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Success And Failure: They Have
The Same Problems
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
It's tempting to think that pastors experiencing
"success" are happier than those experiencing "failure" or to think
they have it better, more comfortable, less problems, etc.
But such may not necessarily be the case. Though there are certainly dynamics which are quite
different in "successful" and "less successful" congregations, Pastors
often aggrandize "success" without taking a good look at it. Seldom do they
consider that "success" also brings its own set of problems.
Though the following article is admittedly simplistic,
nevertheless I believe success and failure have some of the same problems whether it be
staffing, budget, leadership, or other areas. Read on and see what I mean.
The Problems With "Success"
1) Expectations never meet reality.
- Once we realize the dreams of success, we always find that
the grass was not as green as we thought. We are disappointed.
2) Success brings extra unanticipated problems.
- Such problems can be financial, staffing, and or a number
of other programming difficulties which must be dealt with.
3) Tendency for momentum to slow/plateau when success
- After every great work, there's a "Sabbath" time
when people take a well-deserved rest. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get out of
"rest" mode and get the momentum going again.
4) Lends itself to focus on self
- After all is finished we have a tendency to say, "Look
what I did!" Such focus, if unchecked, can lead to a sense that we built the church
and not God, thus placing great unnecessary stress on ourselves.
5) Changes responsibilities of leadership
- New successes mean that leadership must take on the new
responsibilities and challenges that success has introduced. Some of these new challenges
will have been anticipated; others will not have been anticipated.
6) Exposes leadership obsolescence
- Unfortunately, leaders who have done exemplary work to get
the church to the level of success do not have the gifts, abilities, attitudes, and/or
inclinations to go toward the next level of success. In fact, such individuals may resist
successive levels of success for numerous reasons.
- Thus, the leaders one counted on to reach a given level of
success may not be able to take it up to the next level. This, of course, is a very
painful process for pastors and leaders as we sometimes must leave behind those whom we
most loved and respected.
7) Success requires extra energy to maintain the new level
- Bigger planes need bigger, more efficient engines and
structure. So also the church as a larger organization requires greater resources to be
maintained at higher levels. Extra energies will be used in re-defining leadership and
staff roles. Some of the energies will result in failures.Others will result in successes.
8) When success is followed by failure, it may cause a
downturn or diversion of energy.
- When success begins to happen in series, it may be an
unexpected disappointment when something finally failsas it will. People may be
disappointed, leading to a slowing of momentum or and diversion of energy toward
scapegoating the "cause" for the failure.
9) Success brings conflict
- Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be conflict.
When success is realized, some people will be dissatisfied. The preferences of all cannot
be met. There will be some dissent, some second-guessing, some Monday Morning Quarterback
blues. Others may feel a sense of "Buyers Remorse" which happens when, after one
has made a major purchase or investment, says, "Maybe we shouldn't have done
10) Success causes members to leave
- When a congregation stretches to success, it causes members
to have to stretch their vision of faith and for congregational success too. Some simply
can't get over the trauma of change and success. Rather than adapt to the new, dynamic
changes in their present church, they will change churches.
- Indeed, one of the ways successful churches renew
themselves is by the continued realization of success and failure. Fund drives,
architectural preferences, ministry priorities, prominent political groups all become
highlighted in the pursuit of organizational goals. As these aspects of ministry become
more visible, it causes people to have to re-examine their commitment to the church. Some
leave; those who stay strengthen and reinforce the church's momentum and prepare it for
the next stage of growth.
- Perhaps this is why congregations which tend to grow keep
growingthey are willing to make difficult choicesat the cost of losing
members, hurting some relationships, and yes, even failingfor the greater goal of
attaining the congregation's mission.
Problems Associated With "Failure"
We all know that failure has it's problems, too. At the
risk of being simplistic, it's interesting to note that success and failure both share
some of the same problems
from a different perspective. Consider the problems of
1) Expectations never meet reality
- It is the frustration that brings on the notion of being
out of control. What was expected to occur didn't. Thus their security is threatened.
2) Failure brings unanticipated problems
- As a congregation experiences failure, they need to become
adaptive to compensatory strategies for dealing with the failure. Sometimes this struggle
to findand implement compensatory strategies is cause for greater problems,
especially when human and financial resources are declining.
3) Tendency to slow momentum
- Every time failure appears, it "puts on the
brakes." Helping a congregation to take their foot off the brake and take risks can
be an experience in patient long-suffering.
4) Lends itself to focus on self.
- Failure may lead to a sense of self-pity ("poor
usGod's not with us anymore") or a loss of self-worth ("We can't do it
like we used to anymore"). One of the hardest things for humans and their
organizations to do is to focus on faith in God instead of on one's own works and
expertise. Without such transformation, the church itself will cease to be God's church
and simply lapse into some sort of "Country Club" mentality.
5) Changes the responsibilities of leadership
- When churches fail, qualified leaders may leave out of
frustration, burn-out, or a sense that other churches offer challenges suited to their
abilities. Other leaders will try to compensate for the loss of essential leaders and the
apathy brought on by failure by working even harder and taking on more than their share of
6) Exposes leadership obsolescence
- In churches acclimated to failure, gifted leaders will
likely take a background role as the church reverts to maintaining only the bare minimum
sustenance roles. Many gifted pastors may find that they are "big tractors in a small
garden" with plenty of energy, momentum and resources for leadership, but in an
organization too small to appreciate their giftedness.
7) Requires extra energy to maintain the level of ministry
- In times of failure, it takes a great deal of energy to
desperately hang on to whatever is sustaining the organization. Dramatic efforts to
maintain the level of ministry including pleas for extra gifts, selling congregational
assets, the seeming futile promotion of new programs, etc.all require extra energy until
that time when something seems to finallyat long lastwork.
8) When failure is followed by failure, each successive
failure causes an even greater downturn of energy.
- That's why leaders must always ask the critical ministry
implementation questions including, "Can we afford NOT to try it!"
9) Failure brings conflict. Failureand consecutive
failurestend to breed scapegoating and other blaming behaviors.
- Without a few successes in his belt, the pastor and his
trusted circle of leaders become vulnerable to the "get rid of the coach' mentality.
Even the greatest coach is only as good as his team. Unfortunately, disillusioned and
burnt-out teams often would rather rebel and change leaders than look at themselves and
make needed changes.
10) Failure causes members to leave.
- Disillusioned, burnt-out, and frustrated, members will
leave an unenthusiastic organization for one they perceive is more enthusiastic. In the
process, they will also add to the frustration of those in the church they left.
The Problems Are The Same
- Did you notice something? The problems with success listed
above are the same as the problems with failure!
So what's the point?
- First, whether you experience success or
failure, there's always problems in either case.
- Second, even the greatest successes won't
insulate you from the grind of dealing with problems.
- Third, effective ministry is not measured
by whether or not you have problems. You will have problems. The issue is how
will you deal with the problems?
- Fourth, there is no church on earth
without problems. Period. If you want a church without problems, try heaven. If you're not
ready for heaven (yet), stay where you're at and gain God's perspective on the problems your church is experiencing.
- Finally, understand that ultimately the
issue of success or failure is not an issue of success or failure per se. Nor is it necessarily an issue of being a "good" or
"bad" pastor. The real issue, I believe, is an issue of Christian character,
namely, how will the faithful servant of God deal with the inevitable problems that
successes and failures bring during the course of Christian ministry in a sinful world?
I believe it was John Maxwell who said,
"If a person can't handle success, it was because
they couldn't handle failure either."
Indeed, the greatest measure of ministry is not how
successful we've been but how we've dealt with failure. Perhaps we've focused too much on
the expectation of glory in ministry and not enough on the experience of what ministry
really can be (Isaiah 6:8-13 ff.; Jeremiah 1:1-19; Ezekiel 3:1-14; II Cor. 11:22-30;
Hebrews 12:1-13; et al).
Next time you experience failure, try to put it into
perspective. Let it change, shape, and strengthen your ministry and dependence on God's
building of the church.
Let failure be your teacher, success for Jesus Christ be
your aim, and the development of a sound, grace-tempered Christian character be your
ultimate goal in your capacity as pastoral leader.
Thomas F. Fischer
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:38 PM