Pastor to Pastor: 5 Thoughts to Dealing with Disappointment

“Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Proverbs 4:23

I’m a “question-asker.” As a person who has an insatiable desire to grow, to me, it’s one of the best ways to learn. It gives me “selah moments” (selah means stop, pause, wait, and be ready to respond). And each opportunity I have to ask my question, I feel it positions me so that I can ponder areas where the Lord may want to stretch and develop me.

For example, if you’ve been married in the last couple years, I’ll typically ask the question, “What do you know now that you didn’t know before you got married?” The answer varies from “I didn’t realize my partner snores” to “I didn’t realize how different we really were till marriage.” Honestly, it’s been a great learning experience for me as a premarital counselor. My question helps me know whether my premarital preparations are on point. It keeps me sharp to the needs of young couples.

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 posted a blog 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 can glean 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?

Obviously, every year the age in the question changes as I get a year older. But I thirst for that vintage of perspective. I want an “iron sharpening iron” moment. And 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 from a town about 30-ish miles away. And when Madeline introduced her father to me and said that he was a pastor, the question came out of my mouth. He pondered for just a few seconds, and then he said three words:

“Beware of disappointments.”

These three words consumed my mind for 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 into.  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 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 been disappointed in God (usually happens when God hasn’t done what I think he should do).

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 cannot guard yourself from experiencing disappointment but you can guard your heart during disappointment.

Disappointments are not the necessarily results of sin but 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.  And it begins with what our opening scripture talks about: “guard your heart” (Proverbs 4:23). 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 pastors protect our thoughts through this very normal human experience?

Disappointments ≠ failure
First off, failure IS disappointing. I can’t say I enjoy failure and look forward to the next. 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 (I’m one of those pastors). Sometimes our unrealistic expectations set us up for the fall. Other times, our definition of “success” needed to be redefined so that we can see the “win” in what we accomplished instead of being blinded by the disappointment we just experienced.

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 and/or self-loathing thoughts due to a “less than” experience, step into a place of looking to learn. Every disappointment I engage in is an invitation to growth. Whether it’s personal or pastoral, having a healthy approach of “how can I grow” isn’t shrugging off the issue, or making light of it, but looking to process and engage it appropriately.

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 head-strong 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. 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 on directions 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.

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.   So the best way to close the gap is to both 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.”

Use the right measuring tape. 
It is so easy for me to measure my own success by a little 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 to other pastors and other ministries 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/jealousy in my spirit and birth discouragement through 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 is comparing to others, I’m not looking to grow the Kingdom but to feed my own pride.

Pastor Dan’s 3 simple words stirred me. Why? Because the fear of disappointment ruled my mind for the first, I’d say 7-8 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.

Love you all. Praying for you today.

 

Thanks for letting me ramble…

BTW: Check out my new book. Click on the link below!!

6 comments

  • Dave, this might be my new favorite! Such a valuable lesson. It has been just over a year since I resigned my position as lead pastor. I resigned for one reason and one reason only. My wife and I felt strongly of the Lord it was time for us to go. Since then I have watched the church explode. I am very much for the church and for the pastor (he’s a friend of mine and we met several times to discuss the transition.) I am also very human, I have had to fight feelings of failure and self loathing. I had to acknowledge it was OK to be disappointed it didn’t work the way I thought it was going to. I had to finally settle on some plant, some water, but God gives the increase. I had to acknowledge my role was just as vital as his is and that its all for God’s glory. The pastor has called numerous times just to say ‘thank you” for plowing the ground and loosening the hardened soil so that he could be effective. Thank you for your thoughts!!!!

    • Wow, that reply would be healing words to a number of pastors I know. Thanks so much for shooting straight and being real.

  • Dave, thanks, for your transparency and your heart to shepherd shepherds in this post. I particularly love the thought that disappointment does not equal failure. Managing our expectations helps to temper our disappointment when we fail. You’re right, failure is feedback to help us get better. Blessings on you, bro. Keep blessing us.

  • SUCCESS is simply “Jesus”, Christ in me the hope of glory. I have always said when leading worship: “If they see Jesus, then they will worship” or in preaching: “If they see Jesus, then they will follow”. I measure all success with the plumb line of Christ, period. Yes, there are disappointments in life, marriage, ministry and in relationships but disappointments do not define us, they are part of life’s journey. What defines us is the radiance of His Light as it reflects off of the gem stone that we are and in the diversity of the cut that the Master has worked in us individually. It is not our perception that is important….. it is Christ view of us individually and Christ reflection seen from us unto the world. (selah)

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