One of the greatest challenges for an elder (and for the church) is to remain positive and joy-filled in the ministry. There are many joy-sappers that suck away spiritual vitality in a local church and its leadership. Some people seemed “gifted” as negative agents of discouragement. Failed efforts to bring about a much hoped-for project or expansion can discourage us. Lack of people for key ministry needs can get us down. Lack of “success” in reaching the lost can be one of the greatest spiritual depressors.
The work of shepherding comes with additional liabilities that can wear a man down: attending endless meetings, dealing with relational difficulties (not only between members of the church, but also between elders themselves), combating false doctrine (and the things that lead in that direction), discouragement from and disappointment in people, shouldering criticisms, struggling with being over-extended by ministry, family and job commitments, neglect of our own spiritual quietness with the Lord, and, for many, self-doubt. Sometimes even other elders can get you down!
All these things join forces to knock us down, sap our spiritual vitality, drain our energy, and manipulate us into defensive positions with the hope of just staying afloat! Some elders find themselves choosing between two alternatives: fight on without joy or withdraw without joy. Either case, there is no joy!
The temptation can be to instinctively throw up defense mechanisms like pulling our heads back into the shell, distancing ourselves, toughening our hearts, or pulling the wagons into a circle (as a group of elders) to fend off the attack of the joy-killers. Yes, few things are worse than serving without joy—it certainly doesn’t glorify the Lord, and it diverts energy and attention that should be spent building up the body. The fact that the Scripture tells us to “rejoice” (1 Thess. 5:16 NIV) means that joy is not always present in our lives!
Responses to each of the above examples are, of course, readily found in Scripture. For example, the quick answer to someone leading a church that is small or declining in attendance is that Jesus Himself had a following that dwindled from thousands to just twelve men and a few women—therefore, cheer up because you are in good company! However, joylessness runs deeper than getting a logical answer; it is rooted in lack of faith, it denudes our hope, and it weakens our spiritual strength. That is why Paul’s benediction to the Romans includes the following: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13 NASB).
Joy is more than inner peace; it provides the positive, constructive energy to keep on with your task. The lexicons use words like “delight” and “gladness” to define it. We see from Scripture that it is the positive conviction that “I am in the right place for the right reason, and I am glad to be here.” Did not our Lord Jesus experience this? “[F]or the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).
Joy is the required atmosphere for consistent, genuine spiritual walking in the Lord. “For this reason also . . . we have not ceased to pray for you . . . so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord . . . strengthened with all power . . . for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously” (Col. 1:9-11). Without joy, the full life to which God has called us tastes flat like a soft drink that lost its fizz. Such a life in a leader inspires no one and sets a miserable example of Christlikeness.
How do we guard against joylessness? How do we escape ministry depression once there? Here are three things that may provide help.
First, learn to identify symptoms of joylessness or spiritual depression.
Here are a few:
- Focusing on people as problems rather seeing them as children of God in need of shepherding. The problems of people can weigh an elder down, especially when some difficulties never seem to go away. A financially strapped family, for example, may continue that way for years. But Jesus said that is to be expected: “The poor you will always have with you.” In short, get used to it, but don’t let it rob you of your joy.
- Focusing on problems negatively rather than seeing them positively as opportunities. James shows us that problems can lead to growth experiences for all involved: “ . . . knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4).
- Taking criticism too personally or being a “people pleaser.” This will tie you up in knots and will minimize your usefulness. Accept criticism as part of “elder territory.” Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
- Getting caught up in the details and not seeing the big picture. The Pharisees were guilty of this repeatedly (the nitpicking obsession over mint and dill, etc.).
Second, we must turn away from the false notion that joy depends upon our circumstances.
For example, we might be tempted to lament, “If only we had more mature Christians!” Jesus said, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). He said this as the disciples were entering the shadow cast by Jesus’ impending death. Joy can be experienced even when facing the most ominous and real dangers. The general admonition to “[c]onsider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2) applies also to being spiritual shepherds faced with leading an immature flock!
Third, understand that joy is a by-product of the work of God in our lives and not the successes of our human efforts.
As such, joy is related to faith. “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24). As we see God working in response to our faith-based requests for His intervening power, joy results. So if there is no joy, we are not actively engaging the Lord in faith. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)—Jesus said that we must abide in Him if we want to be fruitful (John 15:4).
Fourth, take a break once in a while.
The Jews were commanded to break once a week from all labors (Ex. 35:1-3). Jesus took His disciples away for rest (Mark 6:31). This includes daily times of quieting our souls. Also, it means taking adequate time off each week away from work and church-related responsibilities.
Finally, remind yourself of Jesus’ example.
We need to “[fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2). We are inspired as we look to Jesus’ attitude in facing the cross. He was motivated by the joy of obeying His Father’s perfect will. Also, He was motivated by the joy of knowing lost souls would be restored to relationship with God through His death on the cross. The character and motivation of Christ becomes ours as we spend time meditating and focusing on His work on the cross.
Yes, the work of being an elder is burdensome at times. But we can still have joy despite the pressures of ministry. And it is this joy that keeps us going in the work of the Lord—and enjoying it!