When the pastor feels like a failure

“For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18).

“Did I fail?”

Every man or woman who ministers in the Kingdom of God is immediately struck by two great realities:  The perfection of God (and thus the desire to present to Him worthy offerings of worship and service) and the imperfection of mankind (meaning anything we offer Him will be flawed, even at its best).

As a result, we are often tormented with feelings of inadequacy and hounded by the sensation that our efforts have not been enough, our devotion has been too weak, and our ministries a far cry from what we had hoped.

“I feel like a failure.”

Those words and that feeling are voiced not just by those who literally are failures. Some of the (outwardly) most successful pastors and spiritual leaders on the planet deal with the same sense of futility.

“It’s never enough.”

–We leave church on Sunday knowing that the sermon we delivered was nowhere near as wonderful as the one we received from the Lord in our study. What happened between the study and the pulpit?

–The vision we had for our church soon ran into the reality of a thousand foes: our own self-doubt, the skepticism of certain members, the honest inquiry of our friends and supporters, and the ongoing needs of the congregation.  This project started out to be far better than it turned out. What happened?

We were laboring, planting seed and cultivating, and expecting our efforts to produce a banner crop.  When little fruit appeared, we naturally felt that we have been the reason.

We have failed.

Here is our best counsel to the hard-working laborers in the Lord’s field who find the reality at weighing-in time to be less than they ever envisioned when they headed into the field at the beginning of the day….

1) “You have been in the ministry long enough to know you can do everything right, but there are still a hundred and one other factors that influence the result.”

We do our best and leave the rest with the Lord.

2) “You have been faithful. That’s all that is required.

“Moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (I Corinthians 4:2).

3) “Some seeds take years to produce. Continue waiting before the Lord and see what He’s up to.”

“Be not weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap–if we don’t quit!” (Galatians 6:9).

4) You are not your own judge.

As Paul said (in our text above), even if you give yourself a passing grade, it’s meaningless.  The “Grader” is the Lord and no one else. “To his own master (a servant) stands or falls” (Romans 14:4).

It would be comical if it were not so sad the way God’s preachers rush to and fro seeking approval from one another.  I’ve known of pastors starting colleges in order to award their friends honorary doctorates with the expectation that the favor would be reciprocated.

When I was 40 years old and serving as a trustee of one of our denomination’s pre-eminent ministries, I saw that my family and my church needed more from me than I was giving.  So, I refused a second four-year-term in order to stay home.  I reasoned, “When a minister dies, no one cares what boards he served on. What matters will be his family and the churches he led.”

A few years later, I sat in the sanctuary of a large church for a funeral of a man who had pastored for many years and then moved on to denominational positions. As they recited the many boards and agencies, committees and commissions, the deceased had served on, I glanced around the room.  Everyone was bored. No one seemed to care.  Now, I’m a big boy, and I know a) someone had to lead these works and b) we do them for the Lord and not for public acclaim.  But it confirmed to me that what matters most to a father and a pastor are the major assignments the Lord hands him. For me, that was leading my family and my church.

Let the pastor be faithful where God has assigned him (or her). Paul told Timothy, “Fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).

Some pastors spend too much time on the golf course, reading novels, working on their farms, pursuing their favorite hobby, watching television, playing on the computer, or a thousand other diversions that may not be bad in themselves in moderation, but which sap their energies and dull their brains and interfere with the work God gave them to do.

Let the pastor repent.

Let him (or her, as the case may be) pull aside with the Lord for a time of confession, cleansing, and redirection.  Let the pastor pray to be reassigned to the Lord’s calling. Then, let him get up and go to work.

Should he confess to the church? Probably not.  Just tell the Lord and seek His guidance and blessing. Then let him rearrange his schedule, get the support of his spouse and one or two co-workers, and get on with it.

His ministry time may be evenly divided between sermon study, administration, and personal ministry. (The last means simply to get out of the office and touch lives for Jesus!)

Should the pastor tell other ministers about this change? Not for a year.  He should show the Lord, the church, and himself he is serious about this redirection before telling others.  Then, when he does share it, he will want to ask the Lord when and how.

Keep telling yourself, pastor, that you are “more than a conqueror through Him who loved us.”  You can get this right.

One final thing.  Guard against the perfectionistic ideal which keeps insisting that nothing you do is acceptable since it is imperfect. That standard, which appears so noble on the surface, is your worst enemy.

Keep Psalm 103:14 before you. “He Himself knows our frame. He is mindful that we are but dust.”  God is under no illusions about you and me.  Were He expecting perfection from any of us, He would have given up in disgust a long time ago.  He knows He got no bargain when He saved us. When we sin, the only one surprised is us.

But serve Him anyway.  He is a God of grace and mercy.  Every day of your life, give thanks for that!

8 thoughts on “When the pastor feels like a failure

  1. James-Cheri Tew I had a very good lesson taught to me about 5 years ago from someone I would have never expected to teach ME! My husband had been teaching Chuck Colson’s book, “How Now Shall We Live” and week after week a lady would slip into the class and sit on the back row. She was there because she had recently been arrested and needed community service hours. She contacted the church and they told her she could wash dishes after our Wednesday night dinners. Anyhow, she got SAVED from sitting on the back row of the class! She had been a Christian for about a year and I made a huge mistake while ministering to her family. While my “intentions” were good, I acted on impulse and what I did was WRONG. After the incident I got half way home and decided to go back, tell her how sorry I was, and how wrong that was of me. My heart was pumping out of my chest. I thought….”I am such a terrible example, etc” As I stood in front of her fumbling on all my words, shaking in my voice and began apologizing and saying how wrong I was, she said something I will never forget. She looked and said, “I understand that you are really upset with yourself and I love you and James (my husband) and how perfect you two try to be, but GOD ISN’T as UPTIGHT AS YOU TWO THINK HE IS and I want you to stop being so hard on yourself!” I stood in front of a lady that I always thought I was going to be teaching and began crying as we embraced. I walked away lighter and even laughed at how uptight I must appear to others and then I thanked God for the lesson she taught me. I go back to that day over and over and sometimes even have to say out loud, “God isn’t as UPTIGHT as you think He is, so lighten up!”

  2. Oh the trouble we have built into us when we are taught to be perfectionists! I am still working on breaking my bad habits with this! Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. This is a great word, Joe. Anyone worth his salt wants to see results but God gives the increase in His timing. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for this encouraging word. In case you didn’t know, this is the first search result that comes up under “pastor failure,” and reading this from a Pastor I had the privilege of meeting several times was just the encouragement I needed.

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