Lessons from Failure in Ministry: Part 2

Failures are going to happen. This is a life-reality “no brainer”! Still, we struggle mightily whenever we say or do the wrong thing, make the wrong choice, or pursue the wrong path. One of the most difficult consequences of our failures is how it affects other people. None of us starts off in ministry wanting to hurt people. Yet, inevitably, you can count on the fact that you will experience failure and people will be affected.

But, we take heart! The Scripture has so much to say about failure. The psalmist puts it this way, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). I am especially encouraged by Prov. 24:16: “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” One of the discernible signs of the righteous is their resiliency in failure. If only we could remember that our strengths often play rival to Jesus’ agenda while it is our weaknesses which are his allies. The apostle Paul learned this: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

In the last post, we looked at three lesson we can learn from failure in ministry. So what other lessons can we learn from our failures?

Lesson #4: My family learns to handle failure from my example

We tend to forget that for our spouses and our children, faith and trust in God is “caught” more than “taught.” It’s what they see in us when things are hard that will shape their minds and hearts to far greater degree than what our words alone can do. This is the power of what Moses recorded as our “by the way” teaching that happens in the learning community of our family. Your spouse is watching and learning from you—even on your darkest day. Your children’s view of God and of the Christian faith are being shaped in the midst of the stress and turmoil. Don’t forget your responsibility to point them to God and to submit to him even in the heartbreak.

This doesn’t mean trying to hide things from them, especially from your wife. rather, you can bring your cries of anguish to the One who cares for you and for them. I know this is one of the reasons why so many raw emotions and words from the lips of the saints have been inscripturated for us, cries like “How long, oh Lord!” Remember that you teach your family the true nature of faith when you are in pain as much, if not more than, when you are blissfully happy. Show them what faith in 1 Pet. 5:6–7 looks like by obediently humbling yourself “under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

Lesson #5: Beware of infection in the wounds you receive from others

Jesus knows our hearts so well. He correctly identifies the source of sin in Mark 7:21–22: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Here are all the ways in which we fail to honor the image of God as it exists in us and our neighbor. Much on this dark list comes from the sinful responses we have toward others for whom we have developed negative feelings for one reason or another.

I confess that I as I review this list I can identify sins that took hold of my heart and life because of the bitterness I had from those who, in the course of ministry, kicked me while I was down. In response, in my heart, I returned them the favor, something that Jesus directly addressed (see Matt. 5:21–22). It reminds me of something one of my first mentors in ministry said. “As you grow older in ministry, one of two things will happen,” he said. “You will either sweeten, or you will sour.” It is so true. The gospel provides the remedy to our deepest level of brokenness. In receiving new life and being united to Christ, we have new abilities and desires. Paul instructs us, therefore, to put away the evil practices of the “old self”: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col. 3:8). Consider how liable we are to committing these particular sins when we’ve been hurt by others! Then consider what we are called to “put on” by grace: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12–14).

So, beware the “root of bitterness” (Heb. 12:15). Wash your wounds with the Word and seek forgiveness and healing. Bitterness that festers in the wounds of the heart will lead to poor decisions and reactions, which only spreads more hurt and pain.

Lesson #6: Failures are moments of spiritual vulnerability—for good or for evil

This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. But the issue here centers on the spiritual reality of which Eph. 6:12 reminds us. Our primary foe is not the flesh-and-blood type, but the invisible-and-evil type. In Jesus’ greatest moment of human weakness, his temptations in the desert, Satan drew near to him. He attacked him at a point of vulnerability. You can be sure that our Adversary and his minions will be watching and waiting for just such an opportune time in your life. The admonitions of Eph. 6 are useful especially in such times. Jesus shows us the way to handle these attacks. He fends off the Enemy by clinging to the Word!

Your spiritual integrity will be tested by failure. You will be laid open to Satan’s attack. These are the times when we must run to the Word and desperately cling to every truth, every promise, and every command. The Word is a refuge for us. We must not forget this. David proclaimed about God that “his way is perfect” and that “the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 18:30; compare 2 Sam. 22). Let this be our anthem in failure!

Lesson #7: Failures are all part of God’s sovereign plan and work for his glory

Of all the lessons I have learned in ministry, this lesson is the most repeated. God is sovereign. “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10). No matter what occurs, regardless of the choices made, we can rest assured that God’s plan is going according to plan. We must remember this when we fail. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). Yes, we struggle to reconcile our ability to choose and bear responsibility for those choices with his sovereign and single plan for time and eternity. Yet, the Scripture acknowledges repeatedly (because we forget) that, at the end of the day, his will is done (see Isa. 46:8–10). And this should be a great comfort to us. We are to take refuge in the incomprehensible mystery of the sovereignty of God, especially when things are at their worst in our lives. What greater testament is there to this than Paul’s words in Rom. 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

In the midst of failures, it’s the words “all things” here that comfort me most. “All things” means all things! This includes all my failings and shortcomings. My successes too are part of the “all things.” God is on the throne. We need not fear failures because they are no surprise to our glorious King and Ruler. Knowing this doesn’t mean that we simply shrug off our failures or think that they don’t matter. They do. And that’s the point. Your failures do matter in the same way everything matters. God is in control of every detail, every event, every circumstance, every moment.

As his children by grace, we have been made aware of this by God himself. Why? So that we can trust him more. Trust him! Trust him with your failures. Trust him with your heart. Trust him with the outcome. Trust him with the hurt no one sees. Trust him with the unknown. He is worthy of your trust. Even in your failures, don’t fail to trust him.

About Josh Matteson

Joshua MattesonJosh Matteson is married to Tracey and they have three sons. They live in Phoenix where Josh pastors GraceLife Church. He is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and has pastored in the valley for over 15 years. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.


Three Lessons from Failure in Ministry

We are not as eager to learn from our failures as from our successes. In fact, I would argue that success often (not always!) keeps us from learning anything. But failures have the unique ability to drive us to humility. And this is a very good experience from which those of us who serve in ministry capacities can learn.

My first taste of real failure in ministry came when I was a youth pastor. I had a student in my group that was a leader and an influencer—just not a positive one. My concern was that his parents seemed unaware of their son’s spiritual condition. So, I took it upon myself to help them see it. I met with them and told them of my concern for the state of his heart. I told them that I thought this student’s problem was a “heart issue.” This deeply troubled them, but not in the way I had hoped. Their grief was only that I would think so lowly of their son! And they did not hesitate to air their grievances with the senior pastor.

The failure here was not that I was wrong, and they were right, or vice-versa. The failure I experienced was that I sought them out rather than the student. The only outcome of this approach was a very convenient reason for them to exit our ministry.

I beat myself up for failing. I had thought that perhaps this would have all played out differently if only I had used different words. Maybe I should have approached the student before the parents. Or, better yet, I should have just kept my mouth shut. My heart was in the right place, but I handled the situation all wrong.

Now, as those of us in ministry can testify, we will have a longer list of failures on our resume than successes! But the Gospel calls us to look at our failures in a different light than we would otherwise. Our failures are opportunities to learn, to grow, to reevaluate, to confess, and to share. Consider this: the Bible contains many accounts of failures in the lives of God’s people.

In that spirit, let me humbly suggest the following lessons which my own failures in ministry have taught me. These are the first three of seven that I will share:

Lesson #1: Failures do not define me, Christ does!

We are a success-driven culture. We often assign greater meaning and significance to our victories than our losses. We have names such as “winner” and “loser” for a reason! But in moments of failure, we must fight our tendency to think of ourselves as either a failure or success. When we do that, we end up making success an idol. And this idol is a cruel taskmaster. It will eventually crush me because I will not be able to avoid failure.

Lesson #2: Failures help me test my grasp on the gospel.

Now this is somewhat like the first lesson above. But, the emphasis here is on the opportunity which failures afford me to gauge my own grip on the Gospel truths. These are truths which ought to shape my life, my worldview, indeed everything I do. When I fail, I have an opportunity to see how I process the failure through the grid of the Gospel. How am I processing failure? Am I recognizing that God is still sovereign? That I am finite, fallen, and prone to failure? That He redeems me from even my own catastrophes?

Lesson #3: In the midst of failure, God is speaking too.

God often is saying something to me that is different than what my critics are telling me. This is not to say that we cannot learn from our critics. We certainly can and we should. But I have found in myself a tendency to listen to the voices of my critics rather than the voice of God. The truth is that that my critics are not above missing the mark that God happens to be targeting. So, I have learned that I will not allow a critic’s voice to drown out the still small voice of the Lord in my failures. We should hear our critics out. But then we should seek time with God and ask the Spirit to speak. We may not like what we hear! In fact, God’s critique will often cut deeper than anything our critics can produce. But we are people of the Word. Thus, we affirm that there are no such things as insignificant moments in our lives. Every moment matters. And every event in our life—even failures—are redemptive moments.

About Josh Matteson

Joshua MattesonJosh Matteson is married to Tracey and they have three sons. They live in Phoenix where Josh pastors GraceLife Church. He is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and has pastored in the valley for over 15 years. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.