Nehemiah, an officer in the 5th century BC Persian Empire, was feeling distressed. The emperor had granted Nehemiah’s request to help the Jewish remnant who still lived among the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild the city. But, when he arrived, the situation was dire. Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs, and Philistines had grown powerful in the land of Judah. When it became clear to them what Nehemiah was up to, they joined forces to stop him. They attacked the workers constantly, causing confusion and discouragement.
The work itself was overwhelming. The workers were exhausted. There was so much rubbish, it was almost impossible to clear it away just to be able to begin the work of reconstruction. And then the enemy raids started, and people starting dying.
Sometimes our work in initiation ministry can feel like that. We’re overwhelmed. There is so much work to do before we can even start to do real ministry. And sometimes we even feel attacked and fearful.
For me, one feeling summarizes all the rest: discouragement. All the negativity that can happen to us in this ministry is just flat out discouraging. The causes of discouragement in initiation ministry are similar to those of people of Nehemiah’s time.
Fatigue doesn’t just make us physically tired. We also lower our defenses. We lose focus and don’t pay attention. Our work suffers, and that leads to more discouragement.
If you were one of Nehemiah’s workers and you showed up to a worksite that had a mountain of garbage on it, you might have felt like giving up right at that moment. Ministry can feel that way sometimes. It can be something like the meeting room is an absolute mess or the receptionist has lost the contact information for the most recent list of seekers. It can make us feel like quitting.
Statistically, I’m sure my ministry has brought more people into a relationship with the Risen Christ than those that I failed to help. But it is the failures I remember most. Each. And. Every. One. Of. Them. So discouraging.
The root of all discouragement is fear. What will people think when they find out? What if I’m not up to the task? What if I lose another seeker?
Because discouragement is so prevalent in initiation ministry, TeamRCIA has made encouragement a core value. If fear is at the root of discouragement, courage is at the root of encouragement. Anytime we encourage ourselves or others, we are providing courage.
That is exactly what Nehemiah did. He encouraged his people in multiple ways.
Nehemiah made sure people worked in shifts so they could get the rest they needed to do their tasks well. We should all do that too. If you aren’t getting eight hours of sleep each night and taking regular breaks from ministry, today is the day to start.
Many times we are frustrated because we lose focus. Nehemiah’s people were focused on the trash and the overwhelming scope of the project. Nehemiah encouraged them to “remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” In initiation ministry, if I have to clean a room or track down contact information—stuff that is definitely not my job—I have to remember the Lord. The greatness and awesomeness of God is with me to help me overcome any obstacle.
How often do we tell others to pray and even tell ourselves and then not do it? When I am most discouraged is usually when I am the least prayerful. Prayer builds faith, and faith gives us strength. Nehemiah’s rock-solid faith was a big encouragement to his people.
Nehemiah’s people were being attacked, and he encouraged them to fight back! We, of course, are not going to take actual swords and spears to our next RCIA meeting, but we can armor ourselves for spiritual battle. We already mentioned prayer, which is powerful tool for resisting discouragement. God’s word is another. The liturgy strengthens us and encourages us. And relying on the Spirit of God to go before us into our daily struggle is the number one battle plan.
Once Nehemiah had provided all these encouragements for the people, the work did not become less demanding. The enemies did not stop attacking. But the city got rebuilt. What changed was the people’s attitude. They began to see what they were doing was not a city reclamation project. They were doing the Lord’s work. And when we are doing the Lord’s work, we will not grow weary. We will not be stopped by obstacles. We will not fail. And we have no reason to be afraid.
So have courage and encourage those around you. We are doing the Lord’s work.
What does encouragement look like in your parish today? What does it need to look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below!