I wrote this post in March, reflecting on the last few years of ministry disappointments. It felt a bit fresh to post at the time, so I’m sharing it now.
When my church plant folded in mid-2014 I was super excited to get back to church-based work. The times I have felt most in my element were when I was running a youth ministry. So while I was disappointed that the church plant we’d been working towards for so many years had failed, I was keen to just get back to doing what I knew best and doing it better than I’d done before. I took a new job, moved cities, and I got stuck into being a youth pastor, the thing I had been so keen to do. Now it’s two and a half years later, that ministry role did not go the way I’d hoped, I’m back in Sydney and I’m doing the job I did before I left – working for a para-church organisation. It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.
When the church plant folded, I learnt a lot. I learnt about failure and the way it can give life in ways that success cannot. I was forced to acknowledge the fact that my value is not defined by my achievements, that my identity is found in Jesus. I thought a lot about making hard choices, and how we’re called to faithfulness not success.
And then I got on with ministry. I felt like “I’ve had my failure now, it’s time to apply all I’ve learnt and start winning at ministry”. I never really considered that I might only be half-way through a failure double header! (I guess, actually, it might not be over even now, I might only be a third of the way through a failure trifecta. I might be at the very beginning of years and years of failure. I might be a less talented M. Night Shyamalan of the youth ministry world. My brief period of success might be quickly fading into the distant past, never to return. That said, I really hope M. Night starts making great films again.)
Failure has a good way of forcing self-examination that we might otherwise avoid. When we succeed, we often just assume that we’re awesome. We rarely ask “Why did I succeed? Was it me? Was it a fluke? Was it the perfect combination of people, place and time?” Actually, I suspect that some successful people do ask those questions and then they keep getting better, but people like me, the people who don’t get interviewed in leadership podcasts, we only tend to ask questions when we fail. So I’ve been asking myself questions like “Why did it all go wrong? Am I rubbish at ministry? Am I doomed to fail for the rest of my life?” One failure is ok, but two might be the beginning of a pattern.
However, if the lessons I learnt through the church plant folding were worth learning then, there’s no reason to think they’re not worth considering again now. If God calls us to faithfulness over success, then the the most important question is not “Why did I fail?” but “Was I faithful?” Love and faithfulness are more important than competency. So while it is helpful to ask what I could have done better, I really need to ask “could I have obeyed God better?” “Could I have loved Jesus and others better?” “Was I acting out of God’s strength or mine?” If I can honestly answer that I was faithful, then the rest is secondary.
Failure hurts, but faithlessness should hurt more.
Likewise, the most important questions to ask in situations of success should be, “Am I being faithful?” “Am I loving God?” “Am I loving others?’ “Am I acting out of obedience and dependence, or my own supposed sufficiency?”
Success is wonderful, but it should be nothing but bitterness if it is achieved without God.
When I reflect on the last few years, I’m sure I didn’t get everything right, but I also know I sought to be faithful. There are plenty of questions to be asked and answers to be sought, and I’m sure these will continue for months, if not years. I don’t know how much I achieved, if anything, I don’t know why God called me to the role or if in fact he did, I don’t know if I could have done something different so that it all would have ended better, and I may never know the answers to these questions. But if I was faithful, that’ll be enough for now.