If you pastor a small church or consistently feel the pangs of ministerial discouragement or secretly wonder if the small numbers in your assembly are due more to your incompetence, read Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor and find encouragement.
What a paradox. Carson records his father Tom’s oft-discouraging ministry in French Canada to uplift very ordinary pastors today.
Most Pastors are Ordinary
Most pastors will not regularly preach to thousands, let alone tens of thousands. They will not write influential books, they will not supervise large staffs, and they will never see more than modest growth. They will plug away at their care for the aged, at their visitation, at their counseling, at their Bible studies and preaching. Some will work with so little support that they will prepare their own bulletins. They cannot possibly discern whether the constraints of their own sphere of service owe more to the specific challenges of the local situation or to their own shortcomings. Once in a while they will cast a wistful eye on “successful” ministries. Many of them will attend the conferences sponsored by the revered masters and come away with a slightly discordant combination of, on the one hand, gratitude and encouragement and, on the other, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt. (9)
Two thoughts come to mind. First, how wonderful it would be if our church actually had bulletins. Second, I have paced miles before Sunday services wondering similar things: is our fledgling flock due to the shepherd or the sheep?
Learning a Foreign Language is Difficult, Especially for Moms
Despite [Mom’s] brightness and insight, the one area she never mastered was spoken French. This severely limited her ability to minister to women and others in the church unless they spoke English. Even in her late sixties she tried to beat this handicap by taking conversational French courses at the local college. But she never really cracked the barrier. At the ministry level, Mum was cut off from many conversations and developments, and this had isolating effects for both her and Dad. (33)
Tom Carson’s French was much better than his wife’s, but this wasn’t due to his greater intelligence; Don implied the opposite was true. But Tom spent so much time in the French language—through visitation, study and preaching—that he was able to gain a serious advantage on his wife who stayed home to rear the children. This should lead ministers, and especially foreign missionaries, to be patient with their wives who take significant time to learn the language; husbands should heap praise upon them if they succeed.
Protecting Self and Children from Bitterness
On why Tom never told his son Don about the wrongs a minister had done to him:
[Mom] and I decided we needed to protect our own souls from bitterness. So we took a vow that neither of us would every say an unkind thing about [him]. And we have kept that vow. (60)
On Honest Reports from Small Ministries
New pastors wrote spectacularly interesting prayer letters to their Anglophone constituents and sending agencies, making a great deal out of every tiny gospel advance but almost never reporting the failures and disappointments, the spurious conversions and instances of falling away owing to lack of perseverance. [Later, people] visited these congregations, and were often surprised and bewildered, not to say let down, when they saw the paucity of enduring results. For better or for worse, that was not Tom’s style: he was scrupulously faithful and even handed in his reports.” (65)
Missionaries struggle to know the correct balance here. If we address too many discouragements in our reports, we’ll appear negative and cynical; if heavy handed with glowing advances, we will look unrealistic.
Perfectionism as a Cause of Discouragement
[This] played a big part in his failure to finish his thesis: the work was never good enough, so it was never complete. And the sense of failure from not completing it added to the pattern of failure, which in turn engendered more defeat. (92)
Mixing Work and Play as Another Cause of Discouragement
Mum used to tell us kids, ‘Work hard, and play hard, but never confuse the two.’ But Dad never learned Mum’s simple maxim. The total number of hours he put into his calling each week was excessively high, but occasionally—as much out of fatigue as discouragement—he would permit something else to intrude, and then feel guilty about it. Mum’s maxim should be posted on the mirrors of most ministers. (93)