Life’s most important lessons are often the costliest. They may cost suffering. They may cost time. They may cost failure. They may cost loss. They may cost loneliness. Some even cost money.

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Life has taught me some hard lessons.

  • God will provide when the cupboard’s empty and the paycheck stopped coming in.
  • You will recover and life goes on after the death of a loved one.
  • Your biggest fans might be the people who bait the trap.
  • Sometimes “I’m praying for you” means “I wish you’d straight up and fly right.”
  • Purpose is waiting to be discovered when we’re feeling useless or purposeless.
  • Praise and affirmation doesn’t survive until Monday morning.

Learning leadership lessons can be especially troubling. For me the lessons included frustration, aggravation, bewilderment and disappointment.

Among my most valued leadership lessons is the wisdom I gained by disappointing others.

The backstory


The church’s slide into oblivion began several decades before I arrived. The previous pastor spent eight hard years trying to stem the tide. Nothing worked. The search committee thought I as their last, best hope.

I did the best I could to make it clear that I would focus on preaching and teaching, realigning the church to its community and managing the day-to-day operations.

I was not going to be their chaplain.

But some people didn’t get that Memo. And if they did, they didn’t bother to read it.

They called their chaplain

Some of them wanted me to drop by every week for coffee. Others wanted me to join in (or at least marvel at) their hobbies.

A few wanted me to be the miraculous counselor who would redeem the mess they’d made of their lives.

The infirm and shut-ins were sorely disappointed that I didn’t keep them as recurring appointments in my calendar.

Others were dismayed that I didn’t help them keep long-dead programs on life support.

They loved my preaching and teaching. But they were disappointed that I meant what I said about not being their chaplain.

Lessons I learned from disappointing people

1 – Desperate people project their needs onto you

The shut-in was lonely. Stuck at home. Trapped in an unhappy marriage.

To him, I was the friend. I was to drop in frequently to chat, discuss the news, perhaps play cards, and pray.

The cancer patient was fearful. A lifetime of Sunday mornings¬†were insufficient to calm his fears. He wasn’t sure what would happen he entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

To him, I was the priest. I was to administer grace and comfort.

When people are desperate, they’re going to project their needs onto you. And no matter what you do, it won’t be enough.

2 – You never do enough for some people

The cancer patient’s family made their displeasure known by having his memorial service at another church. Conducted by another pastor. The fact that I had visited weekly, had prayed with him and the family, and had often visited his grown children and their families wasn’t enough.

I later heard from one of the shut-in’s good friends that he was disappointed that I didn’t drop by every week to spend a few hours with him. The fact that he had children and grandchildren, that he had others who visited regularly – none of that was enough.

No matter what you do, it will never be enough for some people. And when you’re feeling down about things, you’ll tell yourself, “I could have done more.”

You probably could have. But even then it wouldn’t have been enough.

So do what’s reasonable and learn to ignore the complaints.

3 – You can’t let unreasonable demands shape your leadership

The One who’s judgment matters most should be your focus.

You’re a shepherd – that means that you’re called to lead (more about this in our upcoming book).

So lead.

Organize your schedule, conduct your ministry and set your priorities by Jesus’ priorities. If you don’t, you’ll leave the church leaderless while you run around tending to all the bleating sheep.

4 – The pain of being a disappointment doesn’t last

Sure, all of us want to be liked. Pastors want their church members to like them.

But the fact is that not everyone’s going to like you. You’re going to be a disappointment to them.
If you’ve done your job the way you understand Jesus wants it done, their disappointment doesn’t matter.

And the sorrow you’ll feel over their disappointment won’t last. Quite to the contrary; you’ll be in a better frame of mind to set aside unreasonable expectations in the future!

5 – You must manage their expectations

Be clear with people. Let them know exactly what they can expect from you. And don’t hesitate to let them know if a request will not be honored.

I had been in the habit of closing a visit with shut-ins and at hospitals with a promise of “I’ll be back.”

That is a mistake. That leaves it open ended.

I’ve learned to say, “I’ll be back in two weeks.” If the person is a medical patient I’ll add, “… unless things take a turn for the worse.”

How about you? What important leadership lessons have you learned from disappointing people?