5 ways to overcome discouragement

March 31st, 2016

Among the many challenges that pastors face, discouragement may be the most pervasive.  While financial stresses, widening workload and an ever-changing array of needs continue to press pastoral ministry, conflicts in the parish and feelings of isolation often produce discouragement in clergy. And discouragement frequently leads to burnout or opt-out.

Since feelings of discouragement are commonplace among clergy, it is important for pastors to have both self-awareness and intentionality when countering these experiences. Discouragement does not simply evaporate in the prevailing winds of human need, nor does it disappear by ignoring the symptoms. Discouragement needs to be countered with other experiences, other outcomes and goals.

Here are five ways that pastors can counter discouragement in the parish:

1. Create an Affirmation File

Many years ago a seasoned pastor offered this bit of advice soon after I graduated from seminary. “Always save your positive cards and letters,” he said. “Keep them in a file and refer to them when you are feeling discouraged or when someone offers a negative comment.”

This is one of the most positive bits of advice I have every received in ministry. Many times over the past thirty years of pastoral work, I have riffled through my affirmation file and revisited those positive birthday wishes, thank you notes and helpful comments sent by church members over the years. Revisiting this history also helps me to realize that negativity is often seasonal, that bad times never last and that seemingly insurmountable problems were overcome by grace and positive energy. These affirmations today can also include e-mails, gifts, photo directories, and even anniversary cards and text messages.

To overcome discouragement, look for the positive. Read it. Revisit it. Share it with yourself.

2. Meditate Upon God’s Grace

Many of the Psalms articulate timeless feelings of discouragement and hopelessness — but there are far more Psalms that celebrate God’s presence and grace in the midst of uncertainty. (Psalms 100-106 are some of the best to read during periods of discouragement.)

When trouble arises in the parish, it is important to take a step back into God’s grace and dwell in the shadow of God’s love. Not all problems in the parish can be solved, not all disappointments or conflicts can be addressed adequately by the pastor or brought to resolution. We dare not forget that human difficulties and suffering have been a part of the human equation throughout history. Our discouragements today have been experienced by those saints of the past. We are not alone.

And the best of all is...God is with us.

3. Instead of Advancing, Retreat

One of the greatest sources of pastoral discouragement is an ever-growing workload. This is especially true in parishes where financial stresses, aging membership, diminishing returns and declining involvement seem to press the pastor to do more, be more and create more. But doing more (or working longer hours) is rarely the answer to these parish difficulties. In fact, pastors may discover that doing more for people may even exacerbate their own feelings of isolation and create an environment of co-dependency.

Instead of working harder, pastors may want to work smarter. And this smart work will inevitably include more time for reflection, prayer and planning. If changes are needed in the parish, vision and goal-setting will be required. All of this work cannot be accomplished without the focus and clear direction of pastoral leadership, and such focus requires retreat — not a preemptive advancement into the fray of controversy, struggle or helplessness.

Retreat first...and then advance with a clearly articulated plan to address whatever controversies or challenges your parish is facing.

4. Focus on Friendship

Many pastors encounter the first hints of discouragement when they believe that they are isolated or have few friends in the parish. But we dare not forget that Jesus offered the gift of friendship (“I no longer call you servants, but friends”) and mutual concern (“A new commandment I give you: love one another”) as hallmarks of the church. When we are discouraged, these realities seem distant, even artificial.

Overcome discouragement by surrounding yourself with supportive friends. These friendships could include other clergy colleagues, old friends who accept you unconditionally, and those supportive friends in the congregation who can gather around you for prayer, dinner, conversation or planning. (Yes, YOU do have friends, and don’t forget it!)

Friendships in the parish need not be controlling or hint at factionalism, either. Just as Jesus himself had many “levels” of friendship, pastors should not have to apologize for spending time with friends or surrounding themselves with supportive help. Friendship is a cornerstone of the church and discouragement is never overcome without the help of others.

5. Rest

Most pastors continue to work long hours. The constant demands and unrelenting array of human needs that pastors address does not help to diminish feelings of abandonment or discouragement.  Only rest can produce these results.

It may sound cliché, but pastors do need to rest like everyone else. Adequate sleep is required to think and to perform at optimum levels. Good diet, exercise and outside interests (hobbies) can also help create a more restful attitude and approach in the parish. Don’t neglect sleep, and don’t overlook rest when it comes to combating discouragement.

Being attentive to oneself may be the most important ingredient in a healthy ministry.

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