For six years I worked at planting a church outside of Kansas City. For six years, we never went above 40 in regular attendance; most of the time we never went above 30. Those six years were some of the hardest years of my life so far. There was unbelievable personal hardship and stress. There was complete lack of numerical growth despite the fact that we reached out in new, creative, impactful ways to our community. Personally God forced me to face some tough issues, grow in my faith, and learn some hard lessons while I was there.
I remember sitting in church/pastors conferences and meetings and hearing how the "leader gets the church that reflects them." That certainly didn't help matters. That meant that as a leader, church planter, and pastor--I sucked!
For two of the six years, I struggled through a dark depression that crippled me emotionally, spiritually, and any other way imaginable. I sat literally at the end of my rope. I told God that I no longer wanted to be a pastor, I no longer wanted to be a church planter, and I wasn't sure I even wanted to be a follower any more. (Good thing God is a big boy and can handle my rants.)
The problem was that I had no where else to go. Where could I go? What could I run to other than God? There was nothing. I knew this because I had tried most of it before my conversion. Anything I hadn't tried, it didn't take a genius to know wouldn't have any different results from the stuff I had tried.
I learned many things during that time of my life; not that I am no longer learning some tough lessons. But those times were very tough, and they were very dark. Looking back, I know that God was there because those times have taught me so much. I learned that my relationship with God is first and foremost above the ministry I lead. My focus and priority must be on God and bringing all the glory to Him. I have to be the best follower/apprentice I can be. I think God often uses the "fruitless" times in our lives to remind us that using all the best methods will not bring glory to God nor will they "grow" a ministry; only God can grow a ministry.
Ben Arment has a great post on his blog about Fruitless Ministry and the Mysteriousness of Jeremiah's call.