The Gift of Disappointment

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When I entered my doctor of ministry program, the first assignment was to write an autobiography of loss. It struck me as a strange assignment at the time, but it ended up being one of the most valuable exercises I’ve ever done. When I got the paper back from my instructor, one of his comments scribbled on the last page caught me by surprise. “I expect that, at some point in this D.Min program, you will be disappointed,” He wrote. “When that happens, embrace it. Your disappointment will offer you a doorway into some of your best learning.”

Turns out my instructor was right on both accounts. Eventually I did get disappointed. And it really did provide a doorway into some of the most transformational moments of the entire program. When I look back, those moments of disappointment—with myself, with God, with my instructors and the program—were where I grew the most.

In their book Renovation of the Church: What Happens when a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation (IVP, 2011), co-pastors Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken offer a similar conviction when it comes to spiritual formation in the church. They use the word “dissatisfaction,” but I think the two words are intimately related. They write,

“Perhaps our greatest lesson from the past decade is that it is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve that dissatisfaction. In fact, there is hardly a better catalyst for transformation than not getting what we want. Sitting in the dissatisfaction, without frantically trying to resolve it, can do wonders for the human soul.” (p.117)

Sounds pretty Augustinian, doesn’t it? I’ll come back to that in a moment. I bring this up because, along with feeling disconnected, the feeling of disappointment is one of the main things I’ve heard from people in my congregation throughout this pandemic. As I’ve talked with other pastors, it sounds like this isn’t unique to my church. Parishioners have felt disappointed with their pastors and their church. Pastors have felt disappointed with their parishioners. It’s put us all on edge. 

I don’t like being disappointed. And I dislike disappointing others even more. This is true I think for many pastors. When it happens—whether I’m the one feeling disappointed or I’m the object of others’ disappointment—I so quickly slip into my default pattern of over-functioning in an effort to fix the disappointment or make it go away.

But what if our disappointment actually is a gift? What if, in these times especially, one of the most important tasks of a leader is to steward their own disappointment and to help others do the same? What if embracing disappointment really can do wonders for the human soul and the soul of a congregation?

Our disappointment can be a gift in the sense that it surfaces and clarifies our expectations, which too often go unnamed. Sometimes these expectations are unrealistic and unfair. Expectations we project on others that they didn’t agree to. As Anne Lamott reminds us, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Embracing disappointment can help us adjust our expectations, which can be healthier for everyone.

Disappointment can also be a gift in that it not only surfaces our expectations but also our idols. Disappointment and dissatisfaction can show us our real gods—who and what we really place our trust in for security, comfort and happiness. I think one of the most prevalent idols that’s been surfaced during this time is the idol of personal autonomy (or individual control). This pandemic has stripped us of the illusion that we’re really in control of as much as we’d like to think we are.

Most importantly, disappointment is a gift because it keeps orienting our hearts toward the kingdom of God, our true home. This is where St. Augustine remains one of our best teachers on the geography of desire. As much as we hate disappointing others and being disappointed, it points us to the One alone who satisfies our deepest longings. Disappointment is a critical experience that keeps us seeking first Christ and his kingdom and reminds us that to be the body of Christ is to be a pilgrim people—a people who haven’t arrived yet but are always “a people on the way.”

Let’s not confuse this with escapism or retreat from the world. Far from it. Dissatisfaction can be a powerful motivator for social change. It can plunge us more deeply into the pain and brokenness of this world as we take up the urgent gospel task of confronting the status quo and bearing witness to this kingdom of peace and justice here and now. To borrow the words of a dangerous prayer prayed repeatedly by the great black preacher and civil rights leader Benjamin Mays: “God, spare me from the satisfied life!” Try praying that each day.

So how are you doing with your own disappointment? More importantly, what are you doing with it? Rather than seeing it as a liability or something to be resolved, what if you embraced it as a gift and helped others to do the same? What if you let it be your teacher?

It just may be a doorway into some of your best personal transformation and your most courageous ministry.

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