15 Ways to Survive Ministry in Hard Places

Sometimes it’s the early morning phone call or the Sunday afternoon text when you’re settling down with the family. Sometimes it’s the knock at the door (if you’re lucky) with somebody crying, drunk, or stoned on the doorstep. A crisis is at hand and you’re the one chosen to deal with it. You’re halfway through a game of Disney Princess Trivial Pursuit with the children. Emotions conflict. Is it an emergency? Can somebody else do it? Can it wait until tomorrow? I’ve noticed that when I’m on my “A – Game” (feeling fresh and relaxed) then I’m more inclined to make a good decision. I am more decisive and alert. Working 24/7 in our communities is tiring. I see it in my work colleagues. I see it in the faces of our new interns who look done-in after only a few weeks. Everybody says the same thing: “I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.

Everybody says the same thing: “I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.tweet this

I feel it when somebody is talking to me and I am barely listening. I feel it when that person at church, who I find particularly difficult to love, is winding me up. I find it when I’m listening to somebody’s story of abuse and chaos and it just rolls off my back without any sense of emotional attachment or empathy. I feel it when I get home at night and all I want to do is collapse in front of the TV and not talk to my wife or play with my children. I feel tired, I feel a little unwell, I feel stressed and I feel in need of a break.

Yet, this is almost a perpetual state of being if you’re doing ministry in hard places. As a planter you will have a church to pastor, sermons to prepare, meetings to attend and pastoral counselling sessions to engage in. As a leader you may have a team to train and motivate, a vision for planting, evangelism to engage in and Bible studies to run. Personally, I work hard, I laugh hard and, when I go on holiday, I will rest hard.

I am not alone in these emotions. Working in our types of areas is extremely taxing in so many ways. So, how do we cope in these difficult times when we are feeling under enormous stress? Here are some pointers:

  1. Work hard at maintaining your personal spiritual disciplines of reading, meditation and prayer. All is lost if these go out of the window. They will ground you and keep you in step with God’s Holy Spirit. A car will not continue for very long if it is running off fumes. Sooner or later it will come to a dead stop.
  2. Write a “to do” list and work from that. Just do one thing at a time and then you won’t feel so overwhelmed by it all.
  3. On your list include time with friends (not ministry related). Force yourself if you have to but don’t cut yourself off and retire to the “study” (unless necessary of course!). Importantly, make sure you spend some time with somebody who will encourage your soul and not drain your spiritual resources. Counselling your friend about the state of his/her marriage is not the most relaxing way to spend your time off.
  4. Find a good book to read that will raise your spirits. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is a great book, for example. It was immensely stirring and encouraging. I try to read at least one biography a month.
  5. Try to find time to exercise. Running, the gym, football, walking. Whatever. Do something physical. It helps.
  6. Ask people to pray for you specifically during difficult times. It would be a good idea for your life to try to find one hundred people who will commit to you in regular prayer. It is something I encourage all Christian workers to do.
  7. Don’t make any big decisions when feeling stressed. Sometimes I find that I hear about certain “job offers” from other, larger, easier sounding churches (and/or organisations) and I wonder if a change of ministry will improve my situation. It won’t. The grass is never greener.
  8. Don’t engage in any church discipline and/or respond to negative emails until you have slept on it. The tendency to have a knee jerk reaction increases when you feel tired. It may make you feel better for a millisecond but the inevitable regret and guilt will come.
  9. Try and talk to a mature, trustworthy believer about how you’re feeling and seek their counsel. They don’t have to fix everything. Sometimes, at least in my case, just chatting with someone is a helpful release.
  10. Repent of your God complex. You can’t fix everyone’s problems. You can’t make it all better. That’s not your job. Point people to Jesus – that’s your job. Don’t stop doing that.
  11. Remind yourself of the glory of the gospel again. It is a beautiful thing that Jesus has done for us. It is a wondrous thing. Share it with yourself again. Remind yourself of the power of grace in your life.
  12. Take regular breaks. Try and find at least one reading/prayer day a month.
  13. Write a journal (or a blog). I find that doing so relaxes me.
  14. Remember Paul’s word to the church at Galatia in chapter 6, verse 3: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” 
  15. Keep working at number 1.

Keep going and keep trusting in the Lord. He is our strength.tweet this

That’s it. Oh, how I wish I could promise that if you follow these 15 steps you will have a long and healthy ministry in the hard places! These things have helped me, and I pray they will help you, too. Keep going and keep trusting in the Lord. He is our strength.

As a church, how can we live the gospel in practice in these days?

  1. A moment to be still

In these hours we are experiencing what in English is called a “lockdown”, that is, an emergency situation in which people are literally “locked” without being able to get out. For some, this literally means that they must stay at home because they are in quarantine, or because they fall into the risk categories and therefore cannot see anyone. For others it means that their workplace or school is closed and they are having difficulties activating smart-working or remote learning. Others find that since they are not allowed to leave their municipality and with shops, cafes, restaurants, gyms and every type of gathering place closed, they don’t have much to do or any place to go. How can we live the gospel when we can’t do anything or see anyone?

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”      Psalm 46:10

As a local church we have encouraged each other, in the midst of our hectic modern lives, to embrace this involuntary moment to be still. God can use this time to spur us to recognize that he is the God who is and remains in control, to devote more time to reading His Word, to prayer and to personal and family spiritual growth, in the certainty that in the midst of the pandemia of the coronavirus, God will be exalted among the nations and will be exalted in the earth.

  1. The necessity to intercede

For other people this lockdown takes on diametrically opposite aspects. There are those who have to go to work anxiously facing the moments of coexistence in the workplace or on the means of transport, while they have small children or elderly family members at home for whom they must find care while they are out. There are many involved in the huge organizational and health operation that is managing this crisis situation. We think of the medical and nursing staff in the hospitals, of the police and civil protection forces, of the local administrators who work incessantly, exposing themselves directly to the risk of contagion.

We do not fail to bow our knees to our Father, asking that he renews strength, raises the tired, gives hope to the exhausted and the peace that only he can give to those who spend themselves in caring for and saving lives, so that they can know first what is the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

As a church we are interceding for parents who have to go to work and for each of the above realities, and whenever possible to encourage them by letting them know. It is in this way that we have responded to several communications from our town Mayor and to messages from municipal employees explaining  in practice how the government’s decrees apply to our church. Let’s not underestimate the encouragement that a “thank you”, or a “we appreciate you” or, above all, a “we pray for you”, can have in the hearts of exhausted people!

  1. An occasion to honour

In western culture there is an innate sense of distrust and criticism towards those who govern and those who administer, which is even more evident in times of crisis and difficult and unpopular choices. What a countercultural opportunity to live the Gospel of Christ which calls us to be:

 subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13-17

During this coronavirus how can we honor the authorities instituted by God and those who are constantly attending to this very thing as ministers of God?   Romans 13
Surely by obeying the decrees of the Prime Minister, waiting outside the shops when there are already some people inside, washing our hands and paying attention to the needs and health of our neighbor. But also by avoiding criticizing, especially on social media, the choices or actions of the government or the opposition that we believe are inappropriate, fueling the climate of stress and skepticism. Instead, we can thank the police officer who stops us during the checks in these days and help to spread the official communications from our regions and municipalities.

  1. The need to stay united

The media claim that coronavirus is the first “social virus”, as it is the first one to be addressed by the hyper-connected social media culture in which we live. In fact, one of the most recurring hashtags of these days is #distantbutunited. How can we live as the body of Christ when we cannot physically meet as a church, when public buildings are closed and private meetings in homes are strongly discouraged?

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:23-25

What an opportunity for the Gospel to live the sovereignty of God also over our technology and to redeem these instruments for the glory of Christ. So when we cannot physically meet and embrace each other, each of us can use our cell phones and telephones without limit to call other believers, to pray together and to encourage one another. Sermons can be listened to online or in streaming. As a church, for a very modest amount, we have chosen to use a video conferencing app that allows you to connect up to 100 people live. This enabled us from the beginning to continue holding our prayer meetings, Bible studies and Sunday services, interacting together over the Word of God, worshiping together and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We can still offer activities for children and have continued our work of discipleship, experiencing the joy of seeing one another “face to face” and of finding ourselves #distantbutunited in Christ!

  1. The privilege of blessing

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16

How can we be salt and light during the coronavirus? How does the Gospel guide us to live creatively and to discern the good works that God has previously prepared for us to do in these days in which #istayathome?

In the end, without having to try too hard, there are so many ways we can bless our communities. Maybe before we go shopping, we can send a message to our neighbors to ask them if they need anything. We can help the less tech-savvy to install video calling apps to communicate with their loved ones. We can exchange ideas to entertain and stimulate our children and the elderly closed in the house.

In this moment of increasingly serious economic difficulty for various shopkeepers and small entrepreneurs, our Municipality has published a list of shops offering home delivery of goods and services. We have not only re-posted that information on the church’s Facebook page, but we have encouraged Christians to have meals from the local cafe delivered to their homes to support our community in a practical way. A lady from our church asked a technician to upgrade her pc for the video conference app we use and she asked him to do a “quality check” with her on Sunday morning during the service!