IS ANYBODY LISTENING?

We preach our hearts out Sunday after Sunday. Nothing much seems to change! Change comes slowly in small-town churches. The same people sit in the same seats occasionally supplemented by a new family in town. Growth is slow with frequent setbacks. Resources for ministry are limited. “Nice sermon, pastor,” people say as they leave. “Good job.” Another Sunday done. All good. Little changes. Lord, is anybody listening?

I agree with Karl Vaters that small church pastors are some of the hardest working and faithful servants of the Lord. He writes that “discouragement is unquestionably the most widespread burden faced by small church pastors.” More small church pastors leave the ministry because of discouragement than any other factor. He notes that the most common cause of discouragement comes from “feelings of failure for not hitting the goals for numerical increase that are set, either by others or by ourselves” (“The 3 Most Common Challenges Small Church Pastors Face – and How to Help,” Pivot Blog, June 1, 2018, Christianitytoday.com).

How do we fight discouragement? Here are some tips that I have found helpful after the ups and downs of 34 years in small church ministry. The last 28 years have been in the same church, so I know the feelings that come from the “same old, same old” routines.

REFILL THE RESERVOIR

Discouragement makes us feel like even the well of living water from God has dried up. Sermons are dry because we are dry. Jeremiah felt that way too. The ministry was going badly. Nobody was listening. Nothing changed. He accused God of being a dried-up stream. “Will you indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?” (Jer. 15:18). We feel the same way, sometimes. Of course, God hasn’t dried up. We have. We preach out of our reservoirs. If we go to the well without ever refilling it, the well dries up. Sermons become a chore.

What do you do when you go to the well, and the well is dry? Refill it, of course, more accurately, wait for it to refill. Refilling the well means taking a break. Spend time with some replenishers, and if you don’t have any friends who replenish you, find some soon! You need them! Get away with your wife. Take a vacation even if it is only for a day or two. There are places available to those in ministry with limited checkbooks. Take a walk. Ride a bike. Go for a run. My wife and I like to kayak, or I ride my ATV. Find what works for you. God wired us to need breaks. He called it the Sabbath. Pastors need Sabbaths too. Never underestimate the connection between physiological and spiritual rest.

FEED YOUR SOUL

Sunday looms over every week. Even our devotions turn into sermon prep which is why I determined long ago to turn sermon prep into my devotions! I stop to focus on how the text touches my life every day. The bonus is that my sermons reflect my life as I preach. They become real. They become fresh. The danger of the work of the Lord is that we lose our Lord in the work. Paul Tripp in his book, Dangerous Calling, reminds us of our dual identities. I am not only “an instrument of the work but also a recipient.” In our passion for bringing God’s word to others, we lose our craving for God’s word ourselves (pp. 193-194). We can become so busy feeding others that we stop feeding ourselves. The result is soul deadness.

I found early on in ministry to look at my week in blocks of time instead of days. Each day has three blocks – morning, afternoon and evening. I fill those blocks with ministry to others, of course. If I fill more than five blocks in a row with feeding others, then I need to take time in one block to feed me. That means taking some time to read, pray and reflect on what God wants to teach me. Read a book. Listen to a podcast. Ask God to teach you a fresh insight. Just make sure that it is about feeding you not prepping to feed others.

DON’T STRIKE THE ROCK!

Moses had enough. The people were complaining again. They never listen to him. You know the story in Numbers 20. The people wanted water, so God told Moses to get water from a rock. Moses was frustrated. He would give them water, but he would take out his frustrations on them too. Moses said, “Listen now you rebels!” He struck the rock. Water gushed out. The people were satisfied. God was not. He told Moses that he had not “believed” in God. Because he failed to trust God, He would never enter The Promised Land. After all these years, really God? Don’t strike the rock. Don’t take your frustrations out on God’s people.

I have been there and done that! Maybe you have too. The sermon slides into a rant. We quench the thirst of God’s people, but we subtly make sure they know our resentment – at least a little bit! The truth is that I strike the rock when my own well is dry. I have lost faith in the Lord. I have substituted broken cisterns for the living water (Jer. 2:13). I have pursued the latest methods from the popular gurus of growth only to feel like a failure again. I have trusted in me instead of in Him, turning my faith into frustration.

God gave Jeremiah the recipe for refills. He said, “If you repent, I will restore you and. If you extract the precious from the worthless,” I will make you “My spokesman” again! (Jer. 15:19)