The Ministry of Disappointment

Tod Bolsinger’s recent webinar for MM pastors was outstanding. A recording will soon be available, and you should watch it.

One thing that Tod touched on was Heifetz and Linsky’s provocative notion that leadership means “disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” [1] Leading people will necessitate change, and change means loss, and loss means disappointment. As Tod writes in Canoeing the Mountains, “The challenge of leadership is learning how to keep innovating and experimenting while attending to and caring for the disappointment of these particular people.” [2] This process is nuanced, requiring relational congruence. “Disappoint people too much and they give up on you, stop following you and may even turn on you. Don’t disappoint them enough and you’ll never lead them anywhere.” [3]

This “ministry of disappointment” does not come naturally. Many of us have natural dispositions that tend toward people-pleasing, and the vast majority of congregations not only play into this natural tendency, but they amplify it. This is due in large part to the “pastor as professional care giver / life coach / savior” mentality of a fading Christendom that we’ve inherited and continue to perpetuate. And it is often unconsciously driven by erroneous theological assumptions about who God is and who we’re supposed to be in light of who God is. I’m reminded of Eugene Peterson’s admonition that we often try to be the messiah when we’re supposed to be pointing away from ourselves to the messiah. And let’s not forget that Jesus was constantly disappointing people, especially his closest disciples.
Stop allowing the fear of disappointing people to trump the incredible mission to which God is calling you and your congregation.

Get close to the disappointed, make sure they know God loves them, and lead them through change. Help them to navigate their own disappointment and find their place in God’s mission.

How will you start practicing the “ministry of disappointment?”

[1] Ronald Heifetz and marty Linsky, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading,” Working Knowledge (Harvard Business School blog), May 28, 2002.
[2] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 139.
[3] Ibid, 124.