By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

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 achieved.

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 of success.

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 fails—as 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 it.”

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 growing—they are willing to make difficult choices—at the cost of losing members, hurting some relationships, and yes, even failing—for 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 failure.

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 find—and 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 us—God’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 responsibility.

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 finally—at long last—work.

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. Failure—and consecutive failures—tend 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
Isaiah 40:31

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