I finished delivering my sermon for the second service that Sunday, and headed back to my seat. Before I could sit down, church member Vicki grabbed me, hugged my neck tight, and whispered: “Woman, you were on fire today!”
I smiled and sat down, feeling exhausted, but satisfied. God had accomplished yet another miracle. After the horrific week I’d had, as discouraged as I’d been recently, somehow he managed to give me the strength to preach his Word with passion, conviction, and fire.
Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:2—“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season”—had been repeating in my head for the last few days. I knew I was “out of season” recently. I hadn’t felt filled or led by the Spirit. I was walking more by the flesh than by the Spirit.
No, I wasn’t clinically depressed, nor was I burned out. Nothing was falling apart. The church that God had me plant a decade earlier was growing at a healthy pace. We had baptized 15 adults just a few months prior. There was much fruit to thank God for and be excited about. Yet, even though things were going well, I still found myself in a season of discouragement and in need of an attitude adjustment.
I have come to understand that seasons of discouragement are a fact of life in full-time ministry. I expect them at regular intervals. At times, it’s a result of circumstances in ministry or my personal life, but other times they seem to occur at random and without reason.
There are times when pastors and church leaders need help and immediate intervention. But there are also many times when we simply need help to normalize our seasons of discouragement and spend extra time with the Lord to process. How do we combat discouragement in healthy ways?
Time for a Pep Talk
The letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus teach us the basic attitude of a spiritual leader. Paul was mentoring the young Timothy, and he taught him how to carry on serving the kingdom of God despite any difficulties or discouragement that he might face. Paul tells Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to fan into the flame the gift of God. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:6–7).
Paul had certainly learned to pull himself out of times of discouragement. He had suffered much persecution for his faith and even wrote the letter of 2 Timothy from a prison cell in Rome. Paul tells Timothy, and now all of us, that there is something we must do in order to keep the flames of faith burning hotly, especially through times of discouragement: We are to fan the flame. But what does that mean?
Paul indicates a definitive action on our part. To fan the flame implies we must get closer to the fire! We must do whatever we need to do to increase our passion for Christ and serving his kingdom on earth. We need to lead ourselves and our thoughts. The spiritual disciplines that we’re all familiar with can help with this: daily reading the Word of God, spending time in prayer, worshiping through music and conversation with God, taking Communion, finding fellowship with others, and so forth.
But I would like to share one additional thing that the Holy Spirit has taught me to do that has been a tremendous help to fanning my flame, especially in times of discouragement. It may sound a bit silly, but I have learned to give myself pep talks. I’ve learned that we need to talk to ourselves a whole lot more than we need to listen to ourselves. It’s easy to let old, whiney tapes play repeatedly in our heads. When this happens, we need to take authority over our thoughts and allow the Holy Spirit to speak directly to our flesh. Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Taking our thoughts captive is an extremely important skill for every Christian, but it’s especially vital for pastors and church leaders. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Yet, this Scripture convinces me it’s possible: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). As soon as I begin to hear myself whine, complain, and throw a pity party, I know I have some work to do—I let the Holy Spirit lead and talk to my mind and emotions.
Recently, I found myself feeling way more stressed than I should be. Our church has had a growth spurt in the last six months, and I’ve been feeling the growing pains. The people in our church also had a lot of crisis situations that created a challenging season for our church. I knew it was time for a pep talk with the Lord, so I canceled a few appointments and let some balls drop so I could get some quiet time with the Lord.
I went to my office late at night when I knew I’d be alone. I read Scripture, cranked up the worship music, and worshiped with all my heart. I spent time in confession and surrender and entered God’s presence in thanksgiving. And when I knew my heart was ready, I sat in silence and focused on listening to God. We often forget that half of our prayer time should be spent listening to God—I know I forget! We’re usually good at talking to God, but forget how important it is to listen for his still small voice. So that night, I made plenty of space to listen for what he had to say.
The best thing for me in that time was to rediscover God’s great love for me. With that knowledge in tow, I knew I was ready to give myself that much needed pep talk with the voice of Christ. I could speak my true identity to myself, reminding myself just how deeply loved I am. Since then, I have felt more peace and less stress than I have in a long time. My flame of faith went from a small, glowing ember, to, once again, a hot-burning flame.
Linda A. Wurzbacher is lead pastor of Blessed Hope Community Church in Rochester, New York.