If you’ve been around ministry any length of time, you will know that feeling of having given your all to something only for people to appear entirely ungrateful. Your best efforts were either unimpressive, unimportant or simply been deemed little more than you doing your job. Most people feel it at some point.
Sometimes, this feeling will depend on our personalities. I have noticed there are people who get downcast very quickly if people do not fall over themselves to say how wonderful they are with frequency. Unless people are gushing about everything they do, or lavish praise on them for every minor act of service, they become downhearted. In my experience, such people struggle in ministry role because, to be frank, most people just ain’t that grateful.
And, let’s be clear, many people are grateful for things. But what they often aren’t is gushing about it. Sometimes, they are generally grateful but don’t necessarily say so much about it. I suspect some of that will vary depending on the context you’re working in too. But I don’t know many people, who have been in ministry for any length of time, who reckon the people they are serving are always as forthcoming with the praise and thanks for their efforts as they feel they should be.
But then, of course, there are the people who just aren’t all that grateful at all. It’s not that they just don’t say it, they don’t think it either. Your service is their right, as far as their concerned. Or, maybe they’re just using you and don’t think twice about it. Perhaps you fall over yourself to help somebody and, having done so, they are immediately wandering what you’re going to do for them today. Yesterday was a long time ago! All too often, people just aren’t that grateful. And we aren’t given a get-out-of-service-free card by Jesus when people don’t appreciate our efforts as much as we think they should. If Jesus took that approach, there would be no church!
We can’t live and die on whether people are grateful for what we do. I, for a variety of reasons, have never really needed much by way of gushing praise. To be honest, I have never developed any ability to receive compliments without deep embarrassment, so I am more than happy not to receive them. I will work all day, and serve you forever, without your thanks and compliments, so long as you don’t start saying horrible things about me. I can wear a generic lack of thanks, but I struggle more when – having worked my guts off to serve somebody – they turn around and say things that aren’t true and begin to criticise. But, as Jani Ortlund so rightly counsels here, everyone in ministry (along with spouses of those in ministry roles) to ‘release our reputation to Christ.’
I think what she writes in that post is a key requirement for ministry. Not only are people often not so forthcoming with praise for their pastor (and even less for his wife) than we often think they should be, very often our reputation is unfairly maligned. If we are the kind of people who become downcast because people aren’t effuse enough with their praise, then we are really going to hit the skids when our character is unfairly called into question and people say things about us – even spreading those things both within the church to cause division and beyond the church to ruin our reputation – in the inevitable way that happens. People are often not that grateful and, worse, they can do some bitter and nasty things because sin will do that.
Living and dying on the gratefulness of our people will lead us into all sorts of problems. It can make us man-pleasers, willing to do whatever makes our people happy, even if it means disobeying the Lord. If we (rightly) reckon that to be the wrong move to make, it can kill our joy in ministry. It can cause us to become hard-hearted towards others who haven’t done anything to us, nor anything wrong, simply because we can’t cope with being hurt. But you cannot pastor people at arm’s length like that. At some point, people will let you down, even hurting you in the process, and you have to press on and treat the next person without prejudice and with the dignity every image-bearer should receive by rights.
Those who can’t function without the praise and overt gratefulness of their people really won’t get very far. Those who can function without it, yet can’t cope when those they help round on them may get further, but still will struggle. The reason is the same in both cases – we place too much store on what people think of us and not nearly enough store by what Christ thinks of us. If we won’t serve because people aren’t lavishing us with enough praise, we’re reliant on people’s praises. If we won’t serve because somebody has been mean to us, we’re reliant on people not causing us aggro. Neither is godly because it is service for the wrong reasons.
Our focus needs to shift to what Christ thinks of us. We may receive no praise from our people, but if we faithfully press on, we will receive from him a ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. We may have our reputation ruined by those who wish to do us harm, but if we press on faithfully Jesus will give us an honest report of our standing before him one day. We need to remember that our value and worth do not come from the lips of our people, but from our saviour who died for us. We need to remember that we serve, not because the people we serve are always perfectly beautiful, but because Jesus is.
The Lord doesn’t ask of us anything he hasn’t done himself for us. No doubt, we didn’t look all that beautiful to him in our sin. We were not very grateful towards him before he saved us. We didn’t lavish any praise on him and, by the way we lived and the things we said, maligned him, his character and reputation. Yet Jesus died for us. He laid down his life, in the face of gross injustice, in order to save the people his Father (our Father!) had for him. He knows what he asks of us and we were once those ungrateful, ungodly, character impugning people.
So, yes, sometimes people aren’t that grateful. And yes, sometimes our character and motives will be unfairly attacked. And, frankly, there are some people who do not seem very beautiful and easy to love. But such were some of us! But Jesus died to save us, he washed us clean, he made us beautiful in his sight and he calls us to love him by serving others just as he did.