Don’t Give Up, Pastor. Change Is Slow.

Imagine being a fly on the wall the moment God spoke creation into existence (impossible since God spoke creation out of nothing, but you get the point). With a word, God hung stars in the sky and set time in motion.

There are too many galaxies to count; the Milky Way alone is home to 100 thousand million stars, and each is beautiful. This is God’s doing. His creativity makes Rembrandt and Picasso seem like toddlers scribbling with crayons on a wall. God worked, he worked quickly, and he worked perfectly.

When I worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate, I spent more than a year crafting a bill that never became a law—months and months of labor with nothing to show for it. God isn’t like that. He is always productive, and the speed with which he created the cosmos staggers the mind.

But God doesn’t always work quickly. His plan of redemption, for example, unfolds quite slowly. Just ask Joseph, who spent two years in prison (Gen. 41:1) before being in a position to save his people. Consider Israel, who labored 400 years in Egypt (Acts 7:6) before tasting the milk and honey of the promised land. Elijah endured sever persecution at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel before hearing the soft whisper of the Lord (1 Kings 19:1–8, 12).

God is always productive, and the speed with which he created the cosmos staggers the mind. But he doesn’t always work quickly.

God is quiet at times, even when his children suffer (Ps. 28:1Isa. 42:14). Hebrews’ hall of saints is a sobering reminder that God’s timetable is not ours. This side of heaven, our desires often remain unrealized. Though full of faith, these believers failed to “receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39)—for their reward was yet to come.

It’s tempting to think that God, who creates things quickly, might lead us through tribulation with greater haste. But he doesn’t. God tends to work slowly, both then and now.

A wife is afflicted with chronic pain with never a day of relief. A promotion is promised but never comes. A child is confined to a wheelchair. A church struggles to grow. And even if success does come, it’s almost always after extended toil. The NFL running back doesn’t make the Super Bowl without years in the gym. The college professor doesn’t stand up to teach without years in the library.

And the pastor doesn’t see growth—not real growth—without years on his knees.

This is how God typically works, and it requires patience.

Ready to Give Up

When I came to Atlanta, where I currently serve, I felt ready to pastor. I’d spent the previous 12 years training for ministry. I’d been part of two church revitalizations. I’d gone to seminary and sat under excellent teachers. I had a good idea, both from the pages of Scripture and also from my own observation, of where a struggling church needed to go. A couple of years into ministry here, however, I’d become unsure of my future. I felt like an athlete who knows the right moves but isn’t sure he has the requisite athleticism to carry the team.

Perhaps you have a similar story. People slowly started leaving our church. Criticisms piled up. Your sermons are too long. The services lack joy. We need a larger student ministry. You focus too much on membership. You talk too much about the cross. I received plenty of encouragement, too. I distinctly remember one older man lovingly telling me to stay the course. But criticism rings louder than encouragement in the ears of the impatient.

Criticism rings louder than encouragement in the ears of the impatient.

I’d been in ministry long enough to know a good leader won’t make everyone happy. Nonetheless, I began to wonder whether I had what it takes to move this particular church in the right direction. Was my “skill set” sufficient to bring the needed change to this Bible Belt congregation? Yes, God builds his church. No, God does not need my “eloquent wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:17). Yes, God “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). I knew all this intellectually, but my heart was out of breath trying to keep up with my head. In my sinful pride, I thought if I could just pastor better, things would turn around faster.

I was tempted to give up.

Pastors aren’t the only people who struggle this way. Marriages go through valleys. Friendships endure droughts. There are times you do all the right things at work, only to see the project fail. Those who labor in a fallen world are always pricked by thorns (Gen. 3:18). In the midst of all this, patience is not optional.

Learn from the Mustard Seed

In those early days of my ministry, Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed served me well. He said the kingdom of God is like “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” yet the one that grows “larger than all the garden plants” (Mark 4:30–32). In other words, success isn’t always visible.

It takes years for a tiny mustard seed to grow into the plant that dwarfs all others. Why did I assume I’d see fruit in this life? There are no such guarantees in pastoral ministry. None. God blesses some churches with quick, radical, stunning growth. But more often he works slowly, like a mustard seed growing in rich soil.

You may be tempted to give up. And maybe you should seek a change. I’m not writing to counsel you not to. I simply want you to know that waiting is possible because God loves to fill his servants with patience.


First published 29.06.20:

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