Surviving the Slough of Despond

We all go through it.  That sense of being stuck.  Of being unable to see what God is doing 7bcd79143f295e397a45653a4415c375through our preaching and pastoring and so wondering what the points is, if the grass is greener, struggling for the motivation to preach and prepare.  We thought about that in yesterdays post.  But how do we avoid revisiting the slough as often as we can, how do we pull out of it?

There are a number of things I have found have helped, but first here are a few things that don’t.

  1. Escapism – An always tempting option is escapism, doing something else to take your mind off it.  Hobbies are good and helpful but when they become a form of escapism they become unhelpful distractions.  Where do you tend to run when you want to take your mind of the despondency you feel?  Computer games, sport, porn, maybe even the attention of someone else?
  2. Longing for the greener grass over the bridge –  It is often tempting to day dream about the what if…  What if I left and went somewhere else?  With more resources?  More people?  A church where people really wanted to hear God’s word and change…  But such day dreaming only fuels the despondency and leads to the next unhelpful friend.
  3. Bitterness – The sense of despondency coupled with the way evangelicalism so often seems to ape the world in promoting the success stories (seriously, when did you ever hear a conference speaker who hadn’t published a book, successfully revitalised a church, or started 7 parachurch ministries alongside his successful church plant).  It can fuel the despondency, as you hear from conference speakers or meet people with large churches, large staff teams, and so on.  The despondency can so easily turn to bitterness about how hard it is where you are, how they hoover up all the young people, the disposable income, how they only planted into student area and so on…  I’m not denying they’re real issues, they are.  But dwelling on them leads to bitterness that leads us to sink deeper into the slough.

So what actually helps?  How can I avoid, as much as possible, the slough of despondency, and how can I get out once I’m in it:

  1. Recognise patterns and seasons.  Note down over a few weeks how you are feeling about ministry.  You will probably spot a pattern, Mondays are often blue days for the pastor, if so rethink what you might do to minimise the impact of that.  Should Monday start with a prayer walk, a 1-2-1, a prayer breakfast, a day with other pastors?  What would help?  Secondly ask your family and some close friends if they’ve spotted any seasonal patterns in you.  Are there certain times of year when you tend to despondency?  It may be a mild form of SAD exacerbated by pastoral pressure.  It may just be that at certain times of year you need to programme in a rest, and change your existing holiday pattern.
  2. Build real friendships.  I’m real grateful for a few select friends, both in ministry and outside of it, who I can speak to about these sorts of things.  With whom i can share the discouragements, who I can say I feel like quitting to, and who know that wisely they just need to listen.  That I’ve not divided off a theological cliff, I’m not falling into some naval gazing self introspected funk, I am just weary of pastoring in a broken world, and need listening to, loving and sometimes telling to rest.
  3. Sleep and eat well –  We know we’re not just spirit and yet we so often neglect the physical side of ourselves when we’re ministering to others.  The extra visits, the extra prep that we’re convinced will make this sermon have more impact.  The inability to switch off where we need to.  But we are flesh and blood.  God made us, he knows we need sleep and nourishment.  How is your sleep?  Are meetings leaving you buzzing with ideas and unable to sleep because they are scheduled too late?  Are you taking rest?  How is your eating?  Is it too hurried, rushed refuelling rather than an opportunity to enjoy the goodness of God’s gifts of tastes and variety and company?
  4. Exercise and the outdoors – The other side of that is physical exercise and spending time out in God’s creation.  How far do you walk in a day and where do you walk?  Could you take a break and have half an hour outside on a prayer walk?  Or just walking and being without pastoring.
  5. Develop you eldership not a genuine team – how does your eldership function?  Are they your bosses?  If so you won’t feel you can open up to them.  Or are they your co-workers in the gospel?  A team of elders should be exactly that, one of the challenges for the pastor and for elderships is developing that sense of team and commitment to one another spiritual wellbeing, shepherd self care matters.  Do our elders meetings share honestly about the slough?  Do we look for opportunities to grow, and learn and train and review – not just to critique but to grow and develop a love for Jesus an for his church.  Often the slough is fed by the brackish water of under investment and development.  When we don’t feel our pastoral and preaching skills are being developed its harder to see ways out of a rut and this feeds the slough of despond.
  6. Patterns of discipleship – too many of us think of ourself as just pastors, not primarily as disciples.  We need to put in place good patterns of spiritual nourishment to fuel our discipleship as well as good patterns to sustain us as pastors.  The two may overlap but they are never the same, think of it like a Venn diagram, not a pie chart.

In the next post we’ll think about how churches help pastors avoid the Slough of Despond, or help pull them out of it.