Not a Failure
It was Sunday afternoon and the football game was on television. I tried to dismiss the pain in my chest but it kept getting worse. I called the nurse whose mission was to care for her pastor’s health, and she told me to get to the ER immediately. I was ushered right in and given a nitro pill. It is a day that my wife never wants to re-live.
The ER doctor had scheduled all the standard tests. I did so well on the stress test that the nurses had to work me harder to get my heart level high enough for the test to work, which they said was unusual. Needless to say, I passed all the tests. The Doctor came in and said, “You clearly don’t have a problem with your heart. The only other option is that you have stuff going on in your life that has caused this and whatever that is needs fixed.”
I was pastoring two churches. One was doing well and the other was not. In fact, the other was doing so poorly that I feared it would have to close. After leading that congregation for 18 months we closed the doors of that church and I placed myself in the category of “failure.”
For the next year, every time I passed the exit where that church was located I would get sick to my stomach. Over time the pain passed but the label of “failure” remained ingrained in me. Don’t get me wrong, I talked the right talk and knew all the right things to say to my colleagues but when you label yourself a “failure,” the talk is all smoke and mirrors.
Recently, I saw a document that contained my pastoral record and on that paper was that place. That “failure” is a permanent part of my record. I have learned a bit since that time and I hope what I share might soften some of the pain you might feel in your sense of failure. What did I learn?
Feelings of failure make God’s story hard to comprehend
Looking back on that situation allows me to now see that the closure of that congregation was in the heart of God’s will for that community of faith. Those good people relocated to other churches where healing could be found. The property was taken over by another growing church in that town. That which made the place dysfunctional was removed.
The story of God is hard to see when you feel like a failure. Recently I heard a pastor encourage those at a conference not to judge the story of God based on the scene you are currently in. He referenced the dream that God gave Joseph and if the scene is the bottom of a well, a painful accusation or a prison cell, you might give up on the story. The failure you feel you have become may be a scene in your life but it is not the story of your life.
Feelings of failure always speak loudly
God blessed me with a few people who were further along in the pastoral journey than me who experienced their own failure, knew what I was going through and tried to help. My voice of failure spoke so loudly that I was in reputation rescue mode so I dismissed their advice and words of encouragement.
Interestingly, the voice of the Holy Spirit was speaking through those wounded and healed pastors but I was so concerned with my reputation that I was deaf to their wisdom and attempts to help. If you have experienced failure you need to decide who and what you will listen to. In general, listen to the softer voice because it is probably the Lord trying to speak into your wounded heart and mind.
View Biblical characters with an honest lens.
Our tendency is to idolize Bible characters when the reality is that they had their own failures. I recently read about King David (2 Samuel 19) and his calling the Kingdom to mourn over the death of his son Absalom when it was Absalom who was trying to kill them all, including David. Everyone in the kingdom thought David had lost his mind and one trusted leader had the courage to tell him so. In that case, everyone but King David had a clue. That is a failure of leadership in a grand scale!
If a leader as loved by God and his people as King David can fail big and recover, maybe we need to consider that our leadership failures are not as destructive to our calling as we convince ourselves they are. Looking into God’s word gives us a clearer picture of what God does with failure of all kinds. This should not lead us to conclude that ministerial recklessness is acceptable. However, this should lead us to grace. Speaking of which…
Most people are filled with grace.
I have found that most people in life are gracious people. Yes, some have sought out the destruction of pastors. However, I am sure our congregants have met some pretty rough pastors too. By and large I think most of us want to receive grace and know that it is in being people of grace that we find grace.
Try not to project judgment into people who want to extend grace to you. I hesitate to publish this blog because of my tendency to want to control the narrative of my life. However, my life isn’t without failure and God works powerfully through our failures.
Our fear of what people think can drive us to some crazy conclusions. Trust me, I know this all too well. I am now convinced that most people want to be people of grace. Convince yourself of this truth early and often.
You may have experienced some failure…recently and painfully. You don’t have to be known by or defined by your failure. You can, however, decide to allow the Holy Spirit to shape you by it. Just as Jesus was prepared for the cross in the garden, so too we are prepared and shaped by events now that have God’s plan for the future in mind. Since we can’t see that future, we can choose to trust his shaping today even when we don’t know its purpose.
God believes in you and will work through these moments to bring you fully into His purpose for your life. Yes, you may have failed. No, you are not a failure. You have learned and been shaped by grace. Lean into Him today and trust in His plan for your life. You, my friend, are not a failure.