Ok, Jesus, Who Can We Disappoint This Week?

In all my work as a pastor and alongside pastors over the past 12 years or so, I’ve never witnessed a time when clergy were feeling more stuck, beaten down, conflicted, exhausted, and, for some, simply hopeless, than I have over the past nine months. This includes some of the most equipped, gifted, and creative pastors I know. It’s just really hard out there. And one of common threads for many is that they find themselves in a seemingly irreconcilable lose-lose situation, caught between a very large rock and very hard place. Just last week, a pastor of a relatively large congregation very vulnerably shared that it seemed like no matter what he said or did, he was being attacked by someone. And that frankly he had had enough of it. This is a common conversation these days.

In our conversations with clergy and lay leaders, both one-on-one and especially in group settings with our cohorts, one of the recurring elephants in the room is this:

Who will I have to disappoint, and what will it cost?

It’s a scary question. Scary because it’s unavoidable.

I’m reminded of Heifetz and Linsky’s instructive 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. The question is, how much disappointment is needed, and how will it play out? Tod Bolsinger picks up on the risk and complexity of this dynamic, explaining, “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.” [2] Most pastors I know understand this phenomenon rather intuitively. Been there, done that. Hurts like hell, even when necessary. And now, in a pandemic, we can’t even carefully facilitate these disappointments in person. It’s anything but easy right now.

And yet, it is the only direction available to us. Seth Godin put it well in his blog last week.

“All forward motion disappoints someone. If you serve one audience, you’ve let another down. One focus means that something else got ignored. If you create something scarce, someone won’t get their hands on it. The very act of creation means that it won’t be the ideal solution for everyone. On the other hand, with certainty, we know that doing nothing disappoints an even larger group of people. The opportunity is to find someone to delight and to embrace the fact that someone is not everyone.”

Well, what if this “someone” is, most fundamentally, Jesus? Yeah, I get it – it sounds cliché. But I’m serious – what if our daily criteria for risk-taking, truth-telling, gospel-saturated witness, and how to disappoint people, starts with, “Will Jesus delight in this? Will Jesus be honored by this? Is this what the Holy Spirit is doing with me?” Because if the answer is, yes, then we can also trust that Jesus will be in it and will equip us for the work that lies ahead.

Let’s remember, too, that Jesus continually disappointed people, especially his closest disciples. The story of the gospels is so often the story of Jesus failing to meet the high expectations of those around them, subverting those expectations with a totally different narrative of what faith, hope, and love look like in God’s kingdom. And it was terribly frustrating and disappointing to those around him who needed him to be something different. So you’re in good company.

To be sure, it’s important for us to discern how to get “close” to the disappointed, listen to them, 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.

But in meantime we might more frequently ask, “ok Jesus, who are we going to have to disappoint this week?

Be strong and courageous, for the Lord is with you.

And we’re with you, too.

[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), 124.


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