When the Pastor Feels Like a Failure

“For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18).

“Did I fail?”

Every man or woman who ministers in the Kingdom of God is immediately struck by two great realities:  The perfection of God (and thus the desire to present to Him worthy offerings of worship and service) and the imperfection of mankind (meaning anything we offer Him will be flawed, even at its best).

As a result, we are often tormented with feelings of inadequacy and hounded by the knowledge that our efforts have not been enough, our devotion has been too weak, and our ministries a far cry from what we had hoped.

“I feel like a failure.”

Those words and that feeling are voiced not just by those who literally are failures. Some of the (outwardly) most successful pastors and spiritual leaders on the planet deal with the same sense of futility.

“It’s never enough.”

–We leave church on Sunday knowing that the sermon we delivered was nowhere near as wonderful as the one we received from the Lord in our study. What happened between the study and the pulpit?

–The vision we had for our church soon ran into the reality of a thousand foes: our own self-doubt, the skepticism of certain members, the honest inquiry of our friends and supporters, and the ongoing needs of the congregation.  This project started out to be far better than it turned out. What happened?

We were laboring, planting seed and cultivating, and expecting our efforts to produce a banner crop.  When little fruit appeared, we naturally felt that we have been the reason.

We have failed.

Here is our best counsel to the hard-working laborers in the Lord’s field who find the reality at weighing-in time to be less than they ever envisioned when they headed into the field at the beginning of the day….

1) “You have been in the ministry long enough to know you can do everything by the book, but there are still a hundred and one other factors that influence the result.”

Whether you are Billy Graham, Corrie ten Boom, or named Joe, we all live by one overriding reality:  We do our best and leave the rest with the Lord.

2) “You have been faithful. Nothing more is required.

“Moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (I Corinthians 4:2).  “Let her alone,” said our Lord, “she hath done what she could” (Mark 14:8). He asks nothing more.

3) “Some seeds take years to produce. Continue waiting before the Lord and see what He’s up to.”

“Be not weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap–if we don’t quit!” (Galatians 6:9).

“In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand. For thou knowest not which shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they shall both alike be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).  I love this.  Do not judge the soil, just sow the seed.  Do not wait until all the conditions are right; just go to it.

4) You are not your own judge.

As Paul said (in our text above), even if you give yourself a passing grade, it’s meaningless.  The “Grader” is the Lord and no one else. “To his own master (a servant) stands or falls” (Romans 14:4).

It would be comical if it were not so sad the way God’s preachers rush about seeking approval from one another.  Some have started colleges in order to award their friends honorary doctorates with the expectation that the favor would be reciprocated. (I tell pastor search teams not to be overly impressed by the doctorates preachers are wearing these days. There is a glut on the market.)

I was a young pastor and serving as a trustee of one of our denomination’s agencies. Meanwhile, my family and my church were needing more from me than I was giving.   One day something occurred to me. When a pastor dies, no one cares what boards he served on and what honors he received.  Two things will matter most: the love of  his family and the impact he had through the churches he served. (So, I resigned from that board in order to stay at home more.)

A few years later, I sat in the sanctuary of a large church for a funeral of a man who had pastored for many years and then moved on to denominational positions. As someone recited the many boards and agencies, committees and commissions, the gentleman had served on, I glanced around.  Everyone looked bored. No one seemed to care.  Now, I’m a big boy, and I know a) someone had to lead these offices and oversee these ministries, and b) we do them for the Lord and not for public acclaim.  But it confirmed to me that what matters most to a father and a pastor is the primary assignment the Lord hands him. For me, that was leading my family and my church.

Let the pastors be faithful where God has put them. Paul told Timothy, “Fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).

I suspect some pastors spend too much time on the golf course, reading novels, working on their farms, pursuing their favorite hobby, watching television, playing on the computer, leading groups to the Holy Land, or a thousand other diversions that may not be bad in themselves in moderation, but which sap their energies and dull their brains and interfere with the work God gave them to do.

Let the pastor repent.

Let the pastor wise up.

Let the pastor pull aside with the Lord for a time of confession, cleansing, and redirection.  Let the pastor pray to be reassigned to the Lord’s original calling. Then, let the Lord’s servant get up and go to work.

Keep telling yourself, pastor, that you are “more than a conqueror through Him who loved us.”  You can get this right.

One final thing.  Guard against the perfectionistic ideal which keeps insisting that nothing you do is acceptable since it is less than perfect. That lofty standard, which appears so noble on the surface, is your worst enemy.

Keep Psalm 103:14 before you. He Himself knows our frame. He is mindful that we are but dust.  God is under no illusions about you and me.  Were He expecting perfection from any of us, He would have given up in disgust a long time ago.  He knows He got no bargain when He saved us. When we sin, the only one surprised is us.  He is a God of infinite grace.  Aren’t we glad?

Every day of your life, give thanks for the privilege of serving such a gracious, loving Lord.

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A native of Alabama and the son of a coal miner, Joe McKeever has been saved more than 68 years, been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ more than 58 years, and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications nearly 50 years. He put in 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist Churches– the last three were FBC Columbus MS, FBC Charlotte NC, and FBC Kenner LA– followed by 5 years as director of missions for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans. He retired in the summer of 2009.