Church people, Christian people can be so picky and ungrateful. I know. I’ve served them for 35 years and bear the wounds in my psyche and in my family to prove it. If you’re a church leader — lay or ordained — you’ve felt it. You pour your heart out. You give unstintingly of your time and your energy. And so often it goes unnoticed, unappreciated, taken for granted. Even worse, you get picked at by some well-meaning — and some not-so-well-meaning — members who feel that God has given them the gift of criticism. My dear friends in Christ, I have some words that will bring you healing and hope.
God’s Leaders Have Often Been Unappreciated
First, know that you are in good company. If I were to recount all the leaders who were criticized and unappreciated, it would be a long list:
Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt, but when times get tough they say, “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Only after his death do they really appreciate him. Some consolation prize!
Job lives a righteous life before God, but who appreciates him when the tide turns against him? His wife calls him a fool and his so-called friends try to hammer into his skull the message that it is all his fault.
Jeremiah has the unhappy mission of declaring to Israel that Jerusalem will be destroyed and the people will go into exile for their sins. Who appreciates him? No one. He is slandered, arrested, imprisoned, and called a traitor.
Paul spends long, grueling years in missionary work, but some of the churches he himself founded discredit him. To his detractors in Corinth he bares his soul, and in his sarcasm you can feel his pain:
“We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” (1 Corinthians 4:10-13)
And Christ’s work can indeed take a heavy toll on us. Paul writes again to the Corinthians:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” (2 Cor. 1:8)
Then, when he has recovered a bit, he tells them:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
In the midst of the incredible pressure, he receives strength from God that helps him to make it through. Jesus said:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
Why are you so blessed? you ask. Because this persecution proves that you are in very good company.
You Must Not Allow Bitterness to Grow in You
My second word to you is that you must not allow bitterness to grow in you or you will become useless for Christ’s work.
Satan is hard at work in us leaders to sympathize with our hurts, to rip off the scabs covering our wounds, and to fan flickering flames of anger in our broken hearts until our they bursts into a conflagration that is out-of-control and terribly destructive — of ourselves and those around us.
There are times in my life when I feel like I am in a rowboat filling with the water of hurt and bitterness. If I don’t keep bailing it out, bailing it out, the bitterness will soon overwhelm the boat and I will sink in self-pity, anger, and unforgiveness. But when I read Jesus’ words, I am rebuked.
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)
My problem is that I am expecting to get something back from my ministry in the church — love, respect, appreciation, self-worth. But when that isn’t forthcoming, I begin to get bitter. Then I hear Jesus telling me that real love doesn’t give to get, it gives without expecting to get anything back. I have so far to go in this walk! Jesus tells me that his Father is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” My thoughts haven’t been very kind.
I’ve learned that I cannot afford to let anger and bitterness grow in my spirit. I must flush them out to the Lord every day in prayer, sometimes many times in the day, whenever those feelings of hurt and self-defense begin to rise up in me. I’ve needed a lot of flushing because I’ve had to deal with a lot of bitterness. How about you?
You Serve the Lord Christ
My third word to you is that you don’t serve the Church, you serve Christ. The Church might (or might not) write you a paycheck, but it is not your real employer. Paul’s admonition to slaves speaks to my wounded spirit:
“Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.” (Ephesians 6:7-8, NRSV)
Sometimes I’ve forgotten whom I really serve. When people are ungrateful, I want to tell them off and quit. But then God reminds me that he is the one who called me. That I am serving him first of all. An assurance that he was serving God was the only thing that kept Moses going through a hailstorm of criticism. It’s all that kept Jeremiah on track when everyone told him he was wrong.
You and I serve God, not people — really. We are mediators of God’s love for them, and if, by God’s grace, that love can flow through us in spite of our hurts, in spite of our buffeting, then we can continue to minister to them on behalf of God. But if Satan can shut off the love, he has neutralized us.
I serve to hear one simple sentence, spoken to me personally by Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21). I want God to be pleased with me. It doesn’t matter if people are selfish and critical, insensitive and unappreciative. All that really matters is God’s approval. That is why I serve, because I love him.
You Can Set a New Pattern
My fourth word is both to church leaders and to church members. There is a very real spiritual battle being waged in your church and in the hearts of Christian leaders in your church. Satan is working hard to discourage, but through Christ we can defeat him.
I want to challenge you to become a one-person encouragement center. Look for people who are serving Christ in your church, see what they are doing for Christ, and then stop to encourage them.
- “Your piano playing is such a blessing to me.”
- “You certainly do a wonderful job with the children.”
- “I can see your heart for the Lord as you take special care to have the church clean and fresh every Sunday morning for worship. Thank you!”
If you feel under-appreciated, don’t wallow in your misery. Get up and start actively giving to others what you yourself desire. Start a verbal appreciation campaign. Get some other folks to join you. Set a pattern of appreciation that will overtake your entire church!
While you’re at it, why don’t you go out of your way to show appreciation to your pastor and your pastor’s family. Tell them with your words they are loved and appreciated. And then give them a little gift that says, “We love you, we care.” A home-baked dinner that they don’t have to prepare. A weekend away, all expenses paid. A card that says, “I appreciate your ministry.” A special gift on the pastor’s anniversary of ministry at your church — that puts a huge “Yes!” in the appreciation column. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus tells us:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:35)
When you encourage Christ’s servants, you are serving Christ himself. When you speak words of appreciation, you are speaking Christ’s words. When you encourage, you are doing Christ’s work. When you hug — physically or figuratively — you show Christ’s love in a way that can be felt.
There are way too many insensitive, critical, ungrateful people in our churches. Maybe that’s all they know of Christianity. By our example, we can begin to change that. Yes, we can! We can begin to establish a new pattern of thanks and support. Of caring and appreciation. We can set a pattern of love, by which outsiders can discern that we are indeed Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). It starts with me — and you.