The rare jewel of pastoral contentment
9 questions to assess your heart
Pastor, do you need heart surgery?
It is said that the average length of service for pastors in America is roughly 4 years. Many have sought to discern why this is the case. It could be easy to assume that this is because pastors are lazy, proud, or arrogant. However, most studies show a more complex picture. With that said, most pastors would admit that contentment is rare in ministry settings. Every pastor knows what it is like to walk into a group of ministry leaders and hear nothing but complaining. Every pastor knows that feeling of seeing another church flourish while theirs seems to flounder. Every pastor knows the gnawing pain of wishing they were a better preacher, counselor, or leader. Every pastor feels the burden of unrealistic expectations. We wish things were different (about us, about our ministry, about our church).
It is hard to find a pastor who is truly content and happy in their pastoral situation. Even if the congregation is unaware of it, most pastors are struggling (and afraid to admit it). Almost half of all pastors under 45 considered quitting last year. Now, although this culture of burnout may not be the fault of pastors alone (many churches are unhealthy), if a pastor is not content, he will most certainly spiral towards burnout. So, how do we fight for joy and contentment in Christ, as pastors? How do we battle the comparison game? How do we rest in Christ, even though we are clearly inadequate?
Questions inspired by a Puritan
One of the best books you could ever read is Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I found myself reading this old Puritan work in the middle of much personal and pastoral hardship. And in it, my own heart was exposed. Although the book is addressed to everyday Christians, I found many of its principles applying directly to my ministry context. So, I encourage you (no matter your circumstance) to take a deep look at your own heart. Consider these as ways to diagnose your heart and then pursue contentment in ministry.
1) Am I submitted to God’s will?
Paul told us what the secret to contentment is. It is what upholds us in times of plenty and times of nothing. No matter what God brings us into, we can “do all things through him who strengthens [us]” (Phil. 4:12). Contentment is a posture of one’s heart to receive and submit to whatever condition God places us under. Are you truly submitted to him? Are you willing to receive whatever God decides for you, as a pastor? What if he gives you sickness? What if he causes your congregation to shrink in size? What if he gives you a member who is always critical? Are you willing to submit to his will? You cannot be content without submission.
2) Do I take pleasure in God’s will?
Burroughs makes a profound point in his book. He states, “[To be content] I must not simply submit to affliction, I must see the good in it. I find there is honey in this rock, and so I not only say, ‘I must submit to God’s hand.’ No, I must say that the hand of God is good. It is even good that I am afflicted.” Has your heart reached this point, pastor? When God takes something away that you have loved, when he brings things that make your plans stop or makes your ministry difficult, are you willing to see that there is good in it? Are you willing to say, “I don’t know the reason for God’s hand in this but if God’s hand is in it, it must be exactly what I need. It must be good. I will take joy God’s hand.” This is the heart of true contentment: joy that permeates all our sorrows because we know God’s will is good.
3) Have I made God’s will my will?
Burroughs goes on to say that once a heart is submitted to God’s will and rejoices in God’s will, the next step is to allow our wills to “melt into his.” In other words, we don’t just submit to God’s hand and rejoice in God’s hand. We go even further. We say, “God, if this is what you want, make it what I want too.” What contentment is there to find in this posture of the heart! Pastor, if you find God bringing you through difficult waters, it is because he intends to do great things through them. Don’t just sit in the boat as it makes its way through the storm. Stand to your feet and hold strong the mainline. Plunge forward into the darkness with a cry of victory! This is the storm God will cause to yield a harvest of righteousness!
4) Is God the sum of all my wants?
Some pastors seem to be swimming in the waters of blessing. Others seem to be surviving on the dew that remains on the grass. Maybe that is the season you find yourself in. But what if God takes even the dew away? What if you can find nothing of God’s blessing to speak of? Well, you can still rejoice because even if God takes away everything from you, he will never take away himself. To use a cue from Burroughs… Pastor, there are many dead ministers who now reside in heaven. They have no large congregation, no money, no requests to speak at the next conference, no reputation to speak of. And do they need any of that? No. Why? Because God is all in all to them. Experience this blessing now! Is God what you truly want? If so, then you can be content knowing you will never lose him. Not for a moment!
5) Do I see myself with proper humility?
This may seem harsh but have you considered the reality that you may not be able to handle more than what you currently have? Do we really think that if we had more souls to account for, more ministries to lead, or more responsibilities to juggle that it would be good for us? Have you considered that anything that God has given you is far more than what you deserve? Have you considered that God has equipped other pastors in ways far beyond your ability? We are not impressive, brothers. God gives some of his servants a single talent, others two, and others five. Be content when God entrusts you with one. Don’t wish for more. Simply be faithful.
6) Have I considered the hardship of abundance and the blessing of simplicity?
The bible is filled with warnings for those that have much. This is also true for pastors. To whom much is given, much is required. If you were to have a larger church, a larger salary, a larger following, a bigger reputation… Could you handle the spiritual warfare? All the added temptation? The increase in demand for your time and attention? Have you considered the blessing that simplicity brings? Burroughs uses a shipping metaphor. A large ship may look impressive but it cannot navigate some waters. However, a small ship can. Perhaps God has given you this ministry for this season because it is exactly what you need to go where he is leading you. When you stand before Jesus, you will realize how much he blessed you by not giving you more than what you had, in life or in ministry.
7) Do the dangers of a discontent spirit scare me?
Have you considered all that the Bible says to warn against grumbling and complaining? It prompts the Lord’s fury (Num. 11:1-4), it makes us worthy of judgment (Jas. 5:9), it results in being destroyed by satan (1 Cor. 10:10), it keeps us from obeying God’s commands (Ps. 106:25), and it keeps us from shining as God’s light in the world (Phil. 2:14-16). When we allow our hearts to become discontent, it will destroy our effectiveness in ministry and put our very souls in danger. Are you adequately fighting against the sin of discontentment?
8) Have I considered all God accomplishes through hardship?
The bible is fraught with examples of how God uses suffering, hardship, loss, and humility to accomplish his purposes. It shows us God’s goodness, spurs us on toward godliness, teaches us patient endurance, results in eternal reward, etc. When God’s goodness is displayed so fiercely in times of hardship, why are we so quick to become discontent in them? Have you taken the time to assess all that God might be doing in your suffering? How is he using this season to sanctify you, train you, comfort you, and reward you in heaven?
9) Do I know the joy of simply trusting God?
At some point, you will not be able to “reason” why God might be causing you to walk through the hardship you are in. This is when the joy of faith is given to us. It is not our responsibility to discern all the hidden purposes of God in why we are in the situation we are. But we can know for certain that his will is good and we can rejoice in it, by faith. And there is great joy there.
As Burroughs powerfully puts it…
Oh Christian, if you have any faith, in the time of extreme trial think like this: this is the time that God calls for the exercise of faith… What can you do by your faith? I can do this: I can in all states cast my care upon God, cast my burden upon God, I can commit my way to God in peace: faith can do this. Therefore, when reason can go no higher, let faith get on the shoulders of reason and say, “I see land though reason cannot see land. I see good that will come out of all this evil.” God will surely do it. Jeremiah Burroughs
A content pastor is rare. Be one.
What I am not saying is that you shouldn’t seek to free yourself from a hard situation. That was not Burroughs’ view, nor is it mine. I am also not saying that you should never leave the pastoral situation you find yourself in. What I am saying is that all of us who are pastors should seriously assess our own hearts to see if our contentment is truly in Christ. If your heart says, “I need Christ plus ______ to be happy” then you are destined for a lot of heartache. If your heart is filled with jealousy, bitterness, complaining, or sorrow because of the lot God has given you, you will burnout.
We live in a world where it is harder than ever to be content. But this is the kind of pastor that is pleasing to the Lord and goes on to see a harvest of righteousness. Don’t be okay with a discontented spirit, pastor. Fight for contentment. Be okay with where God puts you. Endure in patient hope for the Great Shepherd’s return. Be an example to other pastors of what true joy in Christ looks like. Be a light in the midst of the darkness. Christ sees you, he will be pleased, and you will enter his reward.