Christian ministry is hard. There are struggles, temptations, and challenges that are unique to pastors, missionaries, and other Christian workers. And we must respond to these situations in a godly way or else they will be our ruin.
One of the unique temptations we face, especially in these days when technology is ubiquitous, is impatience. We expect too much of ourselves. We want to be holy and obedient and loving and kind and skilled and pure…right now. We expect too much of others as well. The church, for example, has to be perfect. Church members expect their pastors to meet their every need and to know how to do everything. We pastors expect our congregations to respond enthusiastically to every sermon and every initiative. We even expect God to turn on a dime, to answer our prayers right away, to give us what we need when we want it.
The Bible, on the other hand, consistently promotes patience.
- Psalm 40:1 – “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”
- Psalm 130:5-6 – “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
- James 5:7-8 – “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish [strengthen, NASB] your hearts, [stay steady and strong, MSG] for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
Patience is the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain without complaint, loss of temper, and irritation. It is the willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. It is quiet, steady perseverance.
Patience is necessary for us in ministry because gospel ministry is meant to be slow and plodding. Like Eugene Peterson says, ministry is “a long obedience in the same direction.”
There have been two key times in my ministry life when I failed to “suppress restlessness” and as a result made some big mistakes. One was when I was a pastor in SC in the 1990s. I had been at this church for about seven years but was impatient for the church to become more open to change. Rather than hang in there, preach the Word, love people, build leaders, and be patient, I started looking around for greener grass. I soon left that church and wound up with bigger problems in a different church.
Unfortunately, even there in that new church I was in too big a hurry. Within the first six months I made significant changes to the worship service and pushed the elders to adopt a new vision statement. That congregation was neither ready for nor desirous of such massive change. In retrospect, I should have taken at least a year to even explore such changes.
Twenty years later, I’m now of a different mind. I believe that had I been more patient, I would have saved myself, my family, and those congregations a lot of pain. And who knows? The kingdom of God may have advanced a bit more quickly.
Here are some practical ways you can practice patience:
- Slow down.
Literally, slow down your pace. Drive more slowly. Allow more time to get places. Don’t plan things back to back. Put cushion into your schedule. Say no. Keep a “not to do” list. Ask people to help you. When it comes to your church or ministry, stretch out your vision. Take the long view. Instead of a one- or two- or five-year vision, talk with your leaders about a ten-year vision. Instead of thinking about the destination, look out the window and enjoy the ride. You will by-pass many good people and opportunities if you’re only looking at the goal posts.
- Choose your battles with care.
Some battles are worth fighting; others are not. Think about Paul in Philippians 1. While Paul was imprisoned in Rome some Christian workers were preaching Christ out of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition. But Paul chose to rejoice because “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed.”
I have found the following battles are worth fighting:
- Sin in the camp, especially among leadership
- Staff insubordination
- Bad hires
- False teaching
- Divisive church members
- Efforts to take the church off mission
But many other battles are best left alone or left to God. Some battles you will not win and probably should not try to fight. If you don’t care for something your church is doing (such as a program), you can let it die a slow death on its own rather than call in the artillery.
Consultant and author André Bustanoby recommends answering these seven questions before engaging in battle:
- Does the church have a history of driving pastors away?
- Have your efforts to achieve peace in the past repeatedly failed?
- Are your leaders prepared to pay the price of victory?
- Is there a critical mass of support in the congregation?
- Is the opposition willing to negotiate, or do they demand unconditional surrender?
- How will fighting the battle affect your family?
- Why fight? Is it to benefit your church and community or satisfy your personal need to win?
- Ignore the greener grass
- Dial back your expectations.
Ambition is one thing; hubris is quite another. Excellence is wonderful to shoot for, but it often masks a sense of self-importance. It’s great to want to win the world to Christ. But maybe you should focus on your neighborhood. Aiming for the bleachers is a wonderful goal, but is it really necessary? What is “excellence” costing you—your health? Your marriage? Your friendships? Your joy? Your Sabbath? Your rest?
Remember the adage “Less is more.” Don’t expect perfection or completion this side of heaven. My wife is good about reminding me to shoot for a 7 or 8 instead of a 10. The prophet Jeremiah told his secretary Baruch, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).
What explains the massive departure of clergy from their posts? Could it be that they entered the ministry expecting to be the next Tim Keller or Matt Chandler or fill-in-the-blank, but found out very quickly that it was a pipe dream? The internet has helped create a celebrity culture among Christian leaders that is killing the souls of many good men and women who truly love the Lord and want to be a blessing to God’s people but are not extraordinarily gifted.
What the church needs today are ordinary men and women patiently, faithfully keeping in step with the Spirit and fulfilling their callings, however great or small they be. We need more people who are “content to fill a little space, if God be glorified” (Anna Waring).
- Dial back your expectations of other people too.
Grant them the same mercy you give yourself. Forgive them when they disappoint you. Remember that they, like you, are sinners and need the grace of God. If God “knows your frame and remembers that you are dust” (Psalm 103:14), you should treat other people the same way.
The church is made up of people just like you. The church will not be purified and holy till we get home. Until then we will let each other down, sin against each other, and often, like Paul and Barnabas, decide to go our separate ways. Give the church grace. Be patient with her. If you must complain, do so kindly, and complain directly to the people who need to hear from you. Don’t spread bad reports about God’s chosen ones.
- Care for yourself.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. Have a day of rest. Honor the Sabbath. Waste some time. The sky is not falling. Your church or ministry will not fail if you take a personal day now and then. Have some activities and hobbies that renew your soul and bring you joy. Exercise. Enjoy nature. Go out with friends. Eat good food. Get counseling. Read books and listen to music. Do things just for the fun of it, and don’t feel ashamed.
As it says in James 5:11, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Be compassionate and merciful with yourself.