Mike Swalm, one of the bloggers I keep tabs on, wrote an entry about disappointment that many in our profession can relate to.
We just entered the lenten season. I love the experience of Lent. Something about living counter-culturally in this way really appeals to me. For the kick-off of lent, I invited a bunch of people over to read Scripture, pray, do the ashes on the forehead thing, and really just be a community. I love the two people that showed up. I really do. But how, as a pastor, do you focus on the two and disregard the twenty that didn't? (source)
It's a hard truth--as a priest or pastor you spend a lot of time and effort trying to create programs or services or experiences or whatever that will be of spiritual value to your flock and then you experience a lot of disappointment as people either don't show up or take it the wrong way or otherwise fall short of your hopes. Been there; done that; got the T-shirt. (BTW, my favorite T-shirt says, "I pray on the helpless," not "I built it and they came.") So what to do in the face of pastoral disappointment?
First off, I think it's a huge mistake to "adjust your expectations." I know so many bitter priests and ministers who won't try anything unless is a sure-thing. They hem and haw about how they don't want to put their time into something that won't fly. Really they just don't want to fail, IMHO.
Second, it is heretical to think that the work of church is about achieving outcomes. That is, it is disrespectful to the Holy Spirit to go about the work of church as though superior planning and execution will "achieve" the outcome we desire. So many of us carry around anxiety about the "success" of our ministry that is based on the misguided notion that institutional preservation is God's will. Maybe it ain't! Call me crazy, but I think we should be about following Jesus and leading others to do the same. It's true that this often coincides with our institutional interests, but motivation is totally different. So "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God..." everything else will flow from that, good and bad.
Third, this is why the spiritual virtue of detachment is essential. If you have a sense of where you end and where the world begins, you will not become overly identified or invested in outcomes which are not yours to cause, anyway. This doesn't mean that you don't apply craft or savvy to the vocation of ministry, it merely means that you should do so without being invested too much in a particular outcome. It's related to the idea of self-differentiation: know where you end and the other begins.
Fourth, love the flail, embrace the suck. When things don't go the way you might desire, recognize the great value of this moment. There's nothing like an epic fail to bring your perceptions into line with reality. Even more valuable, though, is the feelings that arise at such a moment. Disappointment is usually evidence of great love and desire. If you can get to that place, you're doing okay.
So those are a few of my thoughts about failure and disappointment in ministry!