How to manage disappointment in ministry
Did you have a rough semester?
A campus minister recently told me he wrestles with the feeling that he is wasting his life.
He knows it’s not true. He knows all the reasons why campus ministry is effective and he knows this is where God wants him to be, but he struggles in the midst of disappointments.
If you’ve led a ministry for more than five minutes, I’m guessing you’ve also had some setbacks and disappointments.
In campus ministry there are some mind-blowing, simply amazing moments—moments where God does something beyond your hopes and expectations.
For example, that time way more people came to your event than you were expecting, or that other time a random person overheard your small group Bible study discussion and decided to join. I’ve experienced these moments of elation and they are awesome!
But then there are the other moments—moments when things go wrong. When the sense of disappointment is real and deep. I’ve had plenty of these kinds of experiences as well.
For example, the time I had 13 people show up to my “large group” meeting.
Or the time it looked like our group was going to get kicked off campus because a student missed a training and didn’t tell anyone.
Or the many times I’ve had a conversation with a student about Christ certain he was going to make a decision only to never hear from him again.
Though I wish it wasn’t the case, disappointments are a part of ministry. It comes with the relational territory.
While I can’t make them go away, here are a few strategies to manage disappointment, maintain a healthy perspective in ministry, and keep going.
Resolve to Focus on the Good Things
There will always be things that don’t go as well as you would have hoped.
We need to acknowledge areas that need improvement and implement change, but if we focus on those things too long we end up discouraged, and that doesn’t help anyone.
When faced with disappointment we need to focus on areas where things are going well.
Paul gives this advice to the first century church at Philippi. He writes,
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
Notice that the “peace” (v. 9) follows thinking about things “admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (v. 8). Whatever may be going wrong, there are surely some things going right. Focus on those things.
God Hasn’t Lost Control
In moments of disappointment it’s important to remember that God is still in control.
While we would like to think that His plans always involve us looking, feeling, and just being awesome, that’s not how it works. He uses even our failures to accomplish His good purposes (Psalm 100:5, Acts 17:26).
When we’re feeling the sting of disappointment, we need to remind our hearts as well as our heads that “all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). We need to remember that feelings aren’t facts.
You’re Engaged in a Spiritual Battle
You’re engaged in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6).
You know this. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, but you need this reminder: not everything that you feel is just a natural reaction to your circumstances.
Spiritual attacks can intensify the natural effect of the circumstances on your emotional state.
Would the devil, described as a prowling lion (I Peter 5:8), like to add pressure to the disappointment you feel in your soul? I’m thinking that’s a yes.
Be alert and be aware. Don’t roll over. Don’t give in. Fight.
Lean Into Community
We don’t always feel the need for real friendships. Sometimes it’s just easier and faster to go without real community. But we weren’t meant to walk alone in life and ministry, and this need is most felt during low moments.
Too many Christians allow the shame of failure to drive them into isolation. This is the wrong move. We need friends who will help us regain perspective when we’re stuck.
Biblical accountability isn’t just having someone there to tell you what you’re doing wrong and where you need to grow. It’s having someone there who can save you from yourself when you can’t even see straight.
In times of deep disappointment we need to run to trusted friendships. We need to pursue those who will help “bear our burdens” in love (Galatians 6:2). We need to lean into community.
Let Your Pain Fuel Your Prayer
One benefit to feeling deep disappointment is that it can bring us to our knees. As a Christian, this is the most powerful place to be.
By meeting with God in prayer we have a productive outlet for what could be destructive disappointment.
John Bunyan said, “Prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan.”
Earnest prayers help us to protect our souls. It’s the vehicle for us to lift up our hearts to God.
We can give Him all our anxiety because He cares for us (I Peter. 5:7).
Through prayer we can prevent our disappointment from turning into discouragement.