When You Feel Like a Failure in Missions
In January of 2013, after 6 years of running a non-profit in Uganda I moved off the field back to the USA and struggled terribly with re-entry. There were many good, wise reasons for this move, including listening to God’s voice, and hitting burnout, but none of them seemed justifiable enough to qualm the voice in my head that echoed with the fact that in leaving I had somehow failed.
It seemed like so many things had gone wrong. And I blamed myself.
When I left Uganda, I wondered if God still had a plan for me or if I’d somehow messed up His will, gone off track.
I couldn’t understand why in the middle of one of my hardest seasons, it felt like God had abandoned me. I felt like maybe I deserved it because I had failed Him too. I hadn’t measured up to His expectations of me.
Even though my husband and I felt confident that God had asked us to leave, there was still expectation I had on myself that to be a successful missionary meant I was supposed to stay there forever. Anything less felt like I hadn’t finished the race.
In my coaching ministry with global workers now, this theme of feeling like a failure is always surfacing.
I’ve learned some things that have helped me not feel like such a failure.
1. We need a new metric for success
I believe many of us hold this faulty belief in missions and aid work, that the length of time we stay on the field is our greatest measure of success. I don’t believe this is true. We don’t measure the CEO of a company by the length of time in his job, but by how his company performed, by his output. Even Jesus’ ministry years were short in comparison to the number of people he helped. Yes, there is something to be said about how much time you’ve invested in learning a people, and a nation and the experience that comes from those years. But I believe when we look at whether or not we’ve been successful, we need different metrics. Did people feel loved when they were around us? Did we give our best? What is the legacy left behind? Were deep relationships built? Were we obedient to what God asked of us? How is our relationship with God and those closest to us? Are we able to still move from love and compassion to those around us? Sometimes leaving is the most loving thing we can do, for ourselves, and for others.
The truth was, it was a lie that I had failed. I hadn’t. When you love and you love deeply, that can never be a failure.
2. Let go of the fear of man
When people parade your picture around church talking about all the “good works” you’re doing, it’s easy to feel like everyone has expectations of you that you can’t meet. It’s easy to feel like you’re not measuring up, or that if people knew your real struggles they’d be horrified. It’s what makes us feel like we have to plaster on a fake smile and a fake face. Or that we have to hide from people. Or that we have to perform so people will be happy with us. In order to save my own soul, I had to stop caring as much what people thought of me. I had to let go of the fear of man, and care only about what God said about me. This can be a painful death when we are used to operating to please others. But there is so much freedom in letting go and just being where we are and being honest about it.
3. Imperfect can be beautiful
The Japanese art of kintsugi, which means “golden journey,” is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. It is all about turning ugly breaks into beautiful fixes. It’s an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. There can be beauty in brokenness and in repair. Not only that, but it these “cracks” in our journey that can lead to the most beauty. The idea that something or someone could be more beautiful not in spite of their brokenness but because of it. What I’ve learned is it’s in brokenness where intimacy with God and with ourselves is truly birthed. I see my brokenness now as an opportunity, an opportunity for growth, for redemption, for wisdom, for the chance to practice self compassion and know God’s goodness. I ask myself now, “What can I learn from this, what is this teaching me?”
4. We need to practice radical self acceptance
This is the notion that we can let go of the idea of who we think we “should be” and accept who we are here and now. It’s knowing that God created you how you are and has unconditional love for you even in the midst of your “failures.” He isn’t expecting perfection from you, just a full and present self. He’s not holding up the measuring stick and finding you wanting. Jesus died not just for our past mistakes, but your future ones as well. When Father looks at you He sees His child in whom He is well pleased.
When we feel like a failure we let shame in, and shame destroys our sense of self worth.
I’ve spent many hours in therapy working through my shame. When I feel shame coming, I like to imagine Father God’s heart for me. I like to ask Him how He sees me. I find, He isn’t pulling away from me, I was hiding from Him.
Sometimes instead of negative self talk I ask myself could I find one thing I’m doing well? Could I see one gift God’s put inside me?
5. Let your greatest setbacks become your greatest comebacks
I wholeheartedly believe that our areas where we feel we’ve failed the most or had the biggest setback, can be our area of greatest triumph. What we learn in these dark moments might be the very thing that defines our life in a new way. What if what I thought was failure, was my greatest launching pad? In fact, what looked like failure ended up leading to my greatest calling. If I had never left Uganda, I never would have found the healing my heart so needed. If I hadn’t found that healing I wouldn’t have found the work I love to do now in journeying with others as I coach them. I now don’t just touch Uganda, but I touch nations through the lives of those who serve there. God completely redeemed my story.
What have you learned from what you thought was failure?