Surviving and Thriving in Ministry … Together!

By Matt Henslee

Several days ago, I shared a tweet that kinda took off on the Twitterverse: “Sometimes being a pastor is lonelier than the third verse of a hymn, which is why it’s important to plug into pastor networks, local associations, your state convention, and so forth. Find an older pastor to be mentored by, find a younger one to mentor. We’re on the same team!”

Honestly, it was a repost of something I’d shared on that day two years prior. And, if I happen to see it again in my “memories,” well, I’ll very likely post it again. It’s a timeless reminder for pastors on the value of relationships with those that have paved the way for us—and for those for whom we’re paving the way.

Naturally, anything you post on social media may get some pushback. It’s hard to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ to everyone’s expectation in 280 characters, but the feedback and engagement stayed overwhelmingly positive. One reply, however, pushed back on the difficulties of ministry many (like me) occasionally experience. I didn’t find it negative, just a call for balance, even if that wasn’t the overall point of my tweet.

I engaged it with: “I pastored a church where every day was, literally, a struggle to survive—sorrow upon sorrow. I pastor a church where every day has been an absolute joy—joy upon joy. Having relationships with those who went before me kept me moving forward. Now I can return the favor, too,” and “Ministry is great, and often an indescribable joy. Ministry can be hard, too. When you’re on the mountain, help those in the valley. If you’re in the valley, don’t go it alone. We truly are better together, can learn from and help one another, cheer each other along, etc.,” with a GIF for good measure.

Ministry is Great; Ministry is Hard

Immediately my notifications lit up with direct messages from pastors all over––some I knew, some I didn’t, but all who shared some similar experiences. One pastor, in particular, was drowning in that “sorrow upon sorrow,” which led to a phone conversation as I was getting ready to go to sleep. We ended up talking for over an hour as we swapped stories of joy, sorrow, and everything in between along our years of ministry. And it got me thinking ….

Ministry is amazing. Full stop. It really is. You get a front-row seat for some of the most incredible things imaginable. But it also puts you in the crosshairs in such a way that, without a firm calling, literally every other job on earth seems more appealing. To be honest, well over 75% of my ministry “career” was more than enough to make me consider selling cars or insurance, or even flipping burgers at McD’s—if not for the unshakeable calling of God on my life.

Sorrow Upon Sorrow

I mean, I served under a pastor who would randomly pick up and leave, often even skipping out on Sunday evening services. It drove our people nuts, and it drove me nuts––it was impossible ever to gain any traction or momentum, and it was painful to watch the church rapidly decline. Another pastor was quite the opposite: He micromanaged every aspect of every minister’s job, and it never seemed like we could do enough to please him. Morale was low, but his domineering leadership style bled into his relationships with lay-leaders, so it wasn’t ever easy to get someone to volunteer for anything.

At another church, I served under a pastor who misappropriated funds, mistreated his wife and would use anything possible to blackmail any staff member who’d approach him about it. At another, the pastor was a bit aloof and, as it turned out, a serial adulterer. At another, the pastor grew gravely ill, which obviously wasn’t his fault. However, that meant a young Matt Henslee was at the helm of a growing church (scary thought), and burnout wasn’t far behind.

One pastor asked me to take a young homeless lady to get her children enrolled in school. When I agreed—if I could take someone with me—he gave me three months to find another job because I “wasn’t willing to take the necessary risks for our church to succeed.” That conversation happened mere hours before we learned we’d miscarried our first child. I ended up landing a gig teaching adults with special needs while serving a church part-time, but it was over an hour away and would eventually be hit by a massive tornado. Again, “sorrow upon sorrow.”

  • The temptation to grow bitter was strong.
  • The temptation not to trust subsequent pastors was strong.
  • The temptation to throw in the towel was strong.

But God was gracious. And all along the way, I had pastor-friends and mentors who guarded my heart and encouraged me to press on.

I heeded that encouragement, but not as a staff member––I became a senior pastor. Not because I didn’t like student or music ministry, but because God had so overwhelmingly drawn me to the pastorate. Little did I know, I would enter into a season that made all the above pale in comparison. For more than two years, I never slept through the night––not even once. I was ridiculed or criticized almost daily. I suffered terrible panic attacks, battled depression and fought against thoughts of suicide. I sought medical help from counselors, spiritual help from my mentors, emotional help from fellow pastors, but I tried to keep my head down, press on and learn everything I could in my first pastorate.

Joy Upon Joy

Eventually, one of my mentors convinced me to allow him to submit my resume to a church he found out about that seemed healthy by all outward appearances. I jumped at the opportunity and have yet to regret it for a second! It has, sincerely, been “joy upon joy.” We’ve grown from a few dozen to three times our town’s population. We’ve baptized more new believers than I could’ve ever imagined. We’ve given more to missions than ever before in our church’s nearly 120-year history. It wasn’t easy, but lives have been changed, including my own. Our family healed from past hurts, we’ve seen amazing reconciliation within and without and God continues to be so gracious and is blessing our efforts.

Moving Forward … Together

Why share this? It’s not to say “woe is me.” Not even close. It’s not to say, “look at what great faith I have.” Not in the slightest. It’s to say, once again, ministry is awesome; it’s a privilege. But it can also be hard––even impossible at times. But we signed up for this! None of us, I hope, entered the ministry to get rich and have it easy. I mean, look at the apostles! Look at the prophets! No, we’re called to put our “yes” on the altar, trust God and endure whatever comes our way to see God’s kingdom expand! And when it expands, buckle up! Adversity is sure to follow.

And when it does, don’t face it alone. Lean into God’s Word, spend time with Him and pray, pray, pray. Stay connected to your family, but don’t let them be your dumping zone. And, for all that is good and holy, reach out to pastors who’ve gone before you, those coming behind you and move forward––together.

Remember: “It is of no use to hope that we shall be well rooted if no rough winds pass over us” (Spurgeon).

Published July 22, 2021

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Matt Henslee

Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.