It’s a problem as people face marriage. It’s a problem as people think about the workplace. It’s a problem as couples anticipate the birth of their first child. It’s a problem as we think about our friendships. And yes, it’s a problem as pastors think about their life in the church. What is this problem? Unrealistic expectations. I am convinced we have them because, at street level, we don’t take seriously what the Bible has to say about the condition of this world. Sin has cast this world into trouble. You see the smoke and dirt of this trouble spread throughout the pages of Scripture.
There’s no escaping it: this world isn’t functioning as it was designed to. The Bible warns us that we’re living in a world literally groaning, waiting for redemption (see Romans 8:18ff). We live in a world with disease and death, neither one of which was part of the initial plan. We live in a world of deceit and disappointment, neither one a part of God’s original intention. We live in a world of rebellion and sin, neither a part of the “good” that God created. We live in a world of suffering and loss, both so far from God’s plan. We live in a world of violence and war, surely not the handiwork of the Prince of Peace. We live in a world where lust and greed motivate hearts, not what God intended the heart to do. We live in a world where all of these things touch all of our lives and complicate our ministries. No relationship is free of disappointment. No institution, including the church, is totally free of sin and corruption. No location is free of difficulty. No moment in our lives or ministries exists untouched by the Fall.
Caught Short and Unprepared
Why is this so important to acknowledge? We have not taken seriously what the Bible says about the fallen world. Here’s what I’ve often seen as I’ve worked with struggling pastors. Because of unrealistic ministry expectations, they don’t prepare well for the difficulties of building a healthy, God-honoring community of faith. Consequently, they are caught short and unprepared, as sin within and difficulty without rear their ugly heads in the life of their church. This causes them to react rather than act carefully. In the end they are not only suffering the troubles of ministry in this fallen world, but also they are suffering the fact that, in their surprise and disappointment, they have troubled their own trouble.
As I’ve worked with churches, I’ve seen how all of this sets up a tendency for the pastor and his leaders to play to one another’s weaknesses instead of their strengths. Instead of preparing themselves with the wisdom principles of God’s Word and seeking the enabling power of God’s grace, they sadly learn how to be politically strategic and personally protective. God’s Word is very honest about how broken the world we live in actually is. This honesty is meant by God to lovingly help us to be aware and prepared as we live and minister with one another between the already and the not yet, waiting for the ultimate restoration of everything.
But there’s something else. Unrealistic expectations cause each of us, even those of us in ministry, to live more independently and self-sufficiently than we ever should. In reality, every pastor is yet in need of daily rescuing, forgiving, and empowering grace. We need that grace because every pastor is a person in the middle of his sanctification, and therefore, not yet free from the presence and power of sin. This means that, moment by moment, those of us in ministry still need to be rescued from us!
Trouble Will Come
We also need the grace of God so that we’ll be able to love the weak and failing people whom we’re always called to love and minister with and to. But there’s something else here. The Word of God is intended to be a “lamp to our feet and a light to our path” (Ps. 119:105). We’ll only live and minister properly in this broken world when we’re being guided and protected by the light of biblical wisdom. Even those who would call ourselves life-long students of the Bible can live unaware of how profound our need is and how broken our world is. When we forget, we don’t daily hunger for the practical ministry rescue and guidance of God’s Word. So we may not recognize we’re left to our own foolishness, and we respond to things in a way that only deepens and complicates the troubles that we’re already dealing with in the messiness of ministry in the local church.
You can be sure of this in your ministry: your day of trouble will come. Yet in your trouble God hasn’t left you alone. What is it that he gives you in your trouble? He gives you himself! He is what will keep you safe. Hear the reassuring words of Psalm 27:5:“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble.” He is near, and he comes to you armed with transforming grace and liberating wisdom. But it’s vital that you live with eyes and heart open to what Scripture says to you about you and the community of faith. If you do, you’ll live in a way that’s humble and needy, seeking the grace and wisdom that you so desperately need and that God so willingly and lovingly gives. Be realistic. Remember, there’s amazing grace for every realistic thing, in your life and ministry, you’ll be called to face.