According to the Barna Group, 38% of pastors in the United States have considered walking away from ministry in the past year. Maybe this number should surprise me, but it does not. I have heard firsthand about the sadness, grief, and disappointment from friends in ministry. To a certain degree, I have even experienced these emotions myself. But as I reflected on my conversations with other pastors and my own experiences, I began to see that it is not just the difficulties driving pastors to quit—difficulty is a part of ministry. Instead, it is how the difficulties and frustrations steal our joy that causes us to throw in the towel.
Even with an undeniable call to ministry and love for God and his church, many pastors walk away after various factors and circumstances steal their joy in ministry. For some, it is disillusionment and discouragement. They never expected ministry to be easy, but they just never believed it could be so difficult and discouraging.
For others, it is the critics and criticism. Humble pastors know they make mistakes and do not mind disagreement, correction, accountability, even criticism. But when it becomes personal, unfair, or from the same people every single week, many reach their breaking point as their joy disappears. Some pastors quit the ministry because of stress. You are always on call. The burdens you carry around are heavy. The spotlight follows you everywhere. The stress of pastoring can easily steal our joy if we are not careful. For these reasons, pastors must guard their joy.
Guarding Our Joy
So how can we as pastors guard our joy through difficulties, disappointments, doubts, and despair? How can we stay on guard against an enemy who is relentless in his attempts to rob us of joy in ministry? Below are four specific ways we can guard our joy in ministry.
1. Do Not Let Ministry Become Your Identity
My teenage daughter is currently caught up in volleyball and fashion. These things become an identity of sorts for her–an identity that she grounds much of her worth in. She desperately wants to be noticed—dare I say, valued—by others for her ability on the court or her fashion sense because it is her identity. Our identity is how we see or define ourselves, even how we want others to know us. All of us seek an identity in something, even pastors.
For Christians, our identity is in Christ. This means our value, our self-worth, who we really are is rooted in Christ. And maintaining our identity in Christ is so important, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” or its equivalent over twenty-five times in his letters. As a pastor, you will be tempted to shift your identity from Christ to your ministry. We will pridefully begin to see ourselves through our successes, our church’s growth, our spiritual gifts, our platforms on social media, even the books we write or the conferences we speak at. But Daniel Akin and R. Scott Pace warn us, “In our hearts, our accomplishments can determine our perceived value and self-worth. But neither the opinions of others nor our personal perception defines our identity.” When our ministry becomes our identity, our joy in ministry will always be in jeopardy.
With every setback, disappointment, or failure, our value and self-worth will plummet. Criticism of our preaching and leadership will devastate us because we see it as an attack on who we are. But when we fight to keep our identity in Christ, we guard our joy because we know that God perfectly accepts us in Jesus and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:31–39). When trials and struggles, failures and disappointments come in our ministry, we can still maintain our joy because our identity is safe and secure in Christ.
2. Do Not Go At It Alone
If you have ever watched an Animal Planet show on how pack animals hunt, you probably have noticed they do not typically go after a large group. Instead, they try to isolate a young or hurt animal because they are much easier to take down when they are alone. The same applies to ministry. Pastoring alone can be a dangerous place to be, especially when it comes to guarding your joy. Failures, frustrations, and struggles always appear worse when you are experiencing them alone. Criticisms are more painful when you bear them alone. Stresses feel heavier when you carry them alone. Even if you are the only pastor on staff at your church, surround yourself with godly men who can watch your back, encourage you, and help you navigate the burdens of ministry. Sometimes guarding our joy means not guarding it alone.
3. Avoid Comparisons
Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Few things in ministry will steal our joy quicker than comparing ourselves to other pastors and our churches to other churches. Comparing ourselves to other pastors steals our joy by causing us to be envious of those whom we deem to be more successful and prideful about being more successful than others. It is a vicious, joyless cycle of feeling good or bad depending on who we are comparing ourselves to. How can we guard ourselves against this cycle that steals our joy? Faithfulness with contentment and gratitude.
As a pastor, your goal is to be faithful to the people God has entrusted into your care using your God-given gifts in the power of the Spirit. Pursuing faithfulness as a pastor should also lead to contentment and gratitude. With your eyes off others and on being faithful, you are free to be content and grateful for who God has fashioned you to be and the ministry He has entrusted into your care. Guard yourself against the joyless trap of constantly playing the comparison game.
4. Remember Christ
Finally, the most important way we guard our joy is to remain focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV). Our joy can remain steadfast in the ups and downs of ministry because no matter what happens in ministry, our faith is secure in Christ. We also find encouragement that joy is still possible, even in the toughest ministry trials we might experience. Jesus endured difficulties throughout his ministry, culminating in him enduring the shameful cross and wrath of God. Yet, despite difficulties and suffering, Jesus found joy in obeying the will of the Father and giving His life for others. By remembering that our faith is secure in Christ and the perfect example of joy in ministry modeled by him, we find the encouragement needed to fight for our joy, even when we might want to give up.
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 Barna Group, “38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year,” Nov. 16th, 2021. https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-well-being/.
 Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 77.