Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keep The Towel - Overcoming Discouragement in Ministry

After our high school gathering last night, a friend and volunteer in my ministry was feeling quite discouraged. His attempts at meaningful conversation with the guys he disciples appeared futile, and he wore his frustration in his posture. "I feel like we've taken twelve steps backwards in one night," he lamented.

He was ready to throw in the towel. I wanted him to keep it.

He asked me, "how do you do it? How do you keep going in youth ministry when there are nights like this?" Great question. It's one I wrestle with at least once a month. Well, maybe once a week. Okay, A LOT. Here are some thoughts that keep me going when I want to throw in the towel:

Remember your calling. When I am discouraged, I have to come back to the specific vocational calling God has revealed. It's not about me and my own frustrations; nor is it about about my personal triumphs. My motivation must stem from outside myself in the mission God has invited me to join. I think of the prophet Jeremiah. Called by God at a young age to be God's voice to His people, Jeremiah preached and prayed and prophesied for his entire life. The result? No one listened, the people continued their downward spiral into sin, and ultimately were dragged away into exile while Jerusalem burned. Was Jeremiah successful? Not by our standards. Zero converts, tons of sinners, and the building burned down. Was he faithful and obedient to the calling God gave him? Yes. That has to be the standard for success.

Define success in long-term holistic fruit. This is one of my ministry values. Trust God in the process of growth. He often works much slower than our fast-paced Internet-influenced minds would like. I cannot define my overall success in youth ministry by the immediate. I am not trying to create Godly teenagers; I am trying to foster Godly adults. I want them to be following Jesus decades from now, not just for one evening's discussion or when they participate in my program. So when one night goes really poorly--or really well--I must view it as a tiny piece in the larger picture.

Pace appropriately. The guys my friend disciples are freshman boys, and their delinquent actions last night were very congruent with all freshman boy stereotypes. In discipleship, we have to slow down and pace alongside someone in their spiritual journey. We must be present with them where they're at, even if we want them to be so much further along. Our expectations need to be high, but they also must be realistic. Discipleship for a freshman in high school is remarkably different than a freshman in college.

Remember Jesus. He's the one who transforms hearts anyway. We are just guides ands curators along the journey. We pray that He would somehow work in and through us as conduits for His love and grace. Just look at His own disciples--they were a bunch of loud-mouth idiots who often misunderstood what He said and just plain didn't get it. Plus, one of them sold Him out to have Him killed, and they all abandoned Him in His darkest hour. These are the guys who ended up changing the entire world in the name of Christ. If the Son of God doesn't have a "perfect" record with His disciples, perhaps we can give ourselves a bit more grace.

What would you add? What keeps you going when you're discouraged in ministry? Share in a comment.


  1. Ha . . . One of those days where I literally just got off the phone with my small group co-leader voicing a lot of the typical frustrations of a youth worker. Thanks for this timely post. Well said.

  2. Good stuff Joel.

    The only one I might add is the example of Elijah. He was majorly depressed, suicidal and felt like a failure. One of the contributors to his choice to throw in the towell, besides being a wanted man, was the belief that his perspective was adequate or complete. He was certain that no one else was faithful in Israel. Yet, God assured him that there were hundreds of faithful Israelites who had not bowed the kneww to the Baals.
    I try to remind myself continually that I do not see it all. When I am certain of my immense failures to lead well, certain of the "way things are" I am reminded that God is the only person with an adequate perspective on reality. There are always hidden elements to our work that we don't see or maybe shouldn't see. But as long as God is still God, I must remain his servant, even if I think I am not cutting it.

  3. Joel, thank you for writing this! So many times my self gets in the way of ministry. I get frustrated, I imagine things as I wish they could be rather than what they are. This is a great perspective and resource. -Michelle