5 Truths About Disappointment That Will Strengthen Your Ministry

“Disappointments are learning-experiences that are just that—experiences to learn from, not anchors to sink you.”

When I meet other pastors, I love asking them questions. And, I’ll admit, my favorite questions are for pastors who are older than myself and have more experience than I do. I feel it’s important for pastors from diverse backgrounds and generations to connect.

It’s from this heart that, a few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the generational differences in pastors. To me, why shouldn’t I glean from someone who is not only on a similar journey as me but has been through experiences on that journey that I could learn from?

And my first question is always the same:

”If you can go back to 41 years old in ministry, what is one thing you would tell yourself?”

I thirst for that kind of perspective. I want an “iron sharpening iron” moment. And one recent Sunday night was another moment for me.

After an evening prayer service at Kfirst, I met the father of one of our attendees. He’s a pastor named Dan from a town about 30 miles away. And when Madeline introduced her father to me and said that he was a pastor, the question came out of my mouth: “If you can go back to 41 years old in ministry, what is one thing you would tell yourself?” He pondered for just a few seconds, and then he said three words:

“Beware of disappointments.”

These three words consumed my mind for the next 48 hours. I’ve talked with my wife about them. The following Monday at Northpoint Bible College, I brought it up to a bunch of pastors I ran in to. What a simple yet extremely deep thought to a very open question.

I want you to note: He didn’t say keep yourself from disappointments; just have an awareness of them.

There’s a big difference.

I don’t think it’s humanly possible to live, let alone pastor, without experiencing disappointments. People disappoint me. My wife disappoints me. The Detroit Lions disappoint me. I disappoint me. If I were really honest with you, I’ve even been disappointed in God (this usually happens when God hasn’t done what I think he should do).

[When ministry knocks you down, how to get back up.]

Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I were wrapping up a marriage seminar with some Q&A from the crowd, and the question came up: “How do I avoid disappointments?” My answer was simple: “It’s impossible.” Why? You can’t keep yourself from experiencing disappointment, but you can guard your heart during disappointment.

Disappointments are not always the results of sin, but often a natural experience in our human journey. I’m not trying to develop a pessimistic perspective but a hopeful attitude and fruitful viewpoint of navigating through them.

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And it begins with what Solomon writes in Proverbs 4:23: “Guard your heart.” The heart, in Hebrew writings, wasn’t the place of emotions, but the seat of the mind and will. In today’s vernacular, we’d say, “Guard and protect your thoughts.” So the question really is: How do we, as pastors, protect our thoughts through this very normal human experience?

Here are five truths that will help you guard your heart.

1. Disappointments ≠ Failure

First off, failure is disappointing. I can’t say I enjoy failure and look forward to the next one. But not all disappointments equate to a failure on your part.

I meet far too many pastors who immediately connect a disappointment to a personal failure. Actually, I’m one of those pastors. Sometimes our unrealistic expectations set us up for the fall. Other times, our definition of “success” needs to be redefined so that we can see the “win” in what we accomplished instead of being blinded by the disappointment we just experienced.

2. Disappointment can be a very good thing.

One of the best ways to guard our hearts during disappointment is to learn a perspective of disappointment. Instead of looking to beat yourself up with self-hate or self-loathing, step into a place where you’re looking to learn.

Every disappointment I engage in is an invitation to grow. Whether it’s personal or pastoral, having a healthy approach and asking, “How can I grow?” isn’t shrugging off the issue, or making light of it, but looking to process and engage it appropriately.

3. Closed doors help direct our focus and vision.

I don’t know about you, but “closed doors” in my life have been hugely disappointing. Whether it’s something I wanted to do or a ministry I wanted to launch, I get very headstrong about what I want to do. But I’ve learned over the past few years that every closed door I experience fine-tunes my vision. It helps me to see and hear how God is directing me.

[Three keys to getting through dry seasons in ministry.]

Early in ministry, I spent so much time beating on doors that God had closed that I didn’t see the ones he was opening up. I can get so tunnel-visioned that, at times, it takes a closed door to get me to stop pursuing something that isn’t the best or healthiest way to go.

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4. You can close the gap.

It’s said that the gap between expectation and experience is disappointment. Though I believe disappointment is an inevitable experience, I find that it is possible to lessen the depths of it by effective communication. Communication both articulates what is on your heart while guarding against the frustration that can stem from ignorance.

The best way to close the gap is to effectively communicate expectation as well as develop realistic experiences. It may sound overly obvious, but clearly communicated expectations help pave the way for great experiences with little to no disappointment. And the place that we need to evaluate is the clarity of our communication. As I say so often to young couples, “Just because you talk a lot doesn’t mean you clearly communicate.”

5. You must use the right measuring tape.

It’s so easy for me to measure my own success by something called “comparison.” I’ve spent so much time seeding disappointment in my own spirit because, no matter how much the church has grown, I am still looking at other pastors and other ministries that much more “successful”—and constantly seeding disappointment in my spirit.

I have to constantly remind myself: Comparison is the thief of joy. It will seed envy in my spirit and birth discouragement in my life. I believe in evaluating yourself and ministry. I believe in personal and ministerial growth. I want mentors to speak into me. But if my measure of success comes from comparing to others, I’m not looking to grow the kingdom but to feed my own pride.

Pastor Dan’s three simple words stirred me. Why? Because the fear of disappointment ruled my mind for my first seven or eight years of ministry. I didn’t want to disappoint my wife, my parents, my church and, most importantly, God. Fear of disappointment strangled the breath I needed to inhale the faith, hope and joy the Holy Spirit desired for me to experience. It’s for that reason Paul wrote to a young pastor these words:

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

Beware of disappointment. Disappointments are learning experiences that are just that—experiences to learn from, not anchors to sink you.

Dave Barringer (@PDBarringer) is the lead pastor at Kalamazoo First Assembly of God in Portage, Michigan. He blogs about pastoring and marriage at PDave.me.