The Eighth Deadly Sin: Discouragement
by James L. Wilson
How will I respond when my failures seem to outnumber my successes?
I don’t know if it was passing the big 4-0 mark or knowing that my public ministry was half over. Whichever it was, I found myself wading into retrospection. Am I making a difference? How am I doing at reaching my goals and fulfilling my dreams?
I pushed the keyboard aside, propped my feet on the desk, and began taking inventory. I made a mental checklist, noting accomplishments on one side and failures on the other side. Does God really care about this stuff? Rebuking myself, I sat upright and got back to work.
Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the questions, so I decided to turn to my “brain trust” for counsel. Once a month, three retired ministers who are now members of my congregation meet with me to discuss ministry in general and our church in particular. I call them “the brain trust” because all three have earned doctorates.
I put two questions on the agenda: What are your greatest accomplishments? and What are your biggest regrets in ministry?
When the two older ministers spoke, I could tell they’d made peace with both sides of their ledgers long ago. Not so with Fenton, who is freshly retired.
Fenton sold insurance until age 37, then he stopped, went to seminary, and launched Tarzana Baptist Chapel three years later with five people.
“I expected it to grow to a church of 300 or 400 in a couple of years,” Fenton said. He planned to use his church to build a network of satellite churches throughout the Los Angeles Basin.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Tarzana Baptist Chapel constituted as a church five years later with 135 members. It never grew any larger; today is has fewer than 25 members.
“I once complained that we’d done all the church growth stuff, but the church wasn’t as big as it ought to be,” Fenton said. “God reminded me that he never promised me a big church.”
But Fenton had promised himself one.
With a doctorate in church growth, Fenton knew the principles, and he applied them. But the church wasn’t growing. Why?
He’d always thought that if a guy couldn’t grow a church he was “either incompetent or carnal.” Fenton didn’t want to consider himself either.
The work was tough. Tarzana Church seemed unable to close the back door. Fenton felt he had to reach three new members to net an increase of one.
Some, like John, left to attend one of the large churches in the area. Fenton had poured hours into John, an aspiring movie director from Australia, and brought him to faith in Christ. Just when Fenton was seeing fruit in John’s life, the director left Tarzana to go to a church with a drama program and a theater.
The cycle repeated itself, Fenton said. “I’d do all the hard work of cultivating, witnessing, and baptizing the converts only to lose them to the great choirs, youth groups, and drama programs of larger churches.
“It was frustrating.” Fenton had a faraway look as he told the story.
Looking for success in all the wrong places
If Fenton didn’t lose converts to a church down the road, the transient nature of Los Angeles claimed them. One year 51 of the church’s 110 members moved away.
That year, Fenton crashed.
“It was almost like a death,” Fenton said. “The church was never the same again.” As hard as that year was, he hadn’t hit bottom yet.
The elder pastor told how Judy, a nurse, was addicted to prescription drugs, cocaine, and heroin. Then she came to Christ, and God delivered Judy from her addictions almost the instant he saved her. Fenton baptized Judy, and she was doing well.
Then it happened.
Fenton lost track of her. She simply disappeared. His efforts to contact her were futile. “I still don’t know whether she’s dead or alive,” Fenton said.
Judy’s memory still haunts him. “I should have spotted this,” he said. “I should have been more cautious and warned her about the danger of a relapse. I should have paid more attention to her.”
Fenton was a gifted evangelist, but a struggling shepherd. Because of these apparent failures, he began losing sight of the value of his life and his work. Fenton despaired that his church would ever grow. He grew depressed. Eventually, he resigned.
“For Tarzana to grow it needs a new vision,” he told the congregation. “I’ve pleaded with God and prayed, and that’s all I’ve heard from him. Someone else will have to lead you to the place you should go.”
Fenton left the church he founded to become a full-time missionary to the Jewish population of the area. He had a heart to win Jews to Christ. His plan was to focus on personal evangelism and to awaken churches to the needs of the Jews. However, he had a hard time motivating pastors to follow up on the Jews he introduced to the Messiah, and his speaking engagements at churches were too few to make a lasting impact.
The night of my meeting with the brain trust, Fenton stopped short of saying he regretted going into the ministry, but he gave the strong impression that he had mixed emotions about whether he had fulfilled his calling. We didn’t talk about it again for months, and I continued to ponder the questions that drove Fenton from the pastorate: Am I fulfilling my calling? How can I know I’m making a difference when the evidence is scant?
And if I don’t find answers to these questions—answers I can live with—will I surrender to despair? Or more accurately, despond?
Despond is that sense of uselessness that says, “I’m not accomplishing what I was called to.” Despond questions one’s purpose when confirmation is in short supply. Despond looks at the clock, and wonders if the time allotted for this portion of the test has run out, and deep down hopes it has, because a passing grade seems so unlikely. Despond despairs, grows cynical, sighs, resigns.
Footsteps worth following
We were returning home from a church growth conference. Fenton was driving. Chaplain Scott Sterling, one of Fenton’s converts who went into the ministry, rode shotgun, and I relaxed in the back seat, eavesdropping. For thirty minutes or so, they discussed the “good old days” at Tarzana and some of the people who surrendered their lives to the ministry—nearly a dozen.
I couldn’t believe it.
I interrupted their conversation. “Fenton, do you remember our brain trust meeting a couple of months ago where you talked about your regrets in ministry?”
“Sure,” Fenton said, “what about it?”
“Let me get this right. You pastored a church for ten years that produced a dozen ministers like Scott here, and you question your effectiveness as a pastor?”
It got quiet.
“In my opinion,” I continued, “you’ve had a wonderful, world-changing ministry. As your pastor, I want to bless you for the work you’ve done and release you from the guilt you carry because you never built a large church.”
Despond had blinded Fenton to his ultimate value as a servant in the hands God, used not to build large churches, but to build a missionary force of purposeful believers.
That night, I decided that I would fight the temptation to worry about my goals, accomplishments, failures and shortcomings. I left that conversation encouraged that my successes may not look like I expected. The lasting accomplishments may not match the criteria I’ve been looking at. If God called me, He will use me to do things he planned that I did not. Whether I fulfill my dreams or not, I can only pray that I will be faithful.
Like Fenton was.
James L. Wilson is the pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Seaside, California and the online editor at http://www.FreshMinistry.org.
2001 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Spring 2001, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Page 45