“We need to talk,” dreaded words painfully familiar to anyone in ministry. What often follows is a confession, or worse, a declaration, of sin. It’s the infidelity of a trusted leader, the secret addiction of a staff member, the sudden theological shift of a ministry partner. Every situation is unique and uniquely painful.
However, there is often a common thread with each: Ministry guilt. You probably know the feeling. Your whole body is tense. Your gut churns. You wake up thinking about it, often with a vague sense of dread. You replay every conversation, every missed opportunity, every hint of a problem now so clearly visible in retrospect. In essence, we feel guilty.
If you are in any type of ministry, vocational or volunteer, you will deal with this at some point. For many, this is a primary source of burnout. We cannot control the sin of someone else, but we can control our response. Our response will determine our longevity in ministry. To correctly respond to ministry guilt we first must understand its source. The root issue is that ministry is responsibility for people, and when those people struggle we view it as an indictment of our leadership. In other words, their failure becomes our failure.
Situations like these are a time for evaluation, including what you could have done differently. Perhaps you do need to spend more time pursuing people. Maybe you aren’t interceding enough, or did not respond to the prompting of the Spirit in a conversation. But even if true, you need to recognize that their sin is theirs, not yours. God, in His sovereignty, has given us the capacity to make choices, and you cannot control the choices of another.
Adam was the first disciple and had total access to God, and he choose sin—despite the fact that he had no sinful nature. Jesus spent years investing in Judas, who then betrayed Him and killed himself. The remaining disciples weren’t exactly thriving as the Savior went to the cross. Even after the Resurrection, the rest of New Testament is filled with examples of problems. If you’re dealing with ministry guilt then pick up 1 Corinthians and imagine how Paul felt.
Problems are painful, but they’re also normal because we are working with people. The extent to which you reach the lost and the broken is the extent to which you can expect problems. Revival only makes it worse. When the Spirit of God is moving in power then the darkness is exposed to even greater degrees. As much as I hate the pain, the alternative is worse. If there is no messiness then are we living New Testament Christianity? If we aren’t dealing with problems, in a world full of problems, are we really making an impact?
It’s right to grieve the pain caused by people’s sin. It’s fair to feel betrayed and hurt by the actions of those close to us. But we need to place our feeling of the guilt into the hands of Jesus and recognize that we aren’t the Savior. We cannot convict people of their sin, that’s the Spirit’s job. We are not responsible for the choices of another. We can set an example, we can intercede, we can live in community, and we can plead, but we cannot change people. There is freedom in recognizing our limitations. There is freedom in letting God does His job so that we can be free to do ours.
The next time you struggle with ministry guilt – and yes, there will be a next time – pause for a moment and take it to the cross. The pain you feel stems from the choice you made to pour your life out into the brokenness of people, the choice you made to co-labor with Christ. There is fresh intimacy with Him when we feel the pain He feels. Don’t allow the guilt to push you from Jesus, instead, view it as an invitation into His nearness, the type that only comes with suffering. I hate ministry guilt, but I wouldn’t trade it.