I’d just hung up on (another) disappointing and bewildering phone call in a long season of shepherding disgruntled families, opposing divisive individuals, mourning leaders who’ve left prematurely, and more. In March, I got the dreaded late-night call we’ve all received, or will receive if we pastor long enough—“my brother just committed suicide.”
For the last year I’d been intentionally discipling a 23-year-old brother in our church. I was integrating him into family rhythms, teaching him deeper truths of God’s Word, encouraging him to grow in spiritual disciplines, and leading him into a fuller relationship with Jesus and our church. But when his mental health became too much to bear, he took his own life.
Ministry may be one of the few callings characterized by unrealized potential and unmet expectations. For those of us serving the margins of the urban context, it feels amplified. What is our hope when it seems we can’t get a break? Where does extra motivation come from when we’re investing in others with little immediate return? What is our hope when it seems we can’t get a break? Where does extra motivation come from when we’re investing in others with little immediate return? Click To Tweet
Jeremiah was a man well acquainted with grief. I take comfort in the words of his prophetic lament in Lamentations 3:26–33:
« It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men. »
Not only can I take comfort in the prophet’s words, but I can also take action. Dear planter, let me pastor you with truths from God’s Word. There are at least six reminders we all need which transcend suicide, shootings, and the sadness we often endure as shepherds.
1. Pray and Lament
When Jeremiah felt sorrow, he complained to God first (Lam. 1:11–12). When we’re overcome by depravity, our first move should be to cry out to the Lord. When we remember the Lord is near to the brokenhearted, we can cast our burdens on him. We need to repeatedly preach 1 Peter 5 to our own hearts, remembering it was written to exhort shepherds before exhorting the sheep.
2. Preach to Your Own Heart
Don’t underestimate the power of gospelizing your heart as Jeremiah did. In the third chapter of Lamentations, you realize Jeremiah is prophesying over his own soul first. “I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help!’ You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’” (v. 55–57). All the theology and redemptive good news we preach is first and foremost for us.
3. Practice What You Preach
Developing a plan of action based on gospel grace is essential to our sanctification and service. The indicatives of the Bible lead us to the regular practice of putting off disbelief, feelings of defeat, and sinful self-protection. Before shepherding others, we must be the first to put on new covenant hope and habits. We must be good learners to be good leaders. In my lowest moments, I recite the gospel and repent even more. As our expectations repeatedly go unmet, as we continue to receive those dreaded late-night calls, we take our grief to the Chief Shepherd. Click To Tweet
4. Prioritize Spiritual Disciplines
Spiritual disciplines are designed by God to sanctify and satisfy the soul. We can’t lead others to prioritize that which we don’t prioritize.
- Worship must be a regular part of our lives—an obedient walk with Christ is non-negotiable.
- Meditation and self-examination are more important than exegesis.
- Sabbath and retreat must be rituals for us, too. Our spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being won’t be found in a hammock or humidor, but in Christ.
- Fasting and feasting should always be on our calendars. We need his fulfillment, in seasons of abstinence and abundance, to receive the grace we intend to give to others.
- We must participate in, and not just lead, community and confession. We need the means of God’s grace through others just as much as everyone else.
5. Process Openly with Others
I frequently revisit the mantra that leaders die in isolation. Our refusal to be vulnerable with others contributes to our loneliness. Knowing my need for wise counsel has moved me to highly value moments to be pastored as a pastor. We can’t do this alone. If you don’t have an elder team yet, the best way to develop them is to grab qualified men and pour your heart out before them. Cohorts provided by the network are also vital to long-term ministry.
6. Prepare for the Long Haul
We desperately need perseverance. In the microwaveable age of instant gratification, we’re prone to expect our ministries to blow up like a bag of popcorn. But we may spend years doing subtraction while planning for multiplication. It’s important to teach our families and our flock to think with an eternal perspective. We desperately need perseverance. In the microwaveable age of instant gratification, we’re prone to expect our ministries to blow up like a bag of popcorn. Click To Tweet
No matter how you might have romanticized church planting in the beginning, if you’ve been at it for any length of time, you know it’s soul-wearying work. But it’s work that is worth it. As our expectations repeatedly go unmet, as we continue to receive those dreaded late-night calls, we take our grief to the Chief Shepherd. We take comfort in his Word and take action because of his Word. And we endure for the great privilege of bringing others to him for salvation.