Overcome the Disappointment of Ministry

Here is the temptation for all ministers: We listen so intently to …

the inner voice of the church,

the angry voice of parishioners,

the painful voice of hurting people,

the empty voice of bureaucracy,

the distant voice of uncertainties,

the unheard voice of unrecognized people…

We listen so intently to the voices of others, that we forget the sound of our own inner voice. “Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a lonely place where he prayed” (Mark 1:15). When, where, and how do you listen to your inner voice from God? These are common questions and concerns. Perhaps there is a more significant question: Why do you listen for the inner voice, the voice of God?

We believe that if we could escape the demands and the confusion we would be better at listening, we would be more spiritual. However, spirituality is not escape. Spirituality is an invitation into life, full life in Christ with all the joys, troubles, ease, and burdens of daily existence. Listening keeps us alive. One of my favorite quotes is from Howard Thurman:

Don’t do what the world needs you to do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that,
for what the world needs is you alive.

I love the quote, but I especially love the practicality of it. Try this: replace the word “world” with the word “church.”

Don’t do what the Church needs you to do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that, because…

…the Church needs you, vitally alive in your spirit
…the Church needs you, filled with well-being in body, mind, and soul
…the Church needs you, healthy in relationships at home and at church
…the Church needs you, developing personally and professionally
…the Church needs you, filly alive in the Spirit of Christ Jesus.

Let me share a story of a pastor, who was also a friend and student who was in the doctor of ministry program I directed some years ago. He sent me a letter stating he was going to drop out of the program, “I have no passion for it anymore.” I asked him to come and see me before he made his final decision. He agreed, which was quite a sacrifice because it was a four hour drive from his home to the school.

My purpose was to provide a safe place. Over lunch he unburdened his soul. It was a sad tale of church politics, stubborn ways, and broken promises. My friend, like many ministers, was tired, angry, and fearful. This was his calling and carrier; it was crashing around him. Leaders in the denomination who could help him ignored his pain. Those he served in his parish were hurting him at every decision. He was in a disappointing mess.

He reached the end of the lament and we sat in silence for a moment. I had such deep identification with the situation. My heart flooded with empathy. Yet, I felt an inner nudge to ask a question, a rather pointed question, “What is it about this disappointing mess that is significant to you?”

He accepted the question as a reasonable request and answered with utter authenticity, “Dr. Parrott, there’s more to me than this mess and there is more to ministry than this mess.”

Building on his answer, I pushed a little deeper, “What is in that phrase ‘something more’ that is significant to you?”

With that question, something sparked and I could see the fire that jumped into his eyes. He declared with renewed conviction, “I am a partner with Jesus Christ.” He pushed himself back into his chair, sat up straight and continued, “I am passionate about Jesus.” Could this be the same pastor who wrote, “I have no passion left.”

I pushed once more, “What is it about being a passionate partner with Jesus that is important to you?”

Out of his heart spilled all the possibilities of ministry, the challenge to make a difference, the vision of Christ working in him and through him. We rejoiced together at rediscovered passion. Then, I pushed one last time as I put a hand on each side of the table and said, “Here, on this side, is the disappointing mess of ministry and here, on the other side is the passionate possibility in Christ.” I placed my finger on the spot in between the two, looked him right in the eye and asked, “What is it about living right here that is significant to you.”

He drew a deep breath and went, “That’s where I have to find God, isn’t it?”

“That’s where God will find you” I responded, “and that’s your doctoral project. I know you came to drop out and you may choose to never finish the doctoral program, but this challenge we have discussed, this is your project for the rest of your life and ministry: being alive in Christ as you minister between the disappointments and the possibilities.”

Fast forward two years. I was sitting at one end of the conference table. My friend, now a doctoral candidate, is seated at the other end of the table with seminary facility on both sides. He was defending his dissertation entitled Overcoming Disappointment in Ministry.

This was his project: He interviewed pastors who were in the midst of disappointments and pastors who had overcome disappointment. This is what he discovered about pastors who overcome the disappointments of ministry:

  1. The pastors who overcome disappointment have a regular pattern of spiritual discipline. They pray, retreat, find support from other ministers, and care for their souls.
  2. The pastors who overcome disappointment have a pattern of self care. In addition to soul-care, care for physical needs. They exercise, eat properly, and take time off.
  3. The pastors who overcome disappointment have a support group that is outside the church. It is a group where they are not the pastor.

Ministry is always a mixture of disappointment and possibility. You receive blows from hardened parishioners as well as experience the rushing wind of the Spirit. You rejoice with those who find new life and cry over those who refuse the vitality of God’s presence. You regret your own mistakes and poor judgment and bow in amazement when God uses you despite your own weakness and folly. However, beneath all you do in and for the ministry, the essential priority is to remain fully alive in Christ. This is your primary task as God’s called one.

Don’t do what the church needs you to you do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that,
because what the church needs is you full of life in Christ Jesus.

Copyright © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.

9 Replies to “Overcome the Disappointment of Ministry”

  1. Dr. Parrott, I really needed to hear this and appreciate you sending me the link. So often in miistry we get caught up in the day to day struggle and since Satan so often ends his favorite sons discouragement and frustation right into our very midst, we forget that the things that God made us passionate about and excited about are the very things that strengthen us and the church herself. We look up time and again and are filled with disappointment when so many of our projects and attemps at new ministry end in failure that it gets hard to get back up and get going again. Not to mention those in our body who stand firm on what they think know, never allowing new and fresh ideas to step over their personal thresholds and now seek to block us as we pursue our highest calling. Indeed these can be days of great anxt and humiliation. Sapped of joy with no end in sight we forget to seek God and the peace and renewal He promisies in His presence. I know in my time, currently in youth ministry I feel like I am just hitting my head on a brick wall. So often dreams and aspirations go awry and are shot down, by both parents, church members and even at time our Lead Pastor that all I want to do is run and not look back. I have had a friend who in his years and wisdom counseled me that as we get older we stop takingrisks because the fight just isn’t in us like it used to be. After reading your article I am reminded that we will always be in that tension, always be hounded by the dogs of dispair and discomfort, but I am encouraged again, remembering that what the church truly needs is me alive and doing what I am called to do,passionately pursuing that call. Nancy Ortberg explains in her book, “Unleashing the Power of Rubberbands,” When we lead with passion, it inspires others and pulles people into our movement.” There will always be times of disappointment and disilusionment, there will always be those who are standing by poised to throw stones with zealand minimal provocation, but there will also always be Christ and His call in our lives. Armed with those thoughts how can I possibly do anything less that learn from failues and disappointments and then continue striving toward new possibilities.
    Many Blessings my friend, and thank you!

  2. Excellent post, Richard. I hope it will be read widely, because disappointment and disillusionment in ministry is still the norm rather than the exception.

    I was grateful that I completed my program before my difficult time arrived. Indeed, I suppose my studies probably helped me prepare for it. But the pastor to whom you referred in the post should turn his project into a book, and it should be required reading for everyone in church leadership. Keep up the good work, brother.

  3. Richard, This is excellent, as always. It’s something I needed to read during some difficult days in my life as a woman in a leadership position. I believe it will be especially helpful to female pastors, as they hear lying voices of discouragement with an even different flavor than their male counterparts.

  4. Loved your post- your points on staying alive are insightful and wise. Wish I could introduce you to some of the pastors in my city who are a great encouragement to me. Thanks for your article!

  5. Richard,

    As always, great insights. God is using you in a tremendous way. While this post is intended for pastors and the ‘church’ is being substituted for ‘world’, your message is applicable to everyone in a position of leadership. Thank you very much for continuing to pursue your passion – and for sharing your gift with the rest of us. I hope you and Shirley are well. All the best! God bless.

  6. It is good my brother. I also understand the issue having faced it myself and knowing others who left the ministry. Sometimes it is easy for us as humans to lose sight of the purpose of our calling and ministry, the source and most important part which is our relationship with the Lord and doing that which is pleasing to Him rather than what is leasing to people. I have learned the truth in the saying, you can only ‘please some people some of the time’ but you cannot hope to please all of the people… at any time because of the nature of man. So, the question is who do we serve, who are we living for and for who do we do what we do. It is encouraging to get an ocassional ‘thank you, that blesed me’ or other complement of our efforts, but we must understand that no matter what, our ultimate purpose is to stand for and in the truth given to us by our Lord and not put our trust, hope or other in man ow whether or not they accept what we speak for the Lord. Our only responsibility is to deliver that which we are given, no for the response of others. We don’t convict or convince anyone, only the Holy Spriit can do that.
    We can only find true satisfaction in who we are in Him and what He has done in and for us. We can only find that peace and joy in our relationship with Hm. If we give men the power to make us happy, we also have given them the power to make us sad, mad or any other emotion. It is a challenge to learn to live not in our emotions, but in spite of them; following the leading of the spirit within us and finding satisfaction in knowing we have done and obeyed the request of our Lord.
    God bless you in your endeavor. There are many others in need of encouragement and support and someone to give them a little direction, pointing them in the right way by helping them find the answers that are probably already within them.
    I can vouch for the points made in you post. I know what it is to be left alone with no support and many enemies. Some years ago within one year, all my close ministry friends and my own pastor and mentor died and the enemy knew where to attack to hurt the most in an effort to destroy me and my calling. We all need someone to share with, talk too and to encourage and pray with us. That is why Solomon told us two are better than one Ecc.4:8-10. He that stands alone stands in a dangerous position.
    Blessings, .

  7. This is such a powerful and necessary message. There are so many people in ministry who are trying to “do it” alone and when they realize that they cannot, it is, often times, too late. When we attempt to do ministry under our own power, we loosen our grip on God and we drift away until we find ourselves in trouble. As always, you have been able to make your point clearly and distinctly. Now, how do we get this message out to people struggling in ministry?

  8. I stumbled upon your blog with the internet search “angry parishioners destroy” and am in such need of this entry. I have a parish meeting tomorrow which I am dreading and from there will go straight to the home of a parishioner whose husband died yesterday. We will be planning the funeral. That pastoral work is my passion. I have allowed a handful of very angry, bitter people tear me apart for months but I need to go away somewhere quiet and pray. Hard for a priest in two parishes with a little boy and domestic responsibilities but not impossible for the Holy Spirit. Thank you for this entry and I look forward to reading more.

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