Tough Road of Ministry

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Pull up a chair, and let’s be
honest.

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Sometimes ministry can travel far beyond the realm of challenging,
deep into the land of downright difficult, discouraging, and
overflowing with drama. Anyone want to give a testimony? But
despite the challenges–even the extremely tough ones–there are
ways to navigate through the difficulty, distractions, and
discouragement that occasionally block us in ministry. Note that I
said through-not around. These moments drift into our lives to
build us, not break us; to help us, not harm us. You may doubt my
words. So, as a matter of proof, let me turn to my ministry files
and share one of several personal and uplifting emails I’ve
received over the years:

Pastor Craig,
It has been great working with you in children’s ministry over
the last four years. Unfortunately I need to take some time off.
Please give me a call when you decide to put Jesus back into the
curriculum.

Yep–this is an actual email I received several years ago when we
decided to make a change in our curriculum strategy and style of
delivery. Did we really take Jesus out of the curriculum? No. I
even offered to dress up in a robe in an effort to appease the
discontented soul. (Just kidding.) Yes, it was a harsh email. No,
it wasn’t the worst email I’ve received. I have several emails
similar in nature from well-meaning folks who felt they needed to
let me know in some way that I was an idiot, I was wrong, I wasn’t
right, I wasn’t listening to them, I wasn’t following God’s will, I
wasn’t following their will, or I was off base.

I get it. And I hope you do, too.

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IT’S A ROCKY ROAD
Ministry is tough. Listen to what Paul had to say in 2 Corinthians 11:26: “I have traveled on many
long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I
have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the
Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on
the seas. And during VBS and camp and when I decided to change the
curriculum or start small groups.” Okay, I added that last part.
The point is, this journey of ministry isn’t for the faint of
heart. It’s tough stuff. The bold, resilient, and enduring not only
survive but thrive.

I’ve crashed through so many quitting points, I feel like I should
have insurance for it. It honestly doesn’t get or feel any easier;
you just respond to it differently. When it gets really tough,
though, take a deep look into Joseph’s eyes. He’ll give you
sympathy, empathy, and a great perspective.

“Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they came closer.
And he said again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into
slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with
yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me
here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has
ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there
will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of
you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many
survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the
one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh-the manager of his entire
palace and the governor of all Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8).

Take note of that last line. Even after all the stuff Joseph had
been through, he was void of resentment, negativity, or blame.
After all his brothers had done to him and after all that had
happened to Joseph, he tells his brothers, “It was God who sent me
here.” Talk about forgiveness, answering evil with good, and loving
those who harm you. Joseph was the poster child. He’s also a
reminder about how to respond to difficulty, discouragement, and
drama in ministry.

THE POTHOLES CAN SWALLOW YOU
I remember stopping a program that had existed at church for
several years. Wow. You think you get flack for starting something
new, just try stopping something that’s been around for a while.
Can I get an “amen”? This action resulted in the single most
devastating comment I’ve ever received from someone. I had a rather
long meeting with a few folks who wanted to encourage me to
continue the program in question. I let them know that this
particular program would, unfortunately, not be continuing. There
was a volley of several hurtful comments, but the one that took the
prize came from a lady who said she and her family were going to
leave the church, write a letter to the pastor, and-for the grand
finale-start praying for evil to happen to me and my family.

What do you say to that? “Hey, thanks. Maybe we can grab a latte
sometime?”

Stunned, I quickly retreated to my office, closed the door, and
stared at the Navajo White wall for almost an hour. I’m sure this
is why most children’s pastors have offices with no windows to jump
out of. I started second guessing myself. Was I right to make the
change? Was I really the idiot that these people apparently took me
for? I was on a slippery slope of really depressing
questions.

So please, if this is where you are today–stop! Let’s say you did
make the wrong choice. You blew it; the new program is a bust.
That’s the worst-case scenario, right? Don’t beat yourself up over
it. Call it an experiment and move on. Easier said than done, I
know. But be encouraged: The things that are the toughest for you
right now will be hilarious illustrations later. Keep a file;
you’ll have a book in 10 years.

REALIZE THE CONSTRUCTION NEVER ENDS
I literally have a file on my computer that I call “Stuff I Have
to Deal With.” It contains disgruntled emails; comment cards; and
conversations with parents, staff, and bosses. I also have one
that’s simply called “Encouragements.” It’s filled with emails;
comment cards; and conversations with parents, staff, and bosses.
It’s bigger than the first file, and it’s a reminder to me that
encouragement will ultimately prevail. Yes, it may be tough today,
this week, this month, this year, or longer. But hang in there
knowing that joy will ultimately be unveiled.

God will bring to you that right message, unexpected phone call,
encouraging email, or (my favorite) a $10 Starbucks card. The joy
is in front of us, not behind us.

Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. If you give up,
you’ll miss out on the joy of a child becoming a follower of Jesus,
the joy of seeing a leader move to the next level, the joy of
watching parents “get it” and create healthy environments for their
families.

The bad-attitude folks are few and far between–but they’re loud
and obnoxious. If you’re anything like me, I tend to focus on the
negative feedback. When I do, I allow the joy to be stolen from me.
Yes, it’s hard; yes, it’s frustrating; yes, sometimes we daydream
about a job with no interaction with others. But that’s not why you
and I were created. How do I know? Because you’re reading this
article.

THREE OFF RAMPS TO A SMOOTHER RIDE
There are some really practical rules you can use to help handle
the toughest parts of ministry.

1. Develop Thick Skin and a Sensitive Heart
I guess another way to say this is, “Have a magnet in your heart
and a compass in your head.” If I were to look back over the past
few years, I’d say I wish I’d developed a more sensitive heart
rather than thicker skin. The key is to simply have balance in
both.

2. Respond, Don’t React
I like to use the 24-hour rule when I receive an email that has
the hint of negativity. That’s because sometimes my emotions hijack
my fingers, and in one quick moment I’ll have written a slightly
sarcastic response and hit the send button. Yes, it’s true. In
these cases I’ve reacted, not responded. In situations like this,
I’ve learned to apply the 24-hour rule that says I can’t respond to
a negative email until I’ve waited 24 hours. Usually my emotions
have returned to normal and I have a better response.

3. Outlast Your Critics
I have a personal theory. I think there are about 15 people who
drive around together in a van from church to church. They spread
their discontent with just about everything that’s going on. They
thrive on pointing out your mistakes, correcting your path, and
adjusting your perspective. They’re so negative it’s like they’re
earning some kind of award for it. No matter what church you go to,
you’ll meet these people. So don’t be surprised when their van
unloads. My point is, the goal is to simply outlast those who are
critical of you. Eventually they will get back in the van and head
over to another church.
• • •

I like what Oswald Chambers said in his reflection on John 13:38: “Jesus doesn’t ask me to die for
him, but to lay down my life for him. It’s much easier to die than
to lay down your life day in and day out.”

That’s it, isn’t it? The day-in-and-day-out doing life together,
making a difference together. Words like enduring, persisting,
continuing,
and persevering are the backbone of
strong leadership and earnest resolve. If you’ve never been
discouraged or experienced the tough road of ministry, God bless
you. It’s coming. For the rest of us tattered, war-torn, and
battled ministry warriors: Hang in there. You’re loved and valued,
and you’ll reap a harvest. Don’t give up. cm

Craig Jutila has served in children’s
ministry for 20 years. He’s authored and contributed to 12 books on
leadership and children’s ministry. He’s the founder of Empowering
Kids (empoweringkids.net).

7 STAGES OF MINISTRY
I’ve often thought about what it would look like if children’s
ministers could somehow all get together and share our lowest and
most difficult ministry moments. I believe we’d all feel better
knowing that the difficulties in ministry are more common than
unique-and that we’re not alone.

Over the years, I’ve developed a timeline of seven stages in
ministry I believe most of us experience. So next time you’re in a
ministry rough spot, see if you resonate with the following
feelings.

The First Year Before Ministry: Top of the
World
“Why not ministry?”

Second Year: Tears of Loneliness
“Why doesn’t everyone like me?”

Third Year: Temptation to Quit
“Why did I leave my other job?”

Fourth Year: Testing Your Resolve
“Why does everyone question me?”

Fifth Year: Trust-Building
“Why are people following me?”

Sixth Year: Telling Stories
“Why are those things that happened five years ago so funny
now?”

Seventh Year: Training Others in the
Culture
“Why did I ask ‘why’ for so many years?”

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