I was having a discussion with a friend a while ago—so long ago that I can’t remember most of the details. I think it was with someone involved in ministry and we may have been having coffee together I do remember that the conversation turned to the issue of disappointment, specifically disappointment with people who do something that goes against our hopes, expectations and desires for and about them.
While I know that this is a real issue in all aspects of life, for those of us involved in ministry, it can be an all too common and deeply painful reality. The dedicated church member whose faith is growing and developing and who is set to make a significant impact on the whole church and even beyond decides that his love of gambling is more important than anything in his life. The individual who is being groomed and prepared to take over from the retiring deacons decides that really, the job isn’t for her. The member of the youth group who shows such promise and is actually entertaining a call to ministry decides that a career in IT will be more fun and pay better. The pastor friend who decides that having a sexual relationship with the church organist is worth more than the call of God. In ministry, we face the reality of disappointment on a regular basis as people make choices that are clearly going against God’s best will for them, at least according to our understanding. We also, if we are honest, are aware that disappointment with people often leads to anger and a withdrawal from the relationship.
I am pretty sure that one of the underlying causes of pastoral burnout and disillusionment is provided by such disappointments. Sure, the long hours, the lack of actual completion, the ever increasing demands, the inability to set hard limits all have an impact on pastoral burnout but the accumulation of what we often see as betrayals is certainly a part of the package. Since most of our work is built on and around people, their actions and activities are bound to have a significant effect on us and our wellbeing.
I am hoping that as you read the beginning of this blog that you were struck by how self-focused those paragraphs are. As I was writing the words, I was becoming more and more aware of that—my pastoral disappointment with people is actually coming from a very selfish place—as a pastor, I want and maybe even need people to act and respond and do what I am convinced is best for them, the church and the faith. Helping people grow and develop spiritually and emotionally is part of my job—I have been called and trained and prepared to help people live their faith.
The problem is that the more I expect people to do what I think they should do, the more I make them into less than free human beings. My disappointment with them is a not so subtle symptom of my thinking that I know best and that anyone who disagrees with me, even over their own life choices, is making a serious mistake. In effect, I am taking away the freedom that God has given all of us.
And that realization prompts me to take a closer look at the whole process. While I have been called by God to be intricately involved in the lives of the people I work with, I have also been called to be involved in a way that shows the character of the God who called me—and while the Bible does suggest that God is often disappointed with us humans, his most characteristic response to us is love and grace. No matter how much we disappoint him, he still loves us and even more, he still seeks to bring us back to him. God’s love, his grace and his willingness to forgive are the reason for the cross and the resurrection.
In that light, my reaction to the realities of people is disappointing to me—I am not actually being a particularly good servant of God when my disappointment with people creates anger and withdrawal and judgement. Fortunately for me, even when God is disappointed with me, he responds with an offer of more love, more grace and more forgiveness, coupled with an offer to help me respond to others in the same way.
May the peace of God be with you.