Dear Pastor's Wife, Gospel Centered Ministry, Ministry, Pastors' Wives, Theology

Dear Pastor’s Wife: How To Know That Your Labor Is Not In Vain

Dear Pastor’s Wife,

I’ve had this topic and the Scripture passage of 1 Corinthians 15 on my heart and in my studies for a couple of years, letting it marinate, as I often do, before I write. What I’m about to share has radically changed the way I live and minister, and I hope it will for some of you as well. I have no doubt that it is needed- even crucial- for pastors and wives in these unsettling days.

A New Beginning

Fifteen months ago, we landed in South Africa to begin a new phase of life and ministry. It was a late June evening when our feet touched the soil that was to be our home. Traveling finally finished, we settled into our AirBnB for a week while our new home was being readied. On our first morning here, a song I’d not heard before came across my vision somewhere on social media (I can’t even remember where.) It was this one:

I sat on the floor and listened to this song over and over, through tears. (It seems like quite a few defining moments in my life have happened on the floor, interestingly.) I knew God was giving me this song and these words at exactly the right time, knowing my needs, my past, and my desires for the future. I desperately needed a new beginning, a new way of ministering, a different path that perhaps didn’t follow pastoral or even missionary norms. This song is now a favorite of ours because it became a line in the sand between the old and the new.

The “Do Everything” Pastor’s Wife

My husband and I- we know burnout. We’ve been the “do everything” pastor and wife. We know the crazy cycle and the nuances of how hard it is to break out of that, especially in a smaller church where there isn’t much help. We know what it’s like to realize that your own schedule is slowly killing you, but to feel powerless to change it. We used to spend our long drives back home to Canada after vacation making lists of everything we were doing, trying to eliminate things to create some whitespace. It never lasted. Ministry was like a hungry beast that devoured everything and gave nothing back. Still we soldiered on, asking God to bless our work. The mercy of it is, He did. We saw Him at work. He met us where we were, answered prayer, blessed our efforts. But still something was missing. When we started our sabbatical after 10 impossibly difficult years, I wondered what it was all about, if that was all there was to ministry. Suffering aside, I knew I never wanted to repeat that busyness scenario again.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, much of what we had been doing (all good and right and necessary) was done out of pastoral obligation. We worked, and we asked God to bless it. Nothing wrong with that, right? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? In all our ways acknowledge Him?

I thought so, until I studied 1 Corinthians 15. During our sabbatical, I began to understand this passage in its context, not just for that encouraging last verse that we like to pull out and share. Then, at our commissioning service, our pastor chose this very text to preach from, giving us a challenge that dovetailed perfectly with what God was already doing in my heart. I was in awe. I hoped that God was preparing me for a different way of “doing ministry” going forward. I had, from our sabbatical onward, declared that I would never do ministry again the way we had done it before. But in truth, I didn’t know exactly what that would look like or how to put it into real life practically. I felt nervous about this. What if we got sucked back into the insanity of being busy and endlessly tired again? What if there wasn’t another way, and my desires for something different were just pipe dreams?

But when I heard the song “Your Labor Is Not In Vain” I knew that God was indeed showing me that there IS a different way. There IS a way to know that your labor is not in vain.

What The Different Way Looks Like

My husband and I both still feel a strong caution against repeating our pre-sabbatical way of life. Starting the first week here, this caution drove us to decide to pray daily, “God, what did You bring us here to do? Why are we here? What are you already doing here? Show us.” (We have done this without fail since we got here, and we continue to pray this regularly.) The two things we knew with certainty were that we would be a) helping to pastor a church plant here, and that b) we would be eventually re-opening our piano studio (we prayed about the timing of that, too.) Other than that- a blank slate.

We had many invitations in those early weeks and months- people in the community asking us to get on board with what they were doing. They were all good things, but we said no to most of them. We didn’t want to fill our schedule with a bunch of busy work when we still weren’t sure what God brought us here to do. We still believed that He had specific tasks and specific people to connect us with, if we would just wait for it to unfold. And we wanted to avoid backing out of things OR missing the things God had for us when the time came, because we were already too busy.

The different way looks like FAITH. It seems we accept the Gospel by faith but then we set about working like it all depends on us. Somewhere along the way, we stop actually living by faith without even realizing it.

You see, the entire passage of 1 Corinthians 15 is about the Gospel. It is in this context that the apostle Paul closes the chapter with verse 58- a strong, bold challenge to Christ’s servants to be steadfast, unmovable, abounding in Jesus’ work. All of this is possible, and we can know that our labor is not in vain because of the Gospel.

What is the Gospel? The finished work of Christ- His death, burial, and resurrection. It is the work that He is doing at every given moment in every place in the whole world (see Colossians 1:6- an amazing truth!)

So, if Jesus Christ is at work in every place to bear the fruit of the Gospel, then He is at work in my life, my family’s life, my church’s life, my town’s life, my state/province’s life, my country’s life.

This means that a servant of Christ should not have their own agenda, even their own ideas of service. We shouldn’t decide to do something (even if it fits our gifts and talents- because life has seasons) and then ask God to bless our efforts.


It’s the opposite.

We need to be asking God what He is ALREADY DOING. And we need to be asking Him how He wants us to be involved in what He is ALREADY DOING.

Then we WAIT for His leading.

THIS is the labor that is not in vain! It is the labor that is truly “in the Lord.”

If we operate any other way, we run the risk of working ourselves to death, and in vain.

I don’t like to think of how much of my former way of doing things produced labor that was in vain. I know that God was working in me where I was at, and that there is so much grace for maturity during the sanctification process. But I’m so glad that God has opened my eyes to the fact that there IS a different way. And it produces the easy yoke- the work that is still work (and often hard) but is a joy to do because I am simply coming alongside what God is already doing. In many ways, the work itself becomes its own reward when done this way.

The Cost of Choosing To Labor Not In Vain

I have a dear friend who I call my “faith friend” in Canada. We text a lot, mostly about faith and what God is doing in our lives. We recently had a passionate conversation about this very topic- how to know that your labor is not in vain. She’s living it, I’m living it. It’s an exhilarating, terrifying, challenging, exhausting, rewarding way of life- all rolled into one. It makes for a never-dull life and an always-full journal!

The truth is- and I say this sensitively- many people don’t want to live this way. It’s a life of dependence on God that requires pausing to wait for Him, often. People, even fellow believers, will misunderstand you- “Why aren’t you crazy busy, like us? There is so much to do, so many needs. Find a place yesterday, and serve!” Even our Bible colleges teach us this- go out there, and get busy! What if, instead of rushing to be busy, we went out and prayed, and waited? There’s no badge of honor for that like there is for being busy.

Living by faith in this area will require some unshaken resolve, and a confidence that God’s Word is true when He says that He will reward those who diligently seek Him. It’s ok to be misunderstood. Just go quietly on, sure of how God is leading you and focused on eternity instead of the here and now, or how things look to others.

In the end, you will be the healthier person as a whole. Not only that, but you will have the assurance that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. It’s much more than busywork- it’s reaping eternal rewards.

The Rewards of Choosing To Labor Not In Vain

So, here we are, fifteen months into our different way of life and ministry. Fifteen months after my “song on the floor” moment. I wish I had time and space to share all of the amazing answers to prayer, the evidences of God’s leading, the stories of connections with people, the surprises as we realized what God is doing and calling us to do, the specific ways He has showed us what He is doing and brought us alongside Him to work. He has flung open doors we couldn’t have even dreamed up for ourselves, and given us opportunities to serve Him that we couldn’t have arranged for ourselves if we tried.

I’ve tested this out since we got here and am seeing God move in ways I never have before. I’ve never “done ministry” like this before, but it’s changing me. This is the labor that’s not in vain. Not all the busy work that we do, while asking Him to bless it. No, the other way around. God, what are You already doing? Where are you working? How do you want me to fit into that? Then waiting for His movement.

You just can’t miss it when it comes, because it somehow fits exactly what you’ve been praying for, even though you didn’t know what you were praying for.

The irony is that God was working during lockdown when it seemed like things were at a standstill, and ministry was all online. Still we prayed, Show us. This is an ongoing process and prayer- a way of life. We are continually praying and waiting. God is continually leading and showing, lifting the curtain on what He is doing and how He wants us involved. It’s been a wild ride, but we are in awe and humbled that He even answers these prayers of ours and gives us work in His harvest.

You can labor like this, too, friend. You don’t have to live in burnout or fearing burnout. You can live and serve by faith, saying “yes” and “no” with confidence because you know exactly what God wants you to do, and not do. “Living by faith” is not just a Christianese quip that gets us through life. It is REAL, it is tangible, it is lived out day by day, and it only cares about pleasing Christ.

This culmination of 1 Corinthians 15 in such a powerful, encouraging verse as verse 58 is not meant to snatched out of context and used without the Gospel connection. No, the strength to labor steadfastly, unmoving, always abounding is only and always because of the power of the Gospel.

Let the Gospel be the context of your daily motivation, your hope, your joy, your prayer. Watch how it changes your work, your ministry, your life. Even the time spent in prayer and in waiting- will not be in vain.


A Kindred Spirit

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