When Ministry Wears You Out
Years ago, I remember hearing a seasoned pastor say, “Ministry would be a cake-walk if it wasn’t for people.” His tongue-in-cheek statement revealed what people know: pastoral ministry is hard. It isn’t long until the passionate calling collides, head-on, with unrealistic expectations, traumatic events, emotional conflicts, leadership challenges, and personal insecurities. The dark clouds of disappointment can roll in quickly.
I can still remember the first time I heard, “Pastor, you’ve disappointed me.”
Surveys abound on the number of pastors who are discouraged or depressed. The tenure of many pastors is short—too short. I’ve grieved as I read about three pastors who took their lives in the last two years.
In order to stem the tide of weariness and burn-out, pastors should learn how to lament. This historic prayer language is not a silver bullet for pastoral depression. But I’ve found it to be a helpful expression when my heart is wounded, and I’m tempted to quit.
What is Lament?
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. Over a third of the Psalms are written in this minor-key song. Some laments are personal. Others are corporate. Some are written because of sin issues. Others express a desire for justice. Lament psalms vary with the painful and dark circumstances of life.
Most laments include four elements or steps: 1) Turn—an intentional address to God while in pain; 2) Complain—a humble and blunt identification of what is wrong; 3) Ask—petitioning God for help in light of his promises; and 4) Trust—a choice to have confidence in God’s grace.
Lament is a form of prayer that talks to God about our pain.
How to Lament?
Even though I graduated from seminary and studied the Bible for years, I didn’t realize how helpful and life-giving lament could be. Instead of using my standard model for prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication—I began using turn, complain, ask, and trust for the days when my pastoral heart was hurting.
Sometimes I would study a lament Psalm, examining it through the four-fold lens so that I could model my prayer after what I was reading. At other times I would merely find an inspired phrase in one of the forty-plus psalms that fit the bruise in my soul. For example, I came to love: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1), “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Ps. 77:9), and “Oh God, insolent men have risen up against me” (Ps. 86:14). These words became an open door for turning toward God in desperation instead of giving him the stiff-arm in frustration or even bitterness.
In other prayer times, I would write out everything that was troubling me. This hand-written list of complaints became a platform for prayer instead of a pit of discouragement.
Most importantly, I used honest lament to drive me back to what I knew to be true. After telling God about my pain, I reminded my heart about God’s promises. In so doing, the pain that could have driven me away from God became a means of reaffirming my confidence in him.
Learning how to live—even thrive—in the tension between our calling and our hardships is essential for pastoral longevity.
Why is Lament Helpful?
Painful circumstances and the pressure of ministry can result in denial (“Everything’s fine”) or despair (“Everything’s awful”). Add loneliness into the equation, and you can see the dangerous mix.
Lament provides a pathway for being honest and processing the emotional struggles of pastoral ministry. It affirms talking to God about struggles, disappointments, and hurts. Lament gives us a biblical language that is raw and candid. It tells God what he already knows, but it is surprisingly helpful to verbalize it to him.
This minor-key song validates the strong and conflicted emotions that run through our souls. Perseverance in ministry comes by learning that pain is part of the ministry calling. Learning how to live—even thrive—in the tension between our calling and our hardships is essential for pastoral longevity. Lament is the language for the land between a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.
As I’ve laid out my complaints and talked to the Lord about them, it was surprising how they lost their hold on me. Sometimes I found myself laughing at the silly things I prayed about. Complaint helped me see myself and my situation more clearly. I’ve found that a regular lament helps keep my soul and perspective balanced.
Finally, lament reminds me that Jesus was a man of sorrows. He prayed lament prayers. Engaging in this historic and candid prayer language reinforces Jesus’s connection and personal care for me. When I pray his painful words, I’m rehearsing my identification with him. And in so doing, lament reaffirms my calling.
Lament doesn’t solve all the problems in ministry. Sermons still need to be written. Conflicts have to be managed. People will be disappointed. Traumatic events are only a phone call away. But nursing a wounded heart with no means of expression through prayer can set up pastors for isolation and depression—or worse.
Instead of quitting, lament could be used as a helpful conduit for God’s grace. This biblical prayer language could be the way that we tell God, “This hurts and I’m really disappointed. Please help me.”
Pastoral ministry will be challenging. It comes with the calling. But lament offers an outlet. We can turn to God in our pain and watch it lead us to trust.