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Failure and Fatigue in Ministry

Dale Johnson: Well, this is one of those moments that I am thrilled to have with us, Randy Patten. For so many of you who are listeners, members in ACBC, Randy Patten is no stranger to you. His wife’s name is Cindy, they’ve faithfully been married for 51 years, if I remember correctly. And I’m always blessed to be around this brother, he’s such an encouragement to me. Currently, he serves as the president of TEAM Focus Ministries, which at some point, Randy, I want to sit down with you and and chat a little bit more about that, but he’s a longtime Executive Director of NANC (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors), as it were during those days for 16 years, served in various capacities, for 18 years, the ministry of now ACBC, and I’m so grateful for Randy and his service particularly during those years of growth in the biblical counseling movement and his stewardship of that leadership during that time. And listen, today, we’re going to talk about a difficult subject. This idea of failure and fatigue in the ministry and this is a reality for any of you who’ve served any length of time in ministry, vocationally or otherwise, you know, that this is a reality, that is a struggle.

Randy, I can’t think of a better person to have this discussion, with one who understands the human heart, and the dispositions of the heart, one who has experience in pastoral ministry for years and years. And you’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in ministry as well. And he’s going to speak very specifically, I know today about this issue, listen, recently we had Randy involved with us at a pastoral retreat, our first-ever ACBC pastors retreat where pastors and their wives came together with us at Maranatha Bible Camp in Norton Shores, Michigan and what a wonderful time. Randy had the opportunity to provide some messages to these pastors and their wives, and I wanted to capture some of the thoughts that he gave to them. I thought it was important enough, not just to keep it for that audience, and so, Randy, I’m so grateful that you’re here. I’m looking forward to this conversation, and I know that there are going to be people who are listening who are going to be ministered to as well. So thank you, brother for taking the time and share some thoughts with us today. 

Randy Patten: Thank you, Dale. I commend you and ACBC for the excellent conference that you hosted for pastors and wives, participating in that was a real highlight for me, and it certainly demonstrated the need for an organization, like ACBC to be providing loving care and counsel to those that are on the front line of vocational pastoral ministry. 

Dale Johnson: Well, man, I really appreciate that, and I have to say these last several years, ministries hard, ministries really, really difficult. And now we add to it, the issue of a pandemic and it’s hard to make anyone happy, no matter how sensitive you are to different things. And you know, you send emails out trying to inform the congregation of how you as elders are deciding about one thing or another. And you know, before you hit the send button that at least 50% of the people are going to be upset in some way and not happy, and it just makes it difficult and listen, one of the things that makes you uniquely I think qualified, and not just your experience in pastoral ministry, but the types of experiences you have both good things and bad things.

I want you to share a little bit about maybe some of your personal testimony as it relates to ministry, and, you know, even some of those things that maybe we don’t like to talk about a lot. Some of the, some of the difficult seasons of ministry that you’ve experienced as well. I think that’ll be helpful for people to relate to where you are, and the things that you walked through. 

Randy Patten: Yeah, I’ve been wonderfully blessed growing up in a Christian home and trusted Christ as my Savior at age 10. And by age 14, God worked in my heart and created within me a desire to serve in vocational ministry. After high school attended Cedarville, Cedarville University where my love for the Lord was increased and desire for vocational ministry, and went to seminary after Cindy and I were married and had wonderful mentorship preparing me for the pastorate. My first congregation had averaged 38 in Sunday school, two months before I got there, and like many churches, it had once been much larger but had had problems that were not handled biblically and course that led to more problems, which were not handled biblically in that case. The church ultimately split, went to sought the care of a wise seasoned pastor in the area, and through his contacts, I was one of the men who went to preach and later I was called to be the pastor and for me beginning to pastor a congregation that had averaged 38 in Sunday school two months before I got, there was an absolute thrill. I’m getting paid to study the Bible and to preach to people. And this is what I’ve been wanting to do since I was 14 years old. It was just a happy time and God blessed our efforts, and through hard work and just the obvious blessing of the Lord and the faithfulness of the congregation, things began happening.

We began seeing people get saved, and baptized added to the local congregation and problems are getting resolved. Two years into that young pastorate I saw my need to get training in biblical counseling, which was life-changing. And as I began implementing efforts to help people through counseling that aided the church’s growth, we had a wonderful season for 5 or 6 years, where it just seemed like it was a blessing on top of blessing, brand new building, and so many good things happened. But as a result of the growth in the church numerically, and my failure to adjust my leadership style, I found myself trying to pastor a congregation of 160 or so, the way I’d started pastoring 38 and it can’t be done, but I tried and the result was physical exhaustion, and I just mentally plateaued, I began neglecting my own personal study in the Word, the way I should. I was neglecting time with Cindy and wasn’t giving proper time to sermon prep, and the result of that was that when I as the leader of the church plateaued mentally, it wasn’t very long till the church plateaued. And I’ve seen that in other industries as well. The leader plateaus, it’s only a matter of time until the organization plateaus in some ways. And then some of my failures in equipping the saints to think and act biblically began manifesting themselves, and it led to ultimately very serious charges being brought against me which later at a church council, three pastors who came in to advise us. Charges were told, said that I was not a heretic. I was not preaching a social gospel, that was some of the charges, but that was the very low point, my lowest point in my own life, in my ministry. But God used that in a wonderful way to help me grow in areas I would not have grown had everything kept moving in the positive direction.

Dale Johnson: Randy, as I hear you talk about that, it’s easy for guys like me who are in the thick of ministry and sometimes the busyness of life and raising children, and you know it’s easy for me to say yeah, we struggle with things like that but somebody like Randy Patten, you know, and now as you’ve grown in wisdom and you’re able to share some of these things, you know, to hear that you’ve walked through difficulties like that. I think that’s encouraging on a lot of different levels, but you can speak authoritatively in so many ways based on some of that experience that you’ve had, it’s important I think even to hear you say that you’ve walked through some of that and that the Lord taught you so much through that. That’s encouraging to guys who are listening even now, who find themselves in the middle of these types of difficult situations where things are not going as planned in the church.

Certainly not the way you envision things in seminary or when you first arrived on the campus and you’re excited about leading. And now you find yourself in difficulty, and it could be for a number of reasons, things that, you know, were in your control relative to study and so on, and things that may not be in your control. And yet the Lord gives wisdom, I want you to talk a little bit about obviously you’re not at a place where you’re struggling in ministry at this particular moment. So at some point, the Lord brought you out of that, talk about the ways in which the in the things the Lord used to, He utilized that pain as a tool in your life to really grow you in the way you thought about ministry, and how you saw the Scripture and your role as a pastor then? 

Randy Patten: Well, during this very, very hard season just out of utter desperation to get answers for myself, I began spending extended periods of time in extended reading of the Scriptures and I would take long walks at times in the woods with my Bible, and my journal, and it was one day sitting under big old oak tree, reading that God used Second Corinthians 5, 9 and 10 to minister to me. And that has since become what I call my life verses, it says “wherefore also we make it our ambition, whether at home or absent to be pleasing to him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” And one of the issues I had to wrestle with and really come to a settlement with is: Who am I going to live my life to please? Because while there were some people that were pleased with me about my pastoral Ministry. There seemed like there were others and at this particular point in time, there were many who were not pleased with me. And that verse really challenged me that when the Scripture says, whether in the body or absent, it means live or dead. I mean, that covers all the bases.

The goal is to please him. And that was a major turning point for me, where I just said, look, to the Lord, I’m going to seek to please you whether that leads to me being fired as the pastor or not. I’m just going to live and I’m going to preach and teach the Bible the way I understand it, and just have to let the chips, and for me, it was a major step forward and living by faith but a life to please God and later in other ministries I saw had the opportunity to talk with other pastors about that because many pastors face that same issue when it comes to sticky things like practicing church discipline.

Now, the Bible is pretty clear on that, and for many pastors that becomes a test of faith for that, am I really focused on pleasing Christ, or am I going to find some way to rationalize not obeying the Bible here? So that was a major event for me. And through this time, my simple way of thinking was I knew I was failing in many areas. I knew I needed to change. I wasn’t sure what all those changes would be, but I thought Jesus Christ was the greatest leader who ever lived. Even a lot, many non-believers will say that. So, I spent extended periods of time, studying the gospels, reading them very carefully to notice not what did Christ teach so much, as how did he relate to people? And what I learned from that revolutionized my ministry, and one of my joys at a pastors’ conference was teaching in the second session. What I learned from that period about how did Christ do ministry. It’s interesting since that very, very dark period in my life and ministry and our ministry together, Cindy and me, God has allowed us to have a ministry to many other pastors and wives, based on what we had learned during that time period. So that’s been very, very gratifying in many ways.

My 12 years in the pastorate could be marked by two different time periods, it will be the first six, seven years, and then the last five, five and a half years, and our church ended up with a major split. And everything was what I call this blown up into the air. And as a result of that, I was able to make significant changes in my thinking, and in my conduct and my approach to pastoring and come down and stay in the same place. A lot of pastors, when the church blows up, they got even, go start over somewhere else. Well, I was able to stay in the same place in part because our church had been torn up so much that it many ways, it was a different church, but I was able to stay and implement things I had learned during this hard time of seeking the Lord and studying the Scriptures and it was amazing. Five years after our very painful public church split, the pastors in our state fellowship churches asked me to leave what had become once again a very happy pastorate. They asked me to leave that to become the leader of our state fellowship churches and basically to function as a pastor to pastors and a consultant to churches. And every time, I just marvel at the grace of God, because during this dark period, I’ve been referring to. I mean, there was nobody asking Randy Patten about anything. Nobody was calling me about anything asking for advice. And then to think that five years later, I’d be asked to serve as a pastor and a consultant to other pastors and churches. I think that demonstrates to all of us that we serve the God of the second chance. God who grows us and through our humbling of ourselves is humbling us. He opens up wider spheres of ministry than we ever anticipated and he opens up opportunities for ministry that we weren’t prepared for previously.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s a pretty significant part of your story, right? Is that the Lord uses, He doesn’t waste any of that uses to grow you in ways that you’ve been able to pour out to others for a long time for many, many years. Talk about some of the most significant things you mentioned, 2 Corinthians 5, You’ve also talked a little bit about second Corinthians 1 comfort others in the way in which we’ve been comforted through some of these difficulties. Talk about some of the ways that your heart and mind changed even as a pastor, as a shepherd toward your people, and how the Lord used some of that to change your mind and change the way you did ministry. 

Randy Patten: Well, as I studied the life of Christ, I was impacted that Christ had what I would think of, as three levels of ministry, he had a multitude ministry that we know about like, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the more famous. I mean, it’s his public preaching teaching of Christ. Also had a ministry to the 12 out of the thousands that followed him. At one point, he chose twelve and he spent very special time. But out of the twelve, he chose three, and those three became many ways, the foundation of the New Testament Church or the key leaders of it. And as I studied the gospels, I was really impacted that Christ dealt with a multitude differently than he did the 12, and Christ dealt with the three differently than he did the 12. And as I studied that, I saw and discerned what that meant. And so, I purposed that I was going to start trying to be like Jesus, in what I called my multitude ministry. And for me, my multitude of ministry was the public services of our church. And that led to me making some significant changes in how I approached the public services church.

By this time, I have done enough counseling that I had realized that people do not change in generalities, they change in specifics, and you can’t change everything at the same time. So, I realized, okay, at that point in time our church had four public services a week, we had Sunday school in the morning, worship service Sunday night service, and the Wednesday night prayer meeting. And I typically would minister the Word to those, but I realized I couldn’t change everything, so, I focused on just our public to me our Sunday morning worship service, where we had the largest attendance and typically we put our best foot forward, best musicians and so forth. I began trying to implement what I had seen Christ, but I had observed Christ doing, and then with the twelve, what struck me was that with the 12, Christ spent most of his time explaining what he had taught through parables.

When I grew up as a child, I remember attending a class, my pastor had where he taught us that Parables were stories that Christ told to illustrate the truth. Well, later, I came I’m to think, you know, I’d read the parables I think that doesn’t illustrate it. For me, it’s confusing and I think that was Christ’s intention, the parables were designed to make people think by talking about what Scripture says, and privately Christ explained things to the disciples. And so, I began implementing a particular strategy with my groups. My 12 ministry was groups like my deacons or like our Word of Life, teen club leaders or other significant groups of people in our church. And then I developed from the way he ministered with the three, I developed a strategy, and I look back and some of my most happy, fruitful years of ministry, those last five and a half six years of ministry in the church where I saw that being implemented. After I left the pastorate, and I was serving in the capacity where I was the leader, pastor to pastors, and consulted the churches, leader of our state fellowship.

One of the happy roles I’ve played was that I served as a bridge between churches that were looking for a pastor and pastors who are looking for a place to serve. And my custom was I would not hand out a resume of a guy that I had not met and interviewed. And I developed a list of questions. I would ask men that wanted me to pass out their resumes. And one of the questions that I asked was, and I told them ahead of time, get ready to explain to me what Matthew 28:18-20 [1] means, that’s the Great Commission, and be able to explain to me what Ephesians 4:11-16 [2] says, that passage deals with equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. And then tell me how you will accomplish both of those in the ministry. And over the years that I was in that role, I probably interviewed 800 pastors, and what I found was consistent, the pastors could explain Matthew 28:18-20 [1]. They could explain Ephesians 4:11 [3] to 16. Well, when I asked them, how will you do that? How are you going to make disciples? How are you going to equip the saints for the work of the ministry? They usually responded by saying, preaching, by teaching, then they started shooting blanks. And I discovered that many of the pastors had no real strategy for making disciples that went beyond the public ministry of the work. That’s part of what burdened me to teach the kind of things that I taught at our pastors’ retreat because the pastors that came to the retreat because of burnout and frustration, they need more than just being encouraged and loved on, which took place at that retreat in a wonderful way, but they need a strategy to go back and be different. That’s why in that last session that I had the privilege, I’m going to teach them what I learned about how Christ dealt with three different groups. 

Dale Johnson: I think that’s a helpful strategy. We talked about that in biblical counseling all the time. And we can deal with some of the fallout of problems that we have especially in counseling. But if we don’t change the patterns that got us there, we’re going to find ourselves back in the same thing. 

Randy Patten: Exactly. 

Dale Johnson: And that’s exactly what you’re talking about here, in dealing with failure within the ministry that happens I think to the best of us in process, and it’s really about the things that we learned through that process and you’ve redeemed some of that and you’ve put it down I think that in a way that’s very helpful. I want you to talk a little bit about how your view of the church changed and how your view of problems, especially problems in the church changed after your time of fatigue and what you experienced in failure and in ministry. 

Randy Patten: Yeah. Well, a passage that used to help during this time, that was really helpful to me was First Corinthians 11:18 [4] where Paul says to the church at Corinth, “I hear those divisions among you.” in part I, and anybody knows their Bible well knows that the Church of Corinth had a heck of trouble. So when we hear that there are divisions among you we’re not surprised, okay? It was a carnal church, and then the next word, the word translated “division” is the Greek word schísmata, from which we get our English word Schism or schísmata, and in popular Church lingo, we talk about church splits. Well, it’s a division, it’s schísmata, but then the next verse says, verse 19 says and this was so instructive to me and the person who brought this, to my attention, was Pastor Bill Good from Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette, Indiana at the time, and he later became the Executive Director of NANC, and he was one of my mentors in life and he, I can still remember when he said, on one phone call, he said, get your Bible open to First Corinthians 11:19 [5]. And then, like, an excellent biblical counselor, he had me read that. And then he said, let me tell you what that means in verse 19 says, there must be divisions among you, in order that those who are approved among you may become evident among, and he unpacked that verse and helped me understand that. There must be divisions. It’s the Greek word, ireses, and it refers to people holding an opinion on something so strongly that it leads to schísmata. And that’s what causes divisions in our church people holding different views, often times, it’s not over the deity of Christ or inspiration of Scripture, it’s over tertiary-type things. You said there has to be divisions among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident, the word translated approved is the Greek word dokimos, and it means to be tested by fire to be found pure, to be genuine, to be the real thing.

Other Scriptures would teach that a goal of every Christian ought to be viewed by God as dokimos, okay. So, the Scripture says there has to be divisions among you so that those who are approved become evident. I came to understand that issues that arise in a church in many ways are pastors’ best friends because when the issues arise it forces people to respond. How am I going to respond to that? Am I going to come down on God’s side of the issue, and think and act biblically? Or am I going to follow man’s wisdom, man’s rationale and justify not obeying the Bible because it’s harder, it may cause people to leave or may lose a big contributor or something? I came to understand that issues provide opportunities to reveal, they provide opportunities to reveal how people think and how they act. It demonstrates whether or not people are talking the talk of a Christian or are they talking the talk and walking the walk. That’s an issue for all of us, not just for laymen. I mean this is an issue pastors face. Are we gonna talk the talk and walk the walk when it’s easy? Or we are going to when it’s hard? and that was very helpful to me. I began teaching that to my people, I would hold up like of the microphone at the pulpit. And I point out and say let’s pretend that this is an issue and matter what it is. All kinds of issues come up in the church. The real issue is how you’re going to respond to this issue. Going to come down on God’s side, think and act biblically? are you going to come down on man’s wisdom side? And I began put talking about that repeatedly come down on God’s side of the issue, not just a church, but in the home and your marriage, with your employer. When there are differences with your neighbor think and act biblically that became a driving statement that came out of this that reflects what we teach in counseling but it moved out of the counseling room for me and became a prominent influence from the pulpit. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think that’s a beautiful explanation of how we utilize the Word to give us discernment. That’s what the Bible describes this maturity is we learn to discern between good and evil from God’s perspective. And that’s our goal is to grow people who are mature. Now, one last thing, we have to do this quickly. You’re sitting in front of a couple who is fatigued and feel like failures in the ministry. What are some key things that you would want to tell them to encourage them in this season? 

Randy Patten: Yeah, well after I left the pastorate, it was in that role where I was the leader of our fellowship and that and the counselor to advisor to pastors. I had over the years, I had a number of men, come to me who were very discouraged and ready to resign and what our world would call burnout. And a question I learned to ask each of them was this: when was the last time you had 2 to 4 hours alone where nobody could get to you and where you could read, study, think, pray, and listen to music? Just to do something that would minister to you. Consistently the pastors who came to me could not identify that time. I would agree to counsel them, but they had to promise me that, as part of that, was that in the following weeks and all the time, I’m dealing with them, there had to be two, two-hour segments where nobody could get to them.

I would say, you gotta feed the cistern and that’s the phrase I used. I grew up in a rural area in Southeast Ohio, and we had a hand-dug well, which wasn’t very deep. So, also had a cistern or we collected rainwater off the roof of the house garage. And I remember growing up, I’m the oldest of four and my mom yelled at us, don’t take long showers, you’ll pump the cistern dry. Well, a lot of times as ministers, we’re like cisterns, we’re just giving, giving, giving to people. I mean, we’re ministers, we give and what I found was people who are starting to burn out. The number one characteristic is cisterns being pumped dry, and a major contributing factor is they failed to obey First Timothy 4:16 [6], which says, “take heed to yourself and your doctrine.”  Don’t pay attention to Acts 20 verse 28, which says, “take heed to yourself and the flock over which God has made you overseers.” Note the order. So, I’ve seen a major contributor is a cistern. One’s own soul needs to be filled. 

Dale Johnson: I think this is great wisdom, Randy, thanks for spending time. And listen, we’re, we’re talking about sobering subjects like this, it’s difficult. It’s really hard and I’m so grateful, Randy, I know I can say that at the moment when you were living it, it was not easy. But I’m grateful that the Lord allowed you to walk through that time, and the things that you’ve learned in the way that you see Scripture and how you can encourage and be obedient to what Paul called us to do to comfort others, with the ways in which God has comforted you. And it demonstrates that when you’re walking through the difficulty, you don’t, you don’t see this, but there’s comfort, and the Lord is providing it in a way that you can proclaim to other people. And thanks, brother. Appreciate you spending time with us today.

Helpful Resources:

You can find more information about the upcoming Refuge: A Retreat for Pastors and Their Wives here [7].