Pastors experience discouragement. It goes with the territory. Paul wrote his protégé, Timothy, to encourage him at a time when he was down. Paul’s letter is what we call 2 Timothy.
How do we know Timothy was discouraged? Here are some clues. Paul said in 2 Timothy 1:4 that he was aware of Timothy’s tears. He addressed in 2 Timothy 1:7 the fear Timothy was experiencing. In 1:8ff, Paul challenged Timothy to not let suffering for Christ get him down. In 1:13 he tells Timothy to “hold fast,” in 2:1 to “be strong,” in 2:3 to “endure hardship,” in 3:14 to “continue,” and in 4:5 to “fulfill your ministry.” I infer from all this that Timothy was hurting and discouraged. Timothy seems to be a reluctant leader, one who is somewhat timid, subjective, and sensitive to opposition. Paul wanted to encourage him.
I need this kind of encouragement at times, and I’m sure other pastors do too. I read through 2 Timothy several times recently and made a list of “things to do” for a discouraged pastor. I’ll share several of them today and more in future posts.
1. Stir up the Gift of God Which Is in You (2 Tim. 1:6).
When you are discouraged, you question your ministry effectiveness and maybe even your calling. It helps to review your initial calling to ministry and to remember that God has gifted you in specific ways to build and bless His church.
The term “stir up” in Greek is a combination of three words, meaning “make the fire alive again.” How do you do this? Here are my thoughts.
- Remember God’s initial calling on your life; review it, relive it, talk it out, write it down.
- Remind yourself of what your gifts are and how God has used them to build and bless His church.
- Recommit yourself to living out your calling, to using your gifts for building and blessing the church, and to complete dependence on God, the Spirit, in using your gifts.
2. Be Gospel-Driven, Not Emotion-Driven, in Decisions (1:8-12).
Paul himself experienced hardship and suffering in ministry. He encouraged Timothy, and took courage himself, from the gospel. He reminded Timothy that his suffering was “for the gospel” (8) and that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling … according to His own purpose and grace” (9). Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher … For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed” (11-12). And he tells Timothy not to be ashamed either (8).
Shame and embarrassment come from being overly-sensitive to the hardship and hostility that go with gospel ministry. Sometimes our emotions control our decisions, including how we view ministry. Paul challenged Timothy not to be ruled by emotion, but be governed by the gospel.
When I’m down, I can make decisions based on emotional discouragement and hurt rather than on gospel confidence, hope, and calling. Discouraged pastors should review the gospel, and take heart from the confidence that our salvation and calling give us.
3. Don’t Change the Basic Message (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” When people are opposing you, or circumstances are weighing on you, it’s important to keep preaching and teaching the truth. One temptation might be to adjust the message to please people, or to try to attract or keep people. The other tendency might be to preach reactively, venting about issues that frustrate or discourage you.
There’s certainly a place for honesty, for expressing concerns, and addressing issues pertinent to the life of the church. But the discouraged pastor should be careful to stay on center, keeping truth central, and not modifying the message to fit current fads, to please influential people, to avoid controversy, or to vent anger or resentment.
When everything else seems uncertain, you can go to God’s Word, week after week, to nourish your own soul and to feed the flock of God. Hold on to this. Keep doing this. Do it this week, and the next, and the next …
4. Remind Yourself of the People Who Encourage and Help You (2 Tim. 1:15-18).
The number of names Paul uses in 2 Timothy is remarkable. Some of them are people who hurt him in very personal ways. Others are people who encouraged and helped him. It is clear that these encouragers had great impact on the state of Paul’s mind and spirit. Look at the names and what Paul says about them in 1:15-18.
“All those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.” Wow! A bunch of people abandoned Paul, and he names two of them.
Pastor, do you ever see images of people in your head when your mind drifts, when you’re feeling discouraged, when you’re tossing and turning at night—the faces of people who have left your church, or hurt you in some way? I do, and I’m pretty sure Paul did!
But look at what he said next. “The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain … he sought me out … you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus” (16-18).
Paul also had in his mind the image, name, and sweet memory of one who had really encouraged him. He reminded himself, and shared with Timothy, what a blessing good ol’ Onesiphorus had been.
People who leave are one of the greatest causes of a pastor’s discouragement. The natural tendency is to expend mental and emotional energy thinking negatively about them. But the people who stay, and especially the people who care for you, who take you for coffee, send you a text, tell you they’re praying for you—these are “refreshers!” There are a few who seek you out, make it a point to ask how you’re doing, and pray with you. A discouraged pastor will do well to think often of, and thank God for, these.
I think Paul shared some of his own discouragements with Timothy so Timothy would realize he wasn’t the only one hurting. In fact, Paul’s next statement is, “You therefore, my son, be strong” (2 Tim. 2:1). We’ll pick it up there next time.
Dean Taylor is Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina. He has served in pastoral ministry for twenty-five years. Dean is a graduate of Bob Jones University and Seminary (BA Bible, MA Theology, MDiv) and Northland International University (DSM). His delights include his family, reading, and the great outdoors.