Sustainability: Keeping the Faith When Ministry gets Difficult

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We're going to continue our theme on the blog of encouraging medical missionaries. Today's guest blogger is Susan Post. Susan is the Director of Esperanza Health Center, a bilingual primary care center in North Philadelphia. She lives in the community where she serves and is integrated into the lives of neighbors who are also patients and friends.  Many of the people in her community face significant difficulties related to poverty, and Susan has a unique perspective to share with us today.


What Does Suffering have to do with Sustainability?

The readers of are diverse in age, profession, stage of life, and geography. You might be a student considering medical missions, or maybe you’re seeking God’s calling on your life, or maybe you’re like me and you’ve been in ministry for a while.  Wherever we are in our lives, we need to consider sustainability and how God helps us to stay faithful to Him in the places He calls us.  People often begin ministry enthusiastically and then get surprised when difficulties arise and they’re unprepared to face them. Sometimes people even leave ministry because they have difficulty addressing sustainability.


I come to you as a fellow journey person, together with you asking God to show us how to find and strengthen our ministry sustainability during these times when the work is uncertain and often difficult.


In the book of Philippians, Paul describes the suffering of Christ and the power of his resurrection. Lately I find myself dwelling on what it means to “share in the fellowship of his sufferings”.  Typically, we move on to talk about the power of His resurrection, but I have been feeling the need to be honest about how hard it is to share in suffering.  I began to see that the sharing of God’s sufferings – my neighbors, patients, and even mine, were integral to the power of the resurrection that we all long to see.  These are not polar opposites, but rather complementary.  The overall picture, even including our own weakness, leads us to see our Savior’s glory in a magnificent way.  Sometimes our trials are actually the route to experiencing God’s resurrection glory – a route we wouldn’t want to miss, and, if it were up to us, we might try to avoid. 


Once I started talking with colleagues about suffering, some honest conversations began.  Tears were often shed as we discussed the pain of failures the wounds from serving.  It was a privilege to hear their stories and see their sacrifice, but in many cases, on the brink of brokenness themselves.  I realized then that there is something vital about going deep in our ministry, but also going deep in sustainability.  It’s not a matter of having our own inner strength to just move on. In fact, sometimes I think it is the opposite.  As the years of ministry go by for me, I see how God is at work in the difficulty. He sees well before I do my own weaknesses, places of potential, and actual failure. I see how His glory is always tied to weakness and He is at work in ways I often cannot see.  If I can move with Him during the difficulties of ministry, His glory will be more realized and I will find the sustainability He has already set in place for me.


Ministry difficulties                                          


  1. The Work itself – ministry itself is tough.  There is great joy in it, and it is amazing to get to be part of seeing God at work in our world.  But many days, it is also hard.
    • When the patient doesn’t recover
    • When a patient with substance use disorder relapses
    • When a patient manipulates
    • When you witness the affects of childhood trauma on an adult
    • The cycle of suffering that life brings people in poor communities
    • The constant limitations that finances or other resources can put on ministry
    • When the church doesn’t understand your ministry


  1. Fatigue and Loneliness – As a leader, I often feel quite lonely even though I have a significant number of great people around me.  But at the end of the day, when hard decisions have to be made, it is up to me.  The effect of fatigue sometimes makes it hard to see clearly all that God would have us see. It is hard to walk by faith rather than by sight when the sight in front of you looks so big and you’re so tired. 
  2. Failures - Failures can come in many different packages.  Sometimes there is little fruit, despite a lot of trying and hard work.  Sometimes we make mistakes or misjudgments.  Sometimes we have relational conflicts with others that we work with or those we are serving.  Sometimes sin brings personal and ministry failure.  When God recorded Peter’s denial of Christ, Peter must have felt himself to be the biggest failure.  But God didn’t see Peter that way.  In fact, Jesus commissioned Peter into further ministry after that all happened. 
  3. Losing our Passion – When we begin to experience burnout, we may begin to see our patients, coworkers, or even the community, as the enemy.  Sometimes we can lean toward pride or self-dependence, not realizing it is always only God who brings the fruit.  And we might not even realize we have become proud in that way.  We can also lean toward self-protection. That often happens when we count the cost and don’t believe something is worth working toward.  There is certainly wisdom in counting the cost, but generally God tells us that we don’t have to self-protect if we are trusting Him in what He has called us to do.  A fine line, but an important one to consider.  We can also feel distant from the Lord which can cause us to lose our passion.
  4. Personal Challenges – Ministry can be hard when we are going through other personal hardships – grief, family concerns, health issues, financial concerns, which can distract us from our work.  We might be suffering, but the ministry is still there with decisions to be made and patients to be seen.  It can be difficult to contribute during a time when your heart is broken, but the demands of ministry are there all the same. 
  5. Lack of confidence – There are always times in ministry when we realize that we can’t do it by ourselves.  This can be positive if it brings us to depend on God, but sometimes a lack of confidence can cause confusion and an inability to move forward.  We see this in scripture too, especially after failures, but, in the case of Elijah, even after victories. 


When Healing Comes

We are broken people, serving broken people, in a broken world.  We all need healing. And when things get difficult, we may begin to doubt. We doubt our calling, we doubt ourselves, or even doubt that God is good.   One passage of scripture that has given me a glimpse into how God sees this can be found in the book of John, chapters 13-17


These chapters resonate because they portray Jesus as he faced his most difficult days at the end of his life.  He knew he was leaving His father’s work in the hands of his disciples, and that this would be his last time to talk to them before the traumatic events that lay ahead. We can look at what God did to prepare His followers on earth for “difficulty in ministry”:


  1. He remembered who He was and what God was doing.


Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.


Jesus stepped back to remind himself of the truths He knew – The father had given all things into his hands, He had come from God, and was going back to God. Reminding Himself of who He was and what God had called him to do gave Him the strength, fortitude, and humility to move forward – to wash the feet of those He knew would deny and betray Him.


  1. There are times in ministry when we don’t know what God is doing – and that is God’s design.


Peter balked at Jesus washing his feet.  It makes sense that Peter would not think it proper or right for his teacher, his messiah, to wash his feet.   Peter declares, NO, Lord, you shall never wash MY feet!  Jesus responds kindly to Peter saying, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but afterward you will understand.”  Is God perhaps saying this to you right now? We need to trust Him and give Him a YES, even if we don’t understand right now.  Who am I to think I have a plan that is better than His?


  1.  We are partners with Him in the work


We certainly know this in our heads – we go into ministry to participate in God’s work in our world.But it is very easy to forget when the ministry gets tough or when you feel you need to add more of yourself to make it work.I think Jesus knew our propensity for this and so he told his disciples, and us, over and over again in these chapters that we are doing His Work, and in that there is great joy, love, and grace.


Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 15:4


This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. 15:8


  1. Serving Jesus is an intimately loving relationship


We serve in ministry because we are built to be involved in God’s purposes and plans for His kingdom.What Jesus shows us in these scriptures is that this is .He lovingly expresses this until His last breath in the book of John.


John 14:1-3“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.


I used to read that scripture and think, wow, I’m going to go live in a mansion that Jesus prepared for me.But it’s not about the it’s about being with Him.It is about a beautiful intimacy in which we will never be alone.


Sustainability for Life

There are a few things that can help sustain us as we seek to live out sustainable ministry in light of God’s love.

  1. Re-Centering - Re-centering is to ask God how he sees your life situation. One way to do this is to try a prayer of examen each day. When you read Luke 24, Jesus meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus asks them what is happening and then he opens up the Word to the disciples to show them that their story is really part of a bigger story that God is doing.  To try the Prayer of Examen, tell Jesus about your day. Pour it out to Him. Then listen.  Have Jesus re-tell your story WITH HIS PRESENCE in the story. As we do this, we gain eyes to see what God is doing, and it will likely look very different. 


  1. Rest and Recreation – We need to rest.  We need to move out of the work and accomplishment mode so that we can recharge, refresh, and restore.  If you are like me and you love work, you will need to be intentional in this area.  Rest and recreation, or re-creation, are not just napping on Sundays and keeping your ministry hours in check.  There are far more ways to rest:
  • Stay intentionally involved with those who restore you.
  • Find beauty – nature, music, art. 
  • Exercise

What brings you rest and refreshment?


  1. Reckon– the definition of reckon is to count, calculate, conclude, think.  Stop regularly and reckon, dwell on God’s truths.  Allow them to become part of your frame of reference throughout your day.  Slow down.  Contemplate, meditate on Him and what you know of Him.



  1. Intimacy with God - I had a sabbatical last year, for 6 weeks, and I happened to be celebrating my 60th birthday.  I walked El Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage starting in the Pyrenees Mountains in France.  During this journey, these truths were imprinted on my heart:
    • The purpose of our journey of life is to walk with and to Jesus
    • Abide in Him
    • Take time to rest in His presence
    • Psalms of Laments – Allow Him to be your comfort


  1. Worship – Lastly, all of this allows us to live lives of worship.  Worship moves our focus from ourselves onto God’s character. It relieves the burdens that we carry as we cast our earthly concerns on Him. The persecuted church around the world throughout history has relied on worship as a way to sustain through the most difficult times, and we should too.

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