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Ministry Failures

I don’t blame anyone but myself for my failures in ministry.

Why are people so surprised by that?

In last month’s podcast with Carey Nieuwhof (click here to listen), I described our church’s history, including a short period where we had sudden growth, followed by even faster and deeper collapse.

Carey asked me if I had a handle on why the collapse happened, so I told him two of the mistakes I made that contributed to it. He was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t blame anyone (like the big church down the street) or anything (like changing demographics) for the problems, but took the responsibility upon myself.

To which I responded, “If you don’t own it, you can’t change it.” The interview went on and I thought no more about it.

But that little exchange and my short answer to it have received far more feedback (all positive, thankfully) than any other aspect of the interview.


I think it’s because we live in a blame culture. And that culture has invaded the church. In fact I know it has because I regularly hear pastors of Small Churches blame everyone from their denominations to other churches, to the corruption of the culture for their church’s lack of growth and/or health.

We must stop doing this. Here are 12 reasons. I’m sure there are more, so if you know of any, feel free to add them in the comment section.

1. If You Don’t Own It, You Can’t Change It

If someone else is to blame for my problems, I’ve given them control. If I’m to blame, I can do something about it.

2. Blaming Others Is Easy, But Unproductive

Let’s say it actually is the fault of someone else. What changes after we identify that? I can’t change someone else’s behavior, after all. I can only change me.

So let’s concentrate on who we can change. Better yet, let’s re-commit our lives and ministries to the one who can change us.

3. Not All “Failure” Is Failure

My plans are not always God’s plans. It’s easy to forget that.

What we consider failure might be a door God is closing so we’ll start to look for the door he’s opening.

That’s what happened to me when I started taking a hard look at my own ministry.

Because of my changed perspective on failure and success, some great things followed in the wake of the numerical collapse of our church.

  • Greater empathy for other pastors

  • A new perspective on church health and growth

  • The ministry that’s bringing you this blog post

  • …and more

If I hadn’t “failed”, I might be pastoring a bigger church today. But I would probably be a very unhealthy pastor.

I had been going down a very bad road. Failure stopped me. It caused me to re-assess, then change my wrong priorities.

I learned some very hard, but essential lessons by failing. Including equipping me to help other pastors so they don’t repeat all my mistakes.

4. I’m not Called to Do What Others Are Called to Do

What looks like failure in one church, isn’t failure in another church. The same goes for success.

I live in an area of megachurches. It would be easy to look at my church’s lack of megachurch growth and think we’ve failed. (Been there, done that. Burned the souvenir T-shirt.) But I’m not called to do what they’re called to do.

5. Much Of Our Blame-Making Is Contradictory to Reality

I can’t simultaneously blame my culture and the changing demographics of my neighborhood for limiting my church’s growth, while complaining about the big new church in town that overcame those problems.

6. Blame Is Contagious

Those who throw blame around, tend to get it tossed right back at them. And they tend to surround themselves with other blamers. Which leads to…

7. Blame Never Built a Great Church

I referenced this idea in a previous post, Want a Great Church? Emphasize What You’re For, Not What You’re Against, so I’ll let you click over to that, if you’d like.

Besides, the title of this point is rather self-explanatory, right?

8. People Stop Listening

If we keep blaming others for our failures and shortcomings we become The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Soon, no one cares what we have to say because nothing ever changes. And if nothing ever changes…

9. People Stop Caring

Compassion fatigue. When bad things happen, we feel for the people it happened to. But when the same person keeps blaming others for every bad thing that happens, instead of stepping up and taking responsibility, it becomes hard to care any more. And if people stop caring…

10. People Stop Helping

Why would congregation members want to invest their time, money and energy into a church where the pastor has basically told them “there’s no hope – after all, if others are to blame for our failures, nothing we do will make any difference.”

11. The Grasshopper In the Mirror Must Be Killed First

Kill the grasshopper.

Bury its dead, rotting carcass deep in an unmarked desert grave on the far side of the Jordan.

But know this. It’s a stubborn little beast. It won’t die easily. It can’t be wished away or even prayed away. Although prayer is an essential part of this.

Life doesn’t go where you want it to go – it goes where you tell it to go. And you tell it where to go with every decision you make – large and small.

Stop making grasshopper choices. Stop living on defense. Say “no” to saying “no”.

Your biggest problem in ministry and in life isn’t that you’ll make a mistake, but that you’ll be consumed by the fear of making a mistake. That’s what happened to the ten faithless Hebrew spies. The giants and walls they saw weren’t bigger than the ones Joshua and Caleb saw. Their biggest challenges weren’t external, they were internal. They couldn’t see they weren’t slaves any more.

It’s one of the oldest sayings in history. It’s easier to take the people out of Egypt than it is to take Egypt out of the people. That’s where The Grasshopper Myth started.

I began discovering who I’m not on the day I told my staff, “We need to stop thinking like a big church.” I didn’t know who I was yet. But removing the burden of who I was not was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

If you’re not sure who you are yet, that’s OK. Start by declaring who you’re not.

12. Accepting Appropriate Blame Is Often the First Step to Finding Real Answers

Let’s not close this out without acknowledging that accepting appropriate blame is not the same as walking around with a defeatist, self-hating attitude.

Accepting appropriate blame means realizing that I make mistakes. Inappropriate blame says I am a mistake.

But once we’ve accepted appropriate blame, then we can start looking, assessing, finding and implementing better ideas.

Let’s find solutions instead of excuses.

So what do you think? What are some other good reasons not to blame others for our ministry failures?

by Karl Vaters

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