Quitting Ministry

Years ago I was asked to pastor a small church. At the time, the suggestion caught me off guard. I never planned to be a pastor, and I lacked formal training. After some thought and prayer, I agreed to answer the call, because I wanted to serve the Lord any way He desired.

Over the years, I've experienced the rewards of pastoral service, including the joy of teaching God's word and encouraging the faithful in the upward call of Christ. More often, I've known the challenging, time-consuming, and emotionally-draining task of shepherding God's people. Discouragement comes easily in this line of work, and many pastors are tempted to abandon their vocation.

I, too, experience periods of discouragement and doubt, leading me on occasion to question my commitment to pastoring. When the temptation to quit grows strong, I return to a favorite part of scripture meant to encourage pastors like me to hold the course.

The passages are found in two letters Paul wrote to Timothy. Timothy was Paul's protege. He was young, inexperienced, and challenged by the difficulties of leading a church in a large, pagan city (Ephesus). Reading between the lines in Paul's letters, we can tell that Timothy often experienced self-doubt about his work as a pastor, even to the point of second-guessing his call to pastoral ministry.

So Paul wrote to bolster Timothy's faith.

For example:

1Tim. 4:12  Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.
1Tim. 4:13  Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.
1Tim. 4:14  Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through  prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.
1Tim. 4:15  Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.
1Tim. 4:16  Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.

And again:

1Tim. 6:13  I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of  Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate,
1Tim. 6:14 that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,

And again:

2Tim. 1:5  For I am mindful of the  sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and  your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.
2Tim. 1:6 For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
2Tim. 1:7 For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.
2Tim. 1:8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in  suffering for the  gospel according to the power of God,
2Tim. 1:9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in  Christ Jesus from all eternity,

And finally:

2Tim. 1:15  You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.
2Tim. 1:16  The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and  was not ashamed of my chains;
2Tim. 1:17  but when he was in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me —
2Tim. 1:18  the Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day — and you know very well what services he rendered at  Ephesus.
2Tim. 2:1  You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Did you notice Paul's progression? Each of these passages moves the conversation steadily toward Paul's final point found in the opening of 2Tim 2. Paul is concerned that Timothy would give up the fight to deliver the gospel and train the church in the word of God. He continually admonished Timothy to "keep the commandment" and "kindle afresh the gift of God" and "join me in suffering for the gospel" and "be strong in the grace that is Christ." 

In fact, the final passage above includes mention of some workers that had turned away from Paul, and Paul looked down upon these men for their unwillingness to stay the course of ministry in the face of hardship. Clearly, Paul is leading Timothy to understand that he should not turn away from the calling and gifting God has given to Timothy to preach the gospel.

Thus we come to 2Tim 2:2-6:

2Tim. 2:2  The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2Tim. 2:3  Suffer hardship with me, as a good  soldier of  Christ Jesus.
2Tim. 2:4  No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.
2Tim. 2:5  Also if anyone  competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.
2Tim. 2:6  The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. 

Paul uses three analogies to impress upon Timothy three different perspectives on ministry. First, Paul says that a minister of the Gospel is like a soldier called for duty. A soldier sets aside the world and all it holds, and does not concern himself with the affairs of everyday life. His mission is too important, so it demands his full attention lest he fail at his duties. A soldier must become 100% committed to the mission and his role.

Likewise, a minister of the gospel must see his call as a life-changing, permanent refocusing of his time and passions. Such a man is set apart by God for the purpose of preaching the Gospel. As pastors, we must purposely set aside any unhealthy interest in the world and the distractions it offers, like a soldier who is too absorbed in the mission to allow routine life to intrude.

Secondly, Paul compares a minister to an athlete. An athlete understands that the only sensible reason to join a competition is to receive the reward, and the reward only comes to those who compete well, follow the rules and complete the race. If we don't give our best, we cannot succeed. If we don't compete properly, we will be disqualified. If we quit before the competition is over, we forfeit the chance to win.

Likewise, someone who begins to pastor must understand that the prize for our service to Christ will only come if we give our best to the effort, minister properly according to the word of God, and persevere to the end of our lives. As Paul says in Romans 10, the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, so the length of our race is defined as the length of our earthly life. Nothing less will suffice.

Finally, Paul uses the analogy of a farmer. A farmer's role is to prepare the field, sow seed and produce a harvest. Once the harvest arrives, the farmer receives his reward. His reward is a portion of what has been sown, but this provision is entirely dependent on a successful harvest. Were the farmer to give up on his farming before the harvest arrived, he would be left with nothing to show for his efforts. If he perseveres, however, he will be the first to receive a share of the bounty.

Likewise, ministering is a long, difficult process. The fruit of our work will not come immediately, and we may not gain a full understanding of what we achieved until our judgment moment, where our works are evaluated for eternity. Should we labor for five, ten or even twenty years in ministry only to give up before the harvest is complete, we're like the farmer who abandons his field halfway through the growing season. We forfeit our prize and abandon our reward.

On the other hand, if we persevere we should expect to receive the choicest rewards, just as the farmer selects from the best of the harvest.

If you are a pastor (or other devoted minister) contemplating ending your ministry, I encourage you to first consider this question. Were you called and gifted by God for this ministry? If you didn't receive such a call, then you shouldn't be pastoring in the first place. Pastoral ministry is simply too demanding to sustain for a lifetime without a clear calling and gifting from God.

If we pastor under any other pretense, our efforts are likely to end badly, both for us and those we pastor. Many men have attempted to pastor without such a calling, and they usually bring shame to Christ in the end.

On the other hand, if God called you to pastoral ministry, then you have no choice but to persevere, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. The call to pastor sets men apart from other Christians for the sake of the Gospel, and the Lord's expectations are very high for those He calls.

In light of the importance of pastoral ministry, we should expect the enemy to sow seeds of doubt in our minds and to bring temptations for us to quit, just as he did for Timothy. Stand up to these temptations and distractions by remembering Paul's words.

In my experience, men who receive a call to pastoral ministry were rarely seeking such a call when it came. In fact, many would-be pastors ignore their calling for a time and questioning their suitability for the role before eventually embracing it. In the end, God chooses who He wants. Remember Jesus' words:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is  a devil?”

So the question is...have you been called and gifted by God to pastoral ministry or not? I know my answer. As Paul says in 2Tim 2:7:

2Tim. 2:7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.