Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unrealistic Expectations

The phone call ended with a sense of frustration. I had just finished yet another conversation with the same pastor about some struggles he was having in his church. The struggles were very real, and sadly, quite common. Some leaders in his church had different opinions about how certain things should be done. This was creating tension between himself and those leaders. It was not really a theological issue, since both the pastor and the leadership group seemed right on target theologically and doctrinally. But they did not seem to be able to find unity on how to do certain things in the church. Regretfully, that tension had begun to build and, as often happens in the church, people were starting to use the "God told me" line. Once people start claiming that God told them something, it is almost impossible to compromise with them and the only solution they will accept is one that agrees 100% with their viewpoint. I did my best to offer helpful advice and spent time praying with the pastor, but deep in my heart, I feared that it would not end well.

Though I wish this phone call was rare, the reality is that this is a common experience, not only for pastors, but for anyone who aspires to be a leader in the context of Christian community. I have spent a lot of time thinking, reflecting and praying about why these things happen. Though I am still formulating my thoughts, it seems to me that one of the key reasons this happens is because we often have unrealistic expectations of others. We expect people to be perfect, forgetting that we are not perfect ourselves. We do not like it when people use a sharp tone of voice with us, but excuse ourselves when we are tired, or frustrated, and use a sharp tone with others. Just because a person is a Christian, even in a position of leadership, does not mean they are perfect. People have bad days and good days. People have weeks when they spend extra time in prayer, and weeks when they do not spend enough time in prayer. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that everyone in leadership will be perfect all the time.

Even when everyone involved has a good day at the same time, we may have different opinions based on our life experiences. I recall getting frustrated once with a group of church leaders about an insurance matter. I just could not see why they could not understand my perspective. After the meeting was over, one of the leaders spoke to me privately. He simply said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but how much do you really know about insurance?" I had to admit that I knew very little. He went on to explain that two of the five members of the group had extensive experience in that area and it just made sense to trust their judgment on the matter. I was humbled, and decided to heed his advice. It is unrealistic to think that we will understand every detail about every issue.

Many churches would have less tension if they let go of unrealistic expectations. We should accept that sometimes people say and do things they should not have said or done. Obviously, if a pattern of bad behavior exists, then the person may need to be removed from leadership. But if no such pattern exists, then we should accept that they were having a bad day and we should forgive easily and pray fervently for them. We should also accept that no one person is an expert on everything, including ourselves. We should offer our opinions on matters that we are knowledgeable about and remain quiet on issues that are outside our scope of expertize. Just because a thought comes to our mind, does not mean it must escape our lips.

Being a leader in a Christian community can be a challenge, but if we let go of our unrealistic expectations, it is a challenge worth engaging in.

Note: For a post on a similar subject, read Unmotivated Perfectionists.


  1. Oh man…this is really good Terry. I especially liked, "Once people start claiming that God told them something, it is almost impossible to compromise with them and the only solution they will accept is one that agrees 100% with their viewpoint."

  2. Thanks Dave, and I pray it helps leaders become more effective.