ guaranteed victory for God’s children. In sickness or death, success or failure, advance or withdrawal, acceptance or rejection, the conclusion is the same: “Lo, triumph!”

Singularly Profitable

Paul encourages confidence in the day of confusion because in Christ we are singularly profitable. He writes, “…And maketh manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place….”

Singularly means wondrously. Paul says that in wonderful ways we are all profitable in the ministry.  Such an attitude must have been easy for Paul. And others may also be able to feel positive about their contributions, but what about me? What about my work? The answer is found by looking once again to the Roman triumph.

Each procession included the pagan priests swinging incense pots as an offering unto the gods. As the incense wafted over the proceedings the aroma announced death to the captives and life to the victors; or as the text suggests, “life unto life and death unto death.” ln a fantastic and wonderful way, each believer is a “sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish.”

To some, the fragrance of our lives and ministries announce life, to others death. Some respond in the affirmative and receive life, while others reject grace and experience death. But in either case, God is using us for His glory.

Sincerely Motivated

Finally Paul says we can be confident in a day of confusion because in Christ we are sincerely motivated. Verse 17 states, “For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God, but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we the word.” God knows the motivation of our hearts. Others may and will at times challenge our purposes, but He alone knows for certain. We preach coram deo, before the face of God. If what we have done has been for His greater glory let friend and foe alike challenge us.  We are accepted of Him, and in Him we are sincerely motivated. That ultimately is what keeps us faithful in the work.

Article adapted from Contactmagazine, January 2004.