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Three Lessons from Failure in Ministry

Phoenix Seminary
September 3, 2018

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.


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