Can we be real? There’s something I’ve noticed in church world, and I bet you have too.
There are a lot of pastors and church workers out there who are jaded and even bitter.
Maybe it has to do with constantly carrying people’s problems. Perhaps it happens when we experience the inner workings of the church and they aren’t as “holy” as we were hoping. Maybe it’s because churches can’t always provide the salary and benefits that other companies can.
The truth is that there are a bazillion reasons church workers and pastors grow jaded and bitter. But, quite simply, we can’t! We just can’t because the work of the church requires hearts that are alive to God and alive to people. Perhaps, like me, you’ve lived through a season in which you tried to lead and minister out of a bitter heart. It’s ugly. I wish I had a time machine so I could redo that season.
So, how do we keep ourselves from becoming jaded and bitter in ministry? I have two ideas that I hope will help.
Bitterness is Contagious
We have a saying in the student ministry that I lead that goes like this:
“Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”
I firmly believe in this principle. I think it accurately describes behavior as well as attitude and it accurately describes teenagers as well as pastors. I mean, the principle is biblical after all:
Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm. (Proverbs 13:20)
Looking back on the season of my ministry in which I was bitter, I realize that I had surrounded myself with people who were jaded with the church and frustrated in ministry. Together, our attitudes spiraled downward, becoming more and more toxic.
My point in telling you this is to warn you that bitterness is contagious. If your desire is to be as passionate about ministry in twenty years as you are right now, you must choose the right people to journey with. Choose people that you wouldn’t mind becoming like... because you will.
Specifically, think about the mentors you choose. The mentors in my life have dramatically impacted the way I think and even emotionally respond to situations. There is great wisdom in choosing mentors who you respect, not only for the work they do, but also the attitude they bring while they work.
Bitterness is contagious. Journey with people you want to become more like.
Bitterness is Lurking
I don’t think that bitterness is something that you permanently conquer. I think a bitter attitude is always lurking beneath the surface in all of us, ready to jump out. Any set back, disappointment or harsh word can trigger it.
Because of this, I think avoiding bitterness requires constant vigilance.
There’s a practice that I’ve learned from my senior pastor that really helps with this. I begin most days with a good cup of coffee* and my journal.
* Side note: I’m convinced this practice will not work with a subpar cup of coffee. Be warned.
The first section of my journal entry focuses on gratitude.
I attempt to write about two or three specific things or experiences from the previous day that I’m grateful for. I do this because a thankful spirit isn’t natural. It’s something that needs to be cultivated. Conversely, a resentful attitude is natural. I’m of the opinion that over time, without the discipline of pursuing gratitude, we’ll grow more and more selfishly focused.
The second section of my journal entry is centered on a question: “What am I feeling?”
Here, I try to dig into what’s going on in my mind and heart. Often I’m feeling anxious about something that is looming at work or angry about something someone said. I attempt to surrender each of these negative emotions to God and ask Him to cultivate the fruit of the Sprit within me. I believe this practice helps keep bitterness at bay while cultivating gratitude.
Let’s wrap this up. We all know pastors and church workers who have become bitter and jaded. We don’t want to end up in that place! We can’t! Effective ministry requires hearts alive to God and alive to people.
So, how do we avoid the pitfall of a bitter spirit? I think it comes down to journeying with the right people and keeping bitterness at bay by cultivating a heart of gratitude.
I’m sure that many of you have traveled through a season of bitterness. How did you make it through? What practices have you developed to keep your heart in a healthy space? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.