…prepared for subversion and danger.

And it had clearly escaped everyone’s notice that I had already been bull-whipped through the Psalms of David and The Book of Job, to say nothing of the arrogant and loving Isaiah, the doomed Ezekiel, and the helplessly paranoiac Saint Paul: such a forced march, designed to prepare my mind for conciliation and safety, can also prepare it for subversion and danger. For, I was on Job’s side, for example, though He slay me, yet I will trust Him, and I will maintain my own ways before Him – You will not talk to me from the safety of your whirlwind, never – and, yet, something in me, out of the unbelievable pride and sorrow and beauty of my father’s face, cause me to understand – I did not understand, perhaps I still do not understand, and never will – caused me to begin  to accept the fatality and the inexorability of that voice out of the whirlwind, for if one is not able to live with so crushing and continuing a mystery, one is not able to live.  – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 10.

 

Pastor, do you feel like a failure?

In my many years as a pastor, I often felt like a failure.

Part of the problem lies with the reality that success in pastoral ministry is hard to define. It’s people work, and the victories that happen in people’s lives – due in part to your work – often go unseen and unexpressed.

The other problem is that the way our culture defines success – bigger budgets, new buildings, more people – is outside of a pastor’s direct control. A church is a community of people and the community, together, impacts the whole much more than a single person.

But, perhaps, the biggest problem is that feeling like a failure and actually being a failure are two different things.

In a recent post, Seth Godin takes on the topic of feeling like a failure. What he says is a good word for Pastors, too.  He writes;

Feeling like a failure has little correlation with actually failing.

There are people who have failed more times than you and I can count, who are happily continuing in their work.

There are others who have achieved more than most of us can imagine, who go to work each day feeling inadequate, behind, and yes, like failures and frauds.

These are not cases of extraordinary outliers. In fact, external data is almost useless in figuring out whether or not someone is going to adopt the narrative of being a failure.

Failure (as seen from the outside) is an event. It’s a moment when the spec isn’t met, when a project isn’t completed as planned.

Feelings, on the other hand, are often persistent, and they are based on stories. Stories we tell ourselves as much as stories the world tells us.

As a result, if you want to have a feeling, you’ll have it. If you want to seek a thread to ravel, you will, you’ll pull at it and focus on it until, in fact, you’re proven right, you are a failure.

Here’s the essential first step: Stop engaging with the false theory that the best way to stop feeling like a failure is to succeed.

Thinking of one’s self as a failure is not the same as failing. And thus, succeeding (on this particular task) is not the antidote. In fact, if you act on this misconception, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of new evidence that you are, in fact, correct in your feelings, because you will ignore the wins and remind yourself daily of the losses.

Instead, begin with the idea that the best way to deal with a feeling is to realize that it’s yours.