Discouragement and the Ruling Elder: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 7

An Older Elder

Dear James,

Thank you for sending that very thoughtful get-well card a couple weeks ago and for the letter that I just received this morning. To answer your question, I feel a bit better. My doctor saw something when examining me and wants to run a few more tests. Doctors love their tests. But then, I suppose, so does our Lord. The difference is that we already know the outcome of God’s testing (James 1:3).

If I am not mistaken (forgive me if I am wrong), I picked up just a small note of discouragement in your comments about a certain irregularly attending member. You asked me how to handle that situation, and I can tell it is weighing on your mind. I will give some advice. But first, if you do not mind, I would like to say a few words in general about a very important subject; namely, discouragement and the calling of a ruling elder. While much has been written, and rightly so, on the discouragements of pastoral ministry, not as much has been said on dealing with the heavy heart of a ruling elder.

If you are a sufficiently sensitive ruling elder, and I know that you are, you will likely encounter episodes of a heavy, discouraged heart. Hard, dry sponges are not heavy, and neither are hard, dry hearts. But a soft and tender heart, the type of heart you need for this work, will absorb many sorrows and disappointments. Do not be surprised by this. I will share with you, from my own experience, some of the common causes and some helps.

One of the most common causes for discouragement I have found among ruling elders is simply the labor involved. Shepherding can be mentally and spiritually exhausting. You need to pay attention to this for yourself and for others. We often document the vacation time of our pastors. We almost never do for our elders. I believe that is a mistake. Ask about this at your session meetings! I have known hard-working elders who easily put in 40-60 hours a week at their job, and then add to this the church meetings, visiting, teaching, and checking in that many elders do. In Nehemiah we read that “the strength of those who bear the burdens is failing” (Neh. 4:10). Your strength may fail too. If you do not build in breaks, you will quickly get exhausted and discouraged. Remember that our gracious and wise Father put into the very fabric of creation an obligation to rest (Gen. 2:2).

Another cause of discouragement in the work of the ruling elder, one which is rarely ever discussed I am sorry to say, is the problem of loneliness. This may not seem like a real danger right now, but trust me James, elder work can be lonely work. A ruling elder may have a busy job, a bustling home, a growing church, and a full session, but still find himself feeling like a lonely man. I have been there. And loneliness is often the door through which discouragement comes. But our Lord does not want us to be lonely. His words in Genesis 2:18 are still true, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” As such, he will hear the cries of a lonely heart, “turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely . . .” (Ps. 25:16). Remember we serve the one who said himself, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

Finally, I will share just one last cause of discouragement in the life of the ruling elder, and I suppose this one is the most common of all, though we have the least reason for it. Our discouragement sometimes arises from the fact that we have lost sight of God’s love for us in Christ. We lose sight of his love. Nothing will drain the life out of your work faster than forgetting the love of God. Whenever I found discouragement rising in my heart, I knew I needed a fresh reminder of him “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  Remember, as Cowper put it so well, that “behind a frowning Providence, he hides a smiling face.” Jonathan Edwards had a great resolution regarding the love of God which every discouraged ruling elder should consider: “Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.”[1]

So much, for now, about my thoughts on discouragement. Now about this inconsistent member. I think your best approach, after prayer, is to get to know him a bit better. Ask him to meet you for a cup of coffee, or to watch a ballgame on Saturday. I have even found a cold beer at a local brewery to be blessed by God as a means of getting to know his sheep. Do let me know how it goes.

Your soul’s well-wisher,
An Older Elder


[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Edward Hickman, ed. vol. 1, (1834 repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), xxi.

Ordained Servant Online, August/September, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2023

The Second Century Church

Also in this issue

A Guide to the Second Century

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: God’s Method: Proclamation, Chapter 6[1]

Textual Criticism

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 6

Real Differences: The Danger of Radical Individualism: A Review Article

Big Answers to Big Questions

On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost

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