This ad will not display on your printed page.
It was Sunday evening, and I'd just reached the safety of the vestry. We'd had an especially good service, with some committing their lives to Christ and others looking for counseling, ready to go forward in faith. I'd spoken to several of them, trying to help them on. But by now my mind was whirling, and every bone in my body seemed to be aching.
Just then, someone knocked on the door, and in came Alaine, one of the most helpful women in the fellowship. I asked her about a pre-baptism class she'd taken earlier in the day. "Fourteen were there," she said, beaming "That was more than we'd ever had before!" On she enthused about our blossoming fellowship, the conversions, and growth in numbers.
I listened, knowing in my head that it was true and yet feeling strangely numb. Her bright outlook merely deepened my gloom; I felt none of her joy. I was tired and empty. I stood there wondering if it was all worth it.
"Alistair, you must be thrilled with all that's happening!" That was it. Something snapped inside me, and self-control disappeared.
"Right now I feel like throwing myself under a bus," I blurted and promptly burst into tears.
Poor Alaine. Her pastor, whom she respected, at that moment should have been rejoicing with her at the answers to prayer and signs of God's blessing. Instead he was sobbing. All she could say was, "Oh, you poor soul," and she patted my shoulder and left.
Bless her-for weeks afterward, every time I saw her, she found something encouraging and positive to say about my ministry.
That moment of tearful despair scared and humbled me. I was forced to accept something about my frailty as a pastor. Normally I can control despair and doubt about my own ministry, suppressing it from my own consciousness as well as hiding it from everyone else. But that volcanic-like eruption-probably caused by a mixture of fatigue and strain-made me realize that I'm not always a confident, full-of-faith minister. Even when things are going well, I can be overcome with uncertainty.
You don't have to be in the pastorate long to discover that ordination is no immunization against doubt. Although I know now that other pastors also battle doubt, and although I have discovered ways to deal with it, the questioning in my own heart sometimes frightens me.
At times, these doubts are of the most fundamental kind, concerning the very existence of God or the truth of the gospel: Is he really there? At other moments, they center on whether or not I'm the kind of disciple Jesus requires. There is so much that's wrong in my life. How can I say I have left the old way and am living in the new?
Then again, the questioning can be about direction: Am I in the right place? Am I doing what God wants? Can I be in God's will when there are so many problems? Sometimes the difficulty is motivation; I doubt whether I can go through with the hard work that lies ahead. Sometimes, frankly, the price of doing God's will seems too high.
At one time I imagined doubts simply came, that every now and again these nasty phases just happened as part of the rhythm of life. Later I came to think of them as satanic attacks. Both explanations can be true, of course, but now, a few years further down the road, I also see other specific circumstances in which doubt forms. Just as my garden can be allowed to become weedy, so there can be an environment in which doubts grow. Recognizing these environments puts us halfway to winning the battle.
Fatigue. Sometimes I drive home late at night, perhaps from an exhausting meeting or a difficult pastoral call, and I can hardly bring myself to get out of the car and into the house. The engine switched off, I just sit there behind the wheel trying to summon the energy to go to bed.
Eventually I go into the house, get a glass of milk, and find myself still sitting at the kitchen table a half-hour later, head in my hands, wondering why my ministry is so poor, or doubting if the effort is worth it.
When I finally go to bed, sleep doesn't always come. My body is tired to the point of being sore, but by mind is whirring, reliving decisions, conversations, and projects. When that happens, one of the easiest mental distractions is to begin to compose my resignation from the ministry.
Most often my mind has slipped into a negative gear because weariness has made everything seem a burden. In fact, tiredness is the most common and significant cause of my doubt.
Pressure. Some pressure is inevitable and even healthy since it motivates us. But abnormal and sustained pressure begins to damage our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual strength.
Not long ago, one of our church leaders phoned to ask me yet again to visit someone he felt was in need and, lovingly but firmly, scolded me for not having gone already. That needy person could only be visited in an evening, so later I looked back through my diary to see when I could have gone-I found I hadn't had a complete evening off for more than two months.
That realization made me angry. Doesn't he realize how hard I'm working? I thought. But I also felt guilty-guilty about neglecting my family, guilty that I hadn't visited someone with a problem, and guilty that I clearly wasn't organizing my time properly. Other ministers seemed to cope. Why couldn't I?
I also feel undue pressure when I am ill (or someone in my family is), when a relationship is strained (especially with my spouse), when work demands more skill or time than I possess, when finances trouble me, or when I'm uncertain about the future.
Sometimes when we Christian leaders feel such pressures, we think we, of all people, should be able to overcome them. We preach our sermons to ourselves with applications redoubled. But when the stresses continue, guilt grips us, and we feel like failures. Then doubts begin to surface about our faith, our calling, and God's fairness.
Lack of results. I remember a painful fifteen months as a pastor when I didn't see a single conversion or baptism. To make things worse, we were erecting our church building at the same time, which increased pressure on everyone. I couldn't help but wonder if we were doing the right thing and whether God was with me as the church's leader.
Similarly, the first time I went with other church leaders to anoint a sick member with oil, we prayed fervently. But not long afterward, the person died.
Others see people healed with the same kind of prayers, so the problem must be with me, I thought.
At such times, I feel like a runner who, unknown to himself, has weights strapped on. He sees the track ahead of him, and he expects to run the race at a certain speed. But he finds he can't move as fast as he should. His pace drops. He wonders what's wrong. As he slows more and more, he may give up on that race because he isn't doing well.
Tough Decisions. Your teenage daughter has begged you to let her attend an all-night party at a friend's house. "Everyone else in the class will be staying," she pleads. You decide she must come home at a reasonable hour. You don't feel safe about her staying overnight. She dissolves into tears and moans about being the odd one out among her friends. At such times, it's hard for parents to stick to their decisions, especially when they know they've hurt one of their children.
Similarly, when pastors make decisions that are unpopular, they can doubt. Maybe you've changed the pattern of worship or dismissed a member of staff or advocated changing the church building or turned down a request for marriage. Such decisions hurt others; such decisions hurt you. Sometimes it's the oldest, most faithful members who are the ones distressed. At such times it's not unusual for the pastor to think, I've been here for only two years, and I'm upsetting people who've sustained this church through decades. Am I right to do this to them? The emotional hurt of people can seem more real at that moment than the sense of God's guidance.
Must we simply learn to live with doubt? Or can we, in fact, deal with doubt and dispense with it? I think the answer to both questions is yes. As long as I am less than perfect, my faith will be less than perfect, and some doubt is likely.
At the same time, I do not accept for a moment that my life need be ruled by doubt. If I swim in the sea, I can't avoid waves crashing on me, but I don't have to be drowned by them.
There are several antidotes to doubt. Here are some that have helped me.
Get control of my schedule. First, I've learned that when I'm disciplined, doubt isn't given the chance to take root.
If I just let things happen, they happen badly. Other people impose their priorities on me, and my load quickly becomes more than I can carry. Then there are the must-do things of each week, like sermon writing and hospital visiting. Add to that unexpected but genuine emergencies, and the result is that I'm tense, worn out, and weak. Under these circumstances doubt rises up and cripples me.
However, if I were organizing a bus trip, I would be silly not to know our capacity. I might find one hundred people trying to squeeze onto a forty-seat coach. It's just as foolish to have an open policy about my weekly schedule.
For me, taking control meant cutting out of my workload things I shouldn't do. I've learned to say, "I'm sorry. In all honesty my schedule won't allow that." I'm still as busy as before, but now I'm doing more of the things that are right for me. I am now increasingly effective and satisfied in ministry, and I sense more often that I am right with God.
As part of this discipline, I try to balance my schedule with both demanding and rewarding kinds of ministry. When busyness increases, I am tempted to cut out the easier elements. But that leaves only the draining, difficult side of the work, and that quickly brings me down. So, as the number of difficult cases mounts, I make an appointment to visit people or groups with whom I can relax, laugh, and enjoy the fruits of ministry.
Take the focus off myself. Many times I doubt because I am preoccupied with myself-my image, my performance, my results. I become overconcerned that I not make mistakes and that my leadership of the church is well received. When I am the focus of my ministry, doubt is never far away.
Conversely, the more I take my eyes off myself, the less I doubt. So I regularly remind myself how paramount God is to ministry, and how secondary I am. The church is his church and isn't owned or run by anyone else, including those who have served it well over many years. Sometimes God's plans will clash with theirs, and I may have to be the servant that takes the brunt of their blows.
That's never a nice place to be. Moses couldn't have found it much fun to lead the people out of Egypt when he received constant criticism, and especially when the people told him they would rather be slaves back in Egypt. But it was God's will for him to lead them to the Promised Land, and he had to obey God no matter the cost. He had to leave it to God to sort out the negativity of the people.
Likewise, there are things more important than my ministry reputation. Doing God's will is primary.
Listen to objective feedback. When I burst into tears in my vestry, feeling a failure and doubting whether anything good was happening, I was practically the only one in the church who felt that way. Others were full of enthusiasm for the church. And that sort of thing has happened more than once. I've learned, therefore, that if I'm going to overcome doubt, I have to pay heed to others' evaluations of my ministry, especially the objective ones.
I give weight only to opinions of those I respect, whose views in the past have proven accurate. And I challenge criticisms if I suspect they are unsubstantial.
For instance, once someone whispered to me quietly, "People are saying . . ." and he proceeded to describe a criticism. He was doing me a favor, he said, letting me know the groundswell of opinion.
I groaned inwardly, but then, based on my experience with this man, asked, "Exactly how many are saying this?" He looked flustered and didn't want to reply. I pressed the point.
"Well, two people anyway," he said.
We should listen patiently to any opinion given us about our ministry. But some are worthy of more respect than others.
Persevere. Those fifteen months without seeing conversions or baptisms were hard on me. But I came through them, and they were followed by fifteen months of remarkable blessing: More came to faith at that point than in the several years preceding. The doubt turned out to have no substance. So I've learned that sometimes I simply must grind it out and not give in to doubt.
When I was ill once, and doubts flooded my mind, there was nothing I could do but keep going. God seemed far away. I couldn't do the work to which I had been called. But neither could I change my circumstances. I only could wait for healing to come. Eventually it did, and as I got on with the work, I sensed God's presence again and found I was used in a new ministry. Again the doubts were found to be empty.
Most doubts, I've learned, have the solidity of a snowman. In the cold and dreary times of ministry, I try to remember that God has used me in the past, and, when things warm up, he's likely to use me again. In the meantime, with his help, I persevere.
It's not possible, of course, to banish all doubt. And it comforts me slightly to know that in the final analysis, doubt may not be such a great sin. After all, there are some people who don't doubt, who know God's will clearly but live in blatant disobedience. I'd rather be in the group that is plagued with doubt but tries to remain open and faithful to God.
I'm also encouraged by the one whom Jesus gently chastised with, "Why did you doubt?"
No, Peter didn't find faith easy, and yet he ended up leading the early Church. If Jesus can do that with him, somehow he can use me, too.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.