Shepherd’s Care: Heart of the Shepherd (2)

In addition to the devoted heart of today’s clergy, many of us also know what it feels like to have a discouraged heart.

Despite our fervent prayers and best efforts, mainline Protestantism is losing members at an alarming rate.  I rarely go into a church anymore without thinking, “There won’t be hardly anyone here in 20 years!”

Oh, I know—and I believe—God can do things we cannot presently imagine.  And I am praying that He will.  But I’m talking just about “the facts” which personify themselves in one church after another where the average age of the congregation is above the average age of the community.  The fact is, in twenty years many of the people I look at will be in heaven, and a lot of the others will be in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

We seem to find ways to avoid these realities, but underneath our “institutional denial” lies a mounting malaise among many of the pastors I know and cross paths with.  And that mixes with my own 41 years of ordained ministry, when quite frankly, I expected more success when I started out, than I’ve actually seen.

Added to this, is a growing “churchless Christianity” and also a “religionless spirituality”—both of which make the local congregation unnecessary, and in some cases, even allegedly dangerous. As Joe Stowell said years ago, “The conditions in which we do ministry are not favorable.”

Today’s blog is not intended to be a “downer.”  It’s intended to be another attempt to say on this site that “spirituality is reality.”  We cannot ignore the powerfully conter-productive forces that are working against our best efforts.  As clergy, we must not try to explain them away or believe they have no effect upon us.

So, what is the way through all this?  I have only one thing to suggest, and it is the same approach I find that St. Paul took under similar circumstances.  He wrote about it in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 and 4:8-10.  I am not going to write in the verses here.  I want you to open your own Bible and ponder them.  I think you’ll discover, like I did, that we are in good company.

Moreover, I find the Psalms to be places where I remember that discouragement “goes with the territory.”

On my best days, I realize that trying to be a God-advocate in a fallen world is not going to be easy all the time.  In fact, it may be difficult most of the time.  This at least helps me to put the discouragement in its proper context.

Also, I know people in other care-giving professions who are similarly discouraged as they see their ideals and dreams battered on the rocks of reality.  Again, we are in good company.

This post has gotten rather long, but I think it’s because the subject is particularly deep.  I offer words like the following as a way to move ahead even when a discouraged heart is beating inside you:  “Are you weak, and heavy laden?  Cumbered with a load of care?  Precious Jesus, still our refuge.  Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Shepherd’s Care: Heart of the Shepherd (2)

  1. Dennis Owen says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. We all must recognize that all of the recent theological and religious movements in the Church have ended without bringing renewal to our denomination.
    The discouraged heart that you speak of is an inevitable part of being “a God-advocate in a fallen world,” coming to us in a variety of situations and attributable to “powerfully counter-productive forces that are working against our best efforts.” No doubt most, if not all, of us have experienced the pain and heartache of expecting “more success in life when we started out, than we have actually seen.” It may have been the result of circumstances beyond our control, the actions of another person, or even our own poor or inappropriate decisions or choices. It may have involved the unfortunate decisions in the late 1930s that culminated in the 1960s and the actions of others who failed to address the systematic issues crippling our denomination; our our choice not to preach, teach and hold ourselves and those under our care accountable to the biblical roots and essentials ; our own decision not to rebuild a system of clear and strict discipline, and therefore accountability, around a host of practices that would give us assurance of salvation and take us on to holiness and perfect love; or our own choice not to reform ourselves by learning, teaching, and practicing a style of leadership that fully uses the gifts and graces of both sheep and shepherd, or to reverse the roles and relationship of the local church and laity to the denominational support structure. Regardless of the context or the source the “mounting malaise” is very real and must be dealt with appropriately to facilitate a healthy recovery.
    According to Rusty Wright, an award winning author and journalist, discouragement has the potential to compound into depression or despair and he emphasizes the need to adjust and strive for balance in our expectations, learn from our defeats, build friendships as a part of the healing process, go deeper with God in the experience and to focus on our ultimate hope. Specifically, he has stated: “While we sometimes get stuck focusing on the here and now, our present situation is not the end of the story….God’s plans are nearly always bigger than we think. The sting of our relatively short-term disappointments in no way compares to the ultimate hope we have in Him.”
    The apostle Paul certainly knew about disappointments in this life and he knew how important it was to focus on the big picture and hold on to our ultimate hope in God:
    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4: 16-17).
    If you are troubled today, take heart because we have a greater hope! Let’s take it to the Lord in prayer.

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