Confessions of a Ministry Burnout: Fear of Failure and the Proverbs 16:9 Church

One of the reasons pastors burn out and/or quit ministry is because of failure or the fear thereof. That is according to Barna Group and nearly every pastor I know. It should come as no surprise that the fear of failure plays such a prominent role in the discouragement we experience in vocational ministry.

Preacher voice: Please turn in your Bibles to Proverbs 16:9. I’m gonna sermonize in just a few moments.

Feelings of failure may have been my #1 downfall. Notice that I say “feelings of failure” rather than failure itself. We must be careful when we talk about success and failure in ministry. What we perceive as failure is often the occasion that God most clearly and profoundly reveals his grace and mercy to us.

A lot of people prefer to focus on faithfulness, but we can’t deny that this is a performance-based career that often devolves into a success vs. failure mentality. Regardless of what language we use, many of us are trying to create a false reality. The illusion of success, competency, and perfection.

Re: perfection…I talk to my coaching clients about the “tyranny of the should.” We get enough criticism from others; we don’t need to torture ourselves by hypothesizing about what could have been if we just did what we “should” have done. What we’re really thinking is, “If only I’d done everything perfectly.”

Ponder this quote from author Brene Brown: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings or shame, judgment and blame.” We set ourselves up for failure by exalting the “should” and creating impossible expectations. Speaking of expectations…you need to set them for yourself and your congregation. If you don’t, the ambiguity will produce “pathological second-guessing.”

Now, it’s time for the sermonizing…Try to develop the expectation that your church will be a Proverbs 16:9 congregation. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” One effective way to fight the fear of failure is to help people understand that it’s God’s church and he will do with it what he wills. The constant expectation should be that the Lord may establish his steps by thwarting our plans.

You likely know this already: The Lord will use “failure” for redemptive reasons. He hones vision and builds your character. Your maturity is greatly enhanced when you remember the words of Christ: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) BTW…Pastor, God cares more about making himself known and your maturity than he does your “measurables.”

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. We need to make plans and wholeheartedly follow the call that we believe God has laid out before us. However, when feelings of failure trouble your soul, free yourself up from the fallacy of success and failure. Test the thoughts that are invading your mind. Because we not only fear failure and feel the pressure to be perfect…Fixation on failure can invade your soul and entice you to identify with your shortcomings. We go from “I failed” to “I’m a failure” and it is crushing.

If the fear of failure is festering in you, what is it fostering in you? Fear of failure, unreasonable expectations, and perfectionism will BURN YOU OUT! What would happen if you lived in light of Proverbs 16:9 and 2 Corinthians 12:9?

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