When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

Making Sense of Ministry Failure

How should we respond when ministry seems to fail?

Maybe you’ve given everything for a mission that, as far as you can tell, never yielded fruit. Maybe there’s someone in your family to whom you’ve been trying to minister and evangelize your whole life, but he seems to have no care for Christ or his kingdom. You may feel raging anger at the rejection of it all. Or overwhelming sadness at the thought of the eternal consequences. Or perhaps a mixture of both.

Jesus anticipates seeming ministry futility in Matthew 10:5–15, when he sends out his disciples to spread the news of the kingdom of God. He equips them to use all manner of authenticating signs: healing, exorcism, even raising people from the dead. Yet he knows that, despite this evidence, there will be some who do not listen. He gives his disciples another command when they encounter those hard of heart: shake the dust off your sandals, so that it may serve against them in the coming judgment (Matthew 10:14).

Still, that’s not the only scriptural response to the experience of ministry futility. Jesus shows the other when he weeps as he comes into Jerusalem during his triumphal entry (Luke 19:41). Why is he mourning? He was lamenting that the inhabitants of that sacred city would not turn to him, the one who would have loved and protected them as a mother hen does her chicks (Matthew 23:37).

Dust and tears. That seems to be the biblical response to disappointing ministry experiences. While you are in the midst of such turbulent disappointments, you can begin to wonder what it all means. What does it mean about God? What does it mean about you? What does it mean about the future?

What Does This Mean About God?

For many, our first impulse as we lick our wounds from the painful process of ministry disappointment is to wonder if it means something about God. Is he somehow less powerful than we once believed? Does he care less about me than I once believed? Does he care less than I do about the people or person to whom I’ve been ministering?

Our search for answers is understandable. The more we put of our heart into anything, the more painful it is for that thing to come up empty. Vince Lombardi was known for being a stickler about making his teams practice more than others. When asked why, he famously said, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” If that is true for something as minor as football, how much more true is it for something as significant as someone’s immortal soul?

But sometimes we don’t have a choice. God makes it clear that the field we are currently tending is not the field where he would have us to continue to labor. And surrender, especially if one has given up vocation, home, friends, and more, is especially excruciating. Yet disappointment in ministry does not conflict with the character of God revealed in Scripture, but rather confirms what God has already promised in his word: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24–25).

There are no quaint platitudes here. And while that may not dull the pain, it may help to give it meaning. Only the real God, the one who is really there, really omniscient, really caring, really relatable, can make that sort of statement. The reality of it, when it actually comes to pass, may sting. But far from creating a crisis of faith, it should become a plank of reassurance upon which faith can rest.

What Does This Say About Me?

For some, the hurt and anger finds a different target. Rather than asking questions of God, it begins to make accusations of self. We didn’t give the perfect response for why we believe; we chose not to make a big deal of our faith in order to prevent conflict; we focused on the things of the world rather than on the things of God. And all of those incidents create an overwhelming wave of guilt and shame. What does ministry disappointment — or worse yet, failure — mean about me? Does God not love me? Is he angry with me?

Self-focus has its place. And in the aftermath of some sort of ministry disappointment, there is a time and a place to do an honest assessment of our own efforts. God often uses our failures to teach us. These lessons can be a precious gift. Nassim Taleb, in his work Antifragile, says that failure should be seen as the cost of future success. We shouldn’t allow the pain our egos endure when facing our failures to get in the way of learning the lessons we need to learn in order to be more effective in the future.

All of that said, the time for that sort of evaluation probably isn’t in the immediate aftermath of ministry disappointment. There needs to be a time of rest. A time to grieve. A time to be frustrated. A time to take all of those emotions to the Lord and cry out with the psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). And to remember his answer, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

Most of all, it’s a time to steep your soul in the gospel of grace. To listen to Christ as he beckons, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). To be reminded, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16–17).

What Does This Mean for the Future?

I’ve looked into the eyes of men and women who have come off the mission field incredibly hurt and disappointed. We’ve grieved together. We’ve questioned together. We’ve evaluated together. We’ve reveled in the gospel of grace together. But maybe the most difficult part is to once again fan the flame for gospel ministry in their hearts. The experience of putting so much of themselves into ministry — or watching a loved one turn so brazenly away — leaves them feeling wholly inadequate for future ministry.

But here’s the thing: there is no perfect explanation of the gospel. No perfect church plant. No act of self-sacrifice that will guarantee a single person will see Christ more clearly. And if an evangelist of the stature of the apostle Paul — the most effective missionary in the New Testament — felt unworthy and inadequate in his own strength (2 Corinthians 2:16), we should too. But thanks be to God that he, by his grace, can again make us sufficient for what he calls us to, now and in the future (2 Corinthians 3:5–6).

Furthermore, ministry is a high and holy calling, a calling worth the risk even of failure: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Romans 10:14–15).

Bathe in Grace

There are few experiences more devastating to our sense of ministry call and gospel assurance than that of ministry failure. But dear friend, do not forget your first love (Revelation 2:4). Your Lord does not look down upon you with disdain — for no person who has ever tried ministry has ever been free of failure, not even the apostles. Rather, in Christ, your God looks down on you with a smile, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Therefore, bathe your soul in the fountain of grace. It will enliven, excite, and encourage your faith, fanning the flames of joy and courage to once again go out and become a bearer of good news.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.