the shape of leadership

Dealing With Doubts

How to work through faith struggles in ministry

Christina M H Powell on September 10, 2020

An all-star baseball pitcher does more than entertain us with his fastball. He also teaches sportsmanship when he perseveres to win a game, volunteers at a local charity, and compliments the opposing team in a press conference after a loss.

Role models demonstrate the attitude and behaviors necessary for success in a given endeavor. Pastors are spiritual role models, and their congregations and communities observe how faith impacts their lives. But pastors are people, and just like a star player can have a bad game or sustain an injury, pastors and other paid church staff members can go through difficult seasons.

In recent years, some high-profile Christian ministers have processed their doubts in the pulpit in ways that are not helpful to the congregations they lead. However, given that most pastors experience doubt at some time in their ministries, what is the best way to deal with these doubts?

Let’s consider a Bible-based and reasonable strategy for dealing with the doubts that arise in the course of ministry.

Determine the Source

Just as a doctor would diagnose a disease before prescribing a treatment, a pastor needs to determine the source of his or her doubts. Are you suffering from fatigue, interpersonal conflict, or overly high expectations, or do you have a genuine intellectual question? Doubts can reflect stress in the ministry, when daily drudgery and frustrations drown out the passion of your call.

Pastors often set unrealistic expectations in the name of faith, expecting small, healthy congregations to explode overnight into megachurches like those featured in the conferences they’ve attended.

Meanwhile, a few influential yet critical parishioners can make a pastor feel like a failure, using negative words to diminish the positive contributions the pastor is making in the lives of the majority of the congregation.

A staff pastor can feel the stress of a demanding lead pastor who focuses on mistakes and seldom offers praise.

Your doubts are spiritual homework to handle outside the pulpit until you resolve them.

Of course, a genuine intellectual question can arise in the course of sermon preparation or counseling a parishioner. Doubts laden with emotional baggage are quite different from doubts stemming from academic curiosity. The source of your doubts will dictate the best path forward.

Plan an Appropriate Approach

Once you determine the source of your doubts, plan an appropriate approach to resolving these doubts. While people can benefit from a pastor’s willingness to be vulnerable about personal struggles, your doubts are spiritual homework to handle outside the pulpit until you resolve them.

Let your doubts be an impetus to learn and grow — a beginning that leads to stronger faith and greater ministry instead of a reason to quit or a harbinger of failure.

When willing to be honest with yourself, you can plan an appropriate approach. Consider the well-known words of Psalm 23:1-3: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”

Are doubts reminders that you have been too busy to refresh your soul? Your physical body needs rest and recreation. Your intellect needs quiet moments for reflection. Your spirit needs time on the calendar for prayer and private Bible study unrelated to your professional ministry work.

Locate and Deploy Resources

While your struggle feels unique, the truth is someone, somewhere, at some point in history has experienced and even resolved similar doubt. Read 1 Corinthians 10:11-13 as a reminder that the spiritual tests, temptations and doubts we experience are “common to mankind.”

In books, you can meet people from distant lands and eras whose journeys can provide answers to questions you have today. Travel to 1960 England and learn how a famous Christian apologist dealt with the pain of his wife’s death in A Grief Observed. To share the lessons he learned dealing with doubts and grief without revealing his identity, C.S. Lewis originally published this book under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. The book was republished in the author’s name after his death in 1963.

Finally, do not overlook the value of a trusted present-day friend who can listen to you express your doubts and walk alongside while you resolve them. Trust that you can come out whole on the other side of your journey with doubt, heeding the words of the prophet Azariah to King Asa in 2 Chronicles 15:7: “Be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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