Dealing with failure in ministry
Have you experienced failure in ministry? If you haven’t, my guess is either you have not been in ministry very long, or you are not being entirely honest with yourself. All of us, at some point will experience an event being cancelled due to low numbers, a new initiative struggling to gain traction, people disagreeing with our leadership style and leaving the church, and despite constant hard work and much fervent prayer, our congregation continues to decline. All of these things could be described as failure, and in my personal experience every failure or disappointment that we face in ministry can be quite painful, regardless of its magnitude.
We live in a culture today that worships success—and sadly, church culture has bought into this way of viewing the world. It is as if leadership culture within the church seems to be obsessed with image, success, and results. I cannot help but wonder if we need to develop a better theology of failure?
I would describe the concept of ‘failure’ as being the elephant in the room of ministry. We fear it ever being mentioned, we don't easily acknowledge it ourselves and when we finally experience it, we cover it up because we have failed to develop and provide safe spaces to process it when it happens.
We need to be honest about the realities of ministry and that invariably it will involve failure at some point. The only way to avoid failure in ministry is not to take any risks, and since faith by its nature involves risk, a risk-less ministry to me suggests a faith-less ministry.
God often shows us through failure that we are looking at things superficially, perhaps from a worldly point of view. It is my deepest conviction that we are worth so much more to our heavenly Father than the results we desire within our ministry, and perhaps that is what we need to remind ourselves of.
Facing failure and disappointment as a leader within the church honestly helps us to build resilience, manage expectations and nurture faith and hope in ways which keep our focus on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Allow me to offer some advice from my own ministry failures:
- Don't neglect your friends. God often ministers to our hurts through other people. It can be tempting to put up walls when you’ve failed and are feeling especially vulnerable, but if you shut out friends, you could be sealing off God’s healing and hope.
- Look forward, not back. If your only focus is the rear-view mirror, you will crash – try it next time you drive your car! You need to lift your eyes to the road ahead and leave disappointment behind you. Paul, encourages us to ‘forget the past and looking forward to what lies ahead’ (Philippians 3:13) It is time to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go again.
- Learn from your failure. Failure can build character and patience when we process it correctly. Paul puts it this way: “We can rejoice when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)
From failure we learn what works, and what we can do differently next time and that we are worth more to God than the number of bottoms on seats in our churches. Dealing honestly and appropriately with failure in ministry will enable us to develop more fully as leaders under Christ. Remember, failure is a bruise not a tattoo.