by Brian Croft
My first decade of church revitalization held many great joys. But it was also punctuated by periods of great pain. It is clearer to me now more than ever that the Lord was leading me all along the way, sometimes through joy, sometimes through pain, but nevertheless leading me. Growing turmoil in my soul exposed some dark areas that were crushing me and took its toll on others and me as I walked through these painful years. My soul was slowly being crushed under the weight of perfectionism, fear of man, major bouts of anxiety and issues with control. It was during the final period of the first ten years that I had begun the soul work necessary to allow the gospel to deepen in my soul and begin to infiltrate these areas of my life that were dark and hidden. As a result, these lessons have become more real and sweet to me as I look back on these years. I took a broken church. But my brokenness equaled, if not surpassed the brokenness of this church. Out of my brokenness came these five important lessons:
The Epiphany of Patience
In the early years, I thought I was the patient one. I was enduring through the criticisms, judgments, and actions to remove me. I was being the bigger, more faithful person. As the years have passed, I have realized in a lot of ways more and more that it was the other way around. These long-time faithful saints wounded by previous pastors for decades were being patient with me. They were being patient with me as I grew as a preacher. The 85 year old widow who used to lecture me about my preaching in the early years turned out to be right. They were patient with me as I made rookie mistakes. They were patient with me through all the changes they did not understand or agree with and somehow with blind faith tried to trust this man who was young enough to be their grandson. Ironically, I should not be celebrated as one who endured, but one who was shown a lot of grace that I did not deserve and allowed me to stay longer.
The Sweetness of Tough Love
We all want everyone to instantly receive us and our ministries and think those ultra-supportive church members are exactly what we want. But I have learned that to have church members hostile to you, not receive you, and make you pursue them in love is a sweeter and more rewarding relationship when you win them. I have some incredibly supportive people in our church now, but the relationships that mean the most to me are those with whom I fought in the early years, struggled to love in any way, and yet we grew and learned how to love each other. To be greeted every Sunday with a smile, hug, and warmth by the man who led the charge at year five to remove me is hard to describe and it still moves me every time. That is an evidence of God’s redemptive grace every time we see each other that I do not experience when I am greeted by my greatest supporters who have always been with me.
The Discerning Perspective of Scars
God in his sovereign grace uses the worst moments in our ministries to bring gratefulness and a unique perspective in a pastor’s life like nothing else when real change occurs. Because of the trials I have endured in our church, I have a perspective in decision making that few in our church now have. So when our newest seminary student is really uptight about those eight to ten members on the fringe or those family members of long time church members still on the roll, he does not remember the blood, sweat, tears, and bruises that came to remove 485 members. He does not know about the bone-chilling finger pointing threat I received in the deacons’ meeting years earlier. As I remain one of the few leaders still there who witnessed and endured this struggle, I find my perspective in decision making is much different from theirs. God grows a unique discernment and wisdom in you through the pastoral scars of the journey you have walked. Nothing can serve a pastor so well as the wisdom wrought by scars.
The Inevitability of Suffering
If you are a pastor holding on to the hope that suffering will not come, you should find another line of work now. It is amazing the number of pastors who contact me ready to resign after about two years of ministry in one place because they finally met the adversaries the enemy had placed there in that open door of ministry. As I talk with them and we begin to talk through the discouragement and struggles, I eventually ask them, “Did you think becoming the pastor of that church would not bring with it adversaries to come against your gospel ministry?” Ironically, in many cases it is their confrontation with adversaries against the gospel and their ministries that make them conclude it is time for the next place.
The Apostle Paul takes the opposite approach—the presence of adversaries makes him conclude he must stay longer, “But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9). Becoming a pastor means we place our families and ourselves on the front lines of spiritual battle. Why are we continually so surprised when the enemy comes against our gospel ministry, especially in places it has been suppressed for decades? Charles Simeon said, “Brothers we must not mind a little suffering.” It is coming brothers, but it is okay.
The Steadfastness of the Chief Shepherd
The chief shepherd never abandons his under shepherds. Christ promises to never leave or forsake his sheep. We preach that regularly to our people and we should. How much more so is this true for the ones who care for his sheep? I love children in general and I would do anything if I saw a child being attacked in some way. But if someone goes after my kids—it is on! He is with you! He knows. He is near and working, even when you do not see it. That is the smiling face behind the frowning providence. How could we think Jesus would not fight relentlessly for those of us who faithfully labor, suffer, and endure to care for his sheep?
Herein lies the essential lesson for all pastors laboring in the work of revitalization. Jesus is with you! He is your shield in that deacons’ meeting. He is there when you are publically rebuked. He is compassionate when your mistake or failure in a decision harms the church. He is sad when his sheep attack you because they do not understand and are afraid. He is your defender when wolves in the church try to harm the sheep. The Chief Shepherd will never abandon his shepherds! He is with you and doing whatever he must to give you the grace to remain steadfast in this task of caring for souls on his behalf until he returns.
Dear brothers and fellow pastors, in light of the care of the Chief Shepherd—take heart. Remain steadfast. There are so many good purposes you do not now see that our sovereign and gracious God has for you wherever you find yourself in this journey. If you will stay the course they will become evident. It will bring a sweetness to your ministry that the newest, best, most healthy church you would pack up and leave for cannot provide. Do you have the faith to believe it? Do you trust he is indeed always with you? If you can answer “Yes” to those questions, you can endure the greatest storm and messiest church and hold fast—because the Chief Shepherd is with you!
 This is a reference to the classic line in William Cowper’s hymn, God Moves In Mysterious Ways.
Editors note: This is an excerpt from Brian’s book Biblical Church Revitalization.
Brian Croft serves as senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville. He is also senior fellow for the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at Southern Seminary. A veteran pastor and author of numerous books on practical aspects of pastoral ministry, Brian oversees Practical Shepherding, a gospel-driven resource center for pastors and church leaders to equip them in the practical matters of pastoral ministry.