The Haunting of Ministry Failure

When our little church plant closed its doors after five hard years, I remember telling folks it would probably take me a while to get over it. We gave it our all. We never grew, but consistently dwindled. Outreach events reaped no fruit. My wife and I had lost many friends and were spent. I am now a statistic, I thought. I am the percentage they talk about at conferences and church planting workshops. I believe the Spirit prepared me for the church’s demise and gave great comfort as this season in our lives came to an end. However, I was already plagued by a thought that would not be easy to erase: I had failed.

Failure in ministry is generally spoken of in terms of moral failure. We read of the addictions, the affairs, the plagiarism, the misuse of money, and the spiritual abuse in leadership, and we are rightly shaken. However, there are pastors and leaders who commit no moral failure, but perceive that their ministry has failed. This is a different category altogether. What happens when you put your hand to the plow, but the visible outcome of what you do is meager or nonexistent? What does it mean when you pursue your calling, minister with all the strength Jesus supplies, preach the gospel, love people, and it just doesn’t work out? Where did it all go wrong? More precisely, you may ask, What did I do wrong? Wrestling with these questions, my own thoughts grew increasingly dark, leading to the crippling and overwhelming sense of total failure.

The Ghost of Failure 

The sense of failure can haunt you like a ghost in whatever ministry endeavor you pursue. It’s there, always in the background, particularly when we face challenges in a new ministry context. This is just like last time. The same thing is going to happen. You will fail at this also. You are worthless. We begin to hear a voice that does not belong to the Holy Spirit. We hear condemnation instead of You are not condemned (Rom. 8:1). This is undoubtedly the voice of the enemy, and in our lowest moments we are guilty of listening to and believing what we hear from him. We listen and we try to look away as our shortcomings in ministry are waved in front of our eyes mockingly.

This reveals the true failure of those struggling with ministry failure: taking our eyes off the finished work of Christ and turning them inwardly. Experiencing struggles or disappointments in ministry can not only discourage, but can lead a pastor to doubt his calling. Worse, if the haunting persists, he is prone to doubt the love of the one who has called him. No matter what the perceived failure may be, our greatest failure will be exchanging God’s truth for a lie—the lie that we are not loved by him and are unworthy to be in ministry.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians about dealing with past failures:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil. 3:12–16)

Fix Your Eyes on Jesus

If our eyes are turned inwardly, we cannot fix them on the upward call in Christ. Paul had a file folder for past sins, mistakes, and failures labeled “what lies behind.” By the power of the Spirit, his eyes were directed upwards toward Jesus and off himself. Grace overflowed for Paul and empowered him to focus all energy on “what lies ahead.” Fixating on failure prevents us from receiving this glorious grace.

We fail when we cling to all that lies behind. We disobey God when we define ourselves by failure and refuse to press on toward the goal. It goes without saying that our perception of success and failure in ministry is faulty. J. I. Packer describes our ideas of success as “much more self-serving than [we] realize, and the self they serve is a sinful, prideful self.” Pastors tend to evaluate ministry success and failure by what we think we did or did not accomplish. Therefore, we are haunted by that which did not materialize according to our expectations—what we failed to achieve.

Unflinching Fidelity

But a gospel-oriented view of success, as Packer points out, calls for “an unflinching fidelity” to that which the Lord has called us to do. Nothing more. Success must always be measured in terms of faithfulness to the task, Packer rightly argues. This is the call of the gospel. Faithfulness to Jesus is what the Lord desires of us. This is true success. I confess I’m occasionally still haunted. I still retreat inwardly, hear the lie, and my eyes shift from Christ’s past to my past. But he who has called me is faithful, and his grace causes me to repent, strain forward, and cling to him. Over and over, the gospel exposes me for my selfish ideas of success and cuts my self-deprecation in half. In his love, God enables me to lift my eyes from from sin and self that I may behold his Son.

Pastors, forsake the haunting voice of condemnation. Know that you are a failure with whom Jesus is pleased. Forget what lies behind and run with endurance towards the Savior. Press on toward faithfulness. Let those who are mature think this way.

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