After months of quarantine, I finally received the email I dreaded, but one I figured would eventually come. After postponing discipleship conferences with local churches to October, then December, the final word came in. Our entire discipleship ministry, the one in which I just started teaching and found deep joy, was shutting down, no longer able to pay the barebones staff that had been treading water until churches could host us again. It was a sobering loss, but not surprising.
My brother-in-law is a pastor in upstate South Carolina. He and his wife shared with me their grief when they realized that they had to completely cancel their summer vacation Bible school, after months of planning and regardless of handwashing protocol.
My own pastor, ministering in our cross-cultural church plant, shared with me the impact of the loss of our community’s call and response pattern of worship, which cannot be replicated through our current options to broadcast live services. It sounds small to some, and yet it has impacted our congregation in real ways. Most of all, we have lost contact with folks we were discipling, fragile buds just beginning to bloom into true discipleship. Though core members have hung together and grown closer, we weekly note the number of fringe attendees, those just beginning to feel a part of our church community, who have fallen away despite efforts to reach out and include them.
The evangelical church in America needed refining. But along with those things that needed to be pruned, it seems ministries are losing many good opportunities that fit God’s call to disciple the nations. Pastors sought God’s face before making their plans. Their ministries moved into the doors God seemed to be opening. In light of global suffering from the pandemic and racial injustice, such ministry losses may seem trivial to some. But they are not trivial. These losses affect pastors and ministry leaders in real ways, though sometimes we don’t even know how to name the feeling of loss they bring.
Ministry losses are piling up for pastors as hopes they had for their churches and joys they found in their ministries seem destroyed by the stifling measures we must all take right now to love our neighbor and slow the spread of this pandemic.
Before I got the email about my beloved discipleship ministry closing its doors, God had already been preparing me for this loss. My Bible reading during the last few months was in the book of Jeremiah. I was reading Jeremiah to better prepare me for the very discipleship initiative that had just been shut down. Two weeks before receiving that final email, I was haunted by God’s words to Baruch, Jeremiah’s faithful scribe in Jeremiah 45.
This is what you are to say to him: “This is what the LORD says: ‘What I have built I am about to demolish, and what I have planted I am about to uproot. But as for you, do you pursue great things for yourself? Stop pursuing! For I am about to bring disaster on everyone’— this is the Lord’s declaration—‘but I will grant you your life like the spoils of war wherever you go.’ (Jeremiah 45:4-5 CSB)
As God’s discipline descended on the idolatrous kings of Israel, and the people who followed their lead, it also descended onto Baruch and Jeremiah, who had faithfully ministered to the people in God’s name. God's words to Baruch are stark and, at first, seem small comfort. But maybe these words reflect more than what they first appear to say. I love the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” I imagine God speaking similar words to Baruch in Jeremiah 45, though with a stronger voice of authority than I traditionally associate with Psalm 46. Be still, Baruch. I am God, Baruch! You will lose some things, Baruch, but I will protect your life wherever you go. Trust me! I know what I am doing.
The God of all comfort spoke the words Baruch needed to hear, and I think they are words that will benefit us today. Pastor and ministry leader, you are not the first in the Body of Christ to experience the complete disruption of your ministry because of problems that you did not bring on yourself. You are not the first minister of the gospel to get caught up in the disruption of a nation. Righteous men and women, much like Baruch and Jeremiah, get caught up in such times. They, too, pay a price.
We have another example in Numbers 14 that reminds us we are not alone in the losses of this hard season. Joshua and Caleb had just returned from Canaan with the other ten spies sent by Moses. They believed God would give them the land just as he had promised, but the other spies were fearful. As the people turned against Moses and refused to enter the land, Joshua and Caleb’s anguish was palpable. They tore their clothes as they pleaded with the people to believe God’s promises to them. But, despite their faithfulness to God, they, too, had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb lost 40 years of their lives because of the unbelief of others.
The beauty of the first chapters of the book of Joshua shine brightly in light of Joshua’s anguish 40 years earlier in Numbers 14. God restored all that was lost in Joshua’s life. He and Caleb eventually did possess the land. God fulfilled his promises, and the book of Joshua brings glorious resolution to the anguish they endured in Numbers 14.
In contrast, Baruch and Jeremiah died before Ezra and Nehemiah led the children of Israel back home to rebuild the Temple. They died without seeing the resolution of the story of which they played an integral part. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jim Elliot, and John the Baptist. Yet, the kingdom of God moved forward through each of their lives, despite the fact that they saw more loss than resolution during their own earthly ministry.
God’s words to Baruch remind me that though I long for stability and ministry fulfillment on earth, my hope is ultimately in the life to come. And that hope will not disappoint (Rom. 5:5).
Our aimless wandering—treading water in a sea of quarantine—may last months, years, or even decades, but God’s kingdom is coming. Abide in him even now, and he will give you fruit that remains. Most of all, you are not alone as you navigate your own ministry losses. God knows, and he has preserved the stories of his faithfulness to fulfill his promises to us all not in spite of such losses, but directly through them. He who started the good work in you, in your community, and in those you disciple, will be faithful to complete it.
Wendy Alsup is the author of several books, including Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness. She writes at theologyforwomen.org.