Ministry professionals rarely lead with their weaknesses. We want church leaders with plenty of personality, charisma, and confidence. Missionary letters and reports may dip into Brené Brown vulnerability territory for a paragraph or two, but the overall theme is generally a litany of accomplishments and success stories. The 21st century church largely agrees that blessing and success are the measure of a person’s calling. Of course, we have a pretty way of defining “blessing,” and an even prettier way of judging anyone whose life does not exude the evidences of “blessing.” This is human nature, but it is ironic given the pattern established by apostles who commended one another to “share in suffering as a good solider of Christ Jesus.” (II Timothy 2:3) Church history trumpets the stories of saints who chose death over defection or endured unfathomable hardship in carrying out their calling.
Editors Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson have selected the stories of 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry in an effort to dismantle the cool factor that prevails in our view of ministry life. Beginning with the Apostle Paul, who knew well the sting of the lash and the sting of rejection, the record shows that those who have been profoundly used by God “to build the church suffered grinding affliction along the way.”
It may surprise readers to learn that renowned preacher Charles Spurgeon suffered from depression or that Jonathan Edwards was ousted from an influential pulpit and spent the remainder of his ministry in the wilderness. John Newton composed Amazing Grace, but he also weathered financial distress and professional pettiness and politics in the pursuit of his calling. It turns out that many of the names we associate with great faith and “success” in ministry were plagued throughout their lives with criticism from their community (often from their own people!), chronic health concerns, or circumstances that were a continual source of mental anguish and despair.
Grueling, Glorious Calling
Historical heroes of the faith ministered in an era of high mortality rates among children, depressing statistics for women in child-bearing years, and the total absence of antibiotics and effective methods of pain relief. Add to this the challenges of ministry life, particularly in cultures where the gospel was not welcome, and it becomes clear that “the surpassing power belongs to God,” and His servants are merely fragile vessels with a powerful message.
Fast forward a century or two, however, and statistics from The Gospel Coalition point to the sobering fact that “pastor suicides climbed 24 percent between 1999 and 2014.” (32) In spite of heightened awareness of mental illness and treatment options among the general population, pastors continue to be reluctant to share their own struggles with depression or doubt.
Pray for Sanctified Courage
Reading the stories of historical figures who loomed larger than life against a backdrop of persecution, jailing, pressure to compromise, and family drama has encouraged me to pray with greater wisdom for present-day ministry leaders. Family challenges may not include a small-pox epidemic, but parenting in the 21st century is not without peril. Add to this the pervasive consumer culture rampant within the church in which Christians “shop” churches for programs, sermons, decor, and a coffee menu that is tailored to their specific preferences, and it’s easy to see why a pastor could become discouraged.
It’s said that Spurgeon’s preaching career resulted in larger church sanctuaries, built to accommodate the crowds he drew. Most ministry leaders will never experience that degree of exposure, and yet we can pray for them to share the truth with holy boldness among the flock God sends to them. Pastors who love courageously put their hearts at risk in a way that is Christ-like and winsome and yet costly.
Peter, the fisherman turned ministry leader, warned his own flock:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
He spoke from experience, of course, but suffering in the context of ministry is never wasted, and after reading about the endurance of these 12 men in church history, I can sense my own tiny mustard seed of faith sprouting just a bit more.
Many thanks to Baker Books for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some inspiration from the lives of faithful women, Eric Metaxas has compiled seven biographies of seven women who demonstrate virtues such as vision, perseverance, and faith. You can read my review here. Michelle Derusha has put together an incredible resource highlighting 50 historical women, each of whom was a world changer in her own way. Click here to read more.