Navigating dark days: Dark places

By Matt Rogers

“The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back.”

Pastoral ministry in general, and church planting in particular, is often filled with dark days. Ask a pastor who has been leading for some time if he’s had them, and you will hear the stories and see the tears.

Not all dark days are the same. They range from a mild sense of disquiet and restlessness to an overwhelming, all-consuming feeling of despair and depression. And not all pastors are the same. Some meet these days with anger, frustration and rage, while some withdraw, sulk and give up.

These dark days should not surprise us. Pastoral ministry presents a wide range of factors that can give rise to our inner turmoil.

  • Spiritual warfare: We face an enemy who is at work to hinder our work, influence our feelings and derail our ministry.
  • Our sin: We lose the battle to the sin that so easily entangles us, bringing waves of shame and guilt.
  • Other people’s sin: We watch as people spurn God’s wisdom and our counsel and destroy their lives through heinous sin.
  • Self-sufficiency: We depend on ourselves to face the daunting demands of pastoral ministry, leading to physical burnout and mental exhaustion.
  • Unrealistic expectations: We fail to prioritize and foolishly believe we have to fix every problem and meet every need immediately.
  • Success: We accomplish a personal or ministry objective only to find that it fails to deliver the lasting joy we expected.
  • Suffering: We confront a world broken and marred by the fall where doctors’ diagnoses, freak accidents or the natural decay of all life under the sun affect those we love.
  • Ministry failure: We find that we are not as skilled as we once thought, and often our work fails, our sermons fall flat and our ministry objectives go unmet.
  • Broken families: We neglect our families due to the needs around us, producing a marriage that is filled with tension and a home filled with chaos.
  • Financial pressure: Having willingly chosen a road that lacks financial security, we often wonder if our needs will be met at the end of each month.
  • Comparison: We see others who, at least from our perspective, have it together and are experiencing the blessing of God, causing us to doubt our competency and calling.
  • Critics: We have those who wound us with their words, either to our face, online or passive-aggressively through conversation with others.
  • Physical sickness: We have bodies that grow old and break down, forcing us to face the reality of our own mortality.
  • Human frailty: We have minds that are distorted by the fall, predisposing many to fight depression in physiological ways that others might not.

Sadly, these factors do not operate in isolation—they often work in tandem, with three or four of these factors creating a perfect storm that produces dark days.

While the language of depression is rare in the Bible, images of discouragement, defeat and despair are common (See Psalm 88 and 116 for examples). And, throughout church history, dark days have been common among many great leaders (see Charles Spurgeon). The combined testimony of these voices reveals a number of helps to navigate dark days.

  • Rehearse the gospel message: Remember than God’s feelings for His children are fixed and sure, and we can rest securely in His grace.
  • Remember that you are normal: Resist the lie that you are an anomaly, and rest in the fact that others in your pastoral fraternity have faced, or are facing, these days as well.
  • Repent: Own any sin that contributed to your melancholy spirit—both to God and to those you hurt.
  • Practice spiritual disciplines: Do the things you know you should do, even when you don’t want to or see little change.
  • Talk to others: Share your feelings with fellow pastors in your church and trusted friends or Christian counselors outside of the church.
  • Maintain a prayer team: Find five to 10 people who will commit to pray for your physical, mental and spiritual health.
  • Talk to your wife: Lean on her strength when you are low, rather than fearing that you will only burden her.
  • Delegate: Create margin for rest and reflection by offloading some regular tasks.
  • Sleep: Discipline yourself to a normal pattern of sleep each night, and find space for a nap along the way as well.
  • Get outside: Take a walk, go on a hike, get in a trout stream, ride your bike or anything else that gets you out in the fresh air and away from the constant buzz of activity and a sedentary life.
  • Take care of your body: Eat well, and exercise regularly, knowing that these actions can serve as a catalyst to awaken your mind to hope and joy once again.
  • Find a pressure release: Reject the notion that hobbies are inherently selfish, find something that you truly love and do it regularly.
  • Monitor voices: Avoid social media or other voices that breed comparison or doubt until you are in a better place.
  • Expect a long road: Know that some people may awaken from the dark days in a moment, but most will find that an unrealistic expectation of a quick fix will only exasperate the issue.
  • Care for others: Often this is the last thing we want to do, but as we share the gospel and bear the burdens of others, we will likely find that our hearts have expanded in our own suffering.
  • Pray for deliverance: Ask God to lift the darkness

What about you? What practices help you navigate the dark days?

Published November 28, 2016

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Matt Rogers

Matt Rogers is the pastor of The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina. He and his wife, Sarah, have three daughters, Corrie, Avery, and Willa, and a son, Hudson. Matt holds a Master of Arts in counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as well as a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt writes and speaks throughout the United States on discipleship, church planting, and missions. Find Matt online at mattrogersbio or follow him on Twitter @mattrogers_