Article by Sam Beh
Ministry is hard. Ministry in a full-time capacity is hard, and ministry as a lay-person is hard. What keeps you going when ministry gets hard? During a challenging season of ministry, I found myself asking that exact question. This is what I learnt.
The answer to the question can’t be, “because I’m needed.”
The sobering truth is that God doesn’t need me to grow his church. It’s true that if I were to abruptly quit ministry, the ministry might temporarily suffer from my sudden absence. It’s also true that some people who are more gifted than others in particular areas, and therefore their loss might be more keenly felt. But at its core, if we believe that God is good and sovereign, and if we trust his promises that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18), we can also trust that God doesn’t need any one individual to grow his church.
This means that when ministry is hard, I can’t be driven by a sense of guilt of letting others down. I also can’t be driven solely by a sense of responsibility. To be clear, it is good and right to have a sense of responsibility and love for the sheep in your care. But a sense of responsibility and love, while good and right, must not become a trap that keeps me from trusting that God is the one who bears ultimate responsibility and love for his sheep. The sense of being “needed” can so easily become a yoke that leads to burn-out and even bitterness as we feel trapped and unable to step away, even when we know we should.
The answer to the question also can’t be, “because I need (or want) to be in ministry.”
This is especially relevant for those of us in full-time ministry, where we depend on our job in ministry for our income. But this is also relevant for those of us who may have built our identity around our ministry, as lay-leaders or as full-time ministry workers. Some of us struggle to step away from ministry, especially if we’ve been in ministry for a long time, because we can’t imagine life without being in that particular role in ministry.
However, if we believe that God will provide for our every need (Matthew 6:33), and that our identity and security and self-worth are based in the truths of the gospel and not our own actions or ministry role (Ephesians 2:10, 1 John 3:1), we can also trust that our financial security and identity and comfort do not depend on us being in a particular ministry role.
The answer also can’t simply be, “because that’s the way ministry is.”
We need to be clear here. Ministry is hard, and the fact that ministry is hard should not, in and of itself, be reason enough to step away from ministry. If we believe that God can and will work all things for good (Romans 8), and we believe that God can and will use suffering to grow us (Hebrews 12:11), we can also trust that the difficulties we face in ministry are not reason enough to walk away.
However, the fact that ministry is hard is also not, in and of itself, reason enough to stay in ministry, because the fact that something is hard is not sufficient reason to do it. In fact, the difficulties you face in ministry might be an opportunity to evaluate if you are in the right place.
Abiding in God’s will for my life
Having spent a great deal of time learning what the answer could not be, I landed on Psalm 27:4. It says, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
Through much prayer and reflection on this verse, I realised that what keeps me going when ministry gets hard should be the same thing that keeps me going in all of life. Psalm 27:4 makes it clear what that thing should be: to dwell in joy of the Lord as I live according to his will.
What keeps me going when ministry gets hard? It’s that I want to dwell in the joy of the Lord as I live into his will for my life. I keep going when ministry gets hard because I want to live into God’s will for my life, and so I keep going in ministry because I feel called by God to be in this particular ministry role in this time and place.1
God doesn’t need me to build his church but, for reasons only known to him, he has prepared work for me to do, based on the particular giftings and experiences he has given me, and the needs of that particular ministry. Therefore, even when ministry is hard, I keep going because there is a unique joy in abiding in God and his will for my life (John 15), doing what God has called me to do, depending on him to provide for my every need, resting in my identity in the gospel, and trusting that even when ministry is hard, I am exactly where he wants me to be.
Where (and who) do we get answers from?
Psalm 27:4 may not resonate as strongly with you as it did for me, because God often answers each of us differently in our struggles. However, while he may answer us differently, He gives us the same places and people that we all can go to get answers when ministry is hard. To end, let me suggest three such places and people that God has provided.
- Encouragement from God’s call on your life
Spend time asking God to help you to remember why you got into ministry in the first place. Remember what first got you so excited about ministry. Remember God’s faithfulness in providing through past difficulties, and his promise to continue providing in current difficulties (Matthew 6). For those of you in full-time ministry, remember the first time you thought to yourself, “imagine if I could spend the rest of my life focusing on doing this.”
- Encouragement from God’s people
Often, when ministry is hard, we lose perspective, and we need people to help us correct our perspective. One time, when I was struggling in ministry, a good friend sent me a clip from a sermon I preached to encourage me to persevere. God used him to remind me to walk the talk, and to apply to myself the truths I preached over the pulpit to others. It’s so important to surround yourself with wise, godly counsel, and ask them to speak truth into your life (Proverbs 12:15). Ask them if you are on the right track. Ask them to correct your perspective. Ask them if you should keep going or if you need a course correction.
- Encouragement from God’s Word
God’s Word is a treasure trove of goodness to equip and encourage us as we serve him. I spent some time crowdsourcing from our church’s staff team the verses that keep them going when ministry gets hard. They shared about the Bible’s instruction on how to lament to God when ministry gets hard (Psalm 42). The preciousness of God’s call for us to serve in the ministry role he has prepared for each of us (Acts 20:24). The joy we have through God’s Spirit (Romans 5:1-5). The assurance that everything will work out for good (Romans 8). The promise that our work in the Lord will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:28). The hope that we will be with Jesus again (Revelation 21-22).
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)
1 Figuring out what God is calling you to is a whole other story, and I’m happy to chat more with you on this if it would serve you, or point you in the direction of some good resources.