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The Next Faithful Step

Fail People's Expectations

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Growth often requires people to move beyond their expectations of how things should be. Think about the expectations people often have of ministers and how these expectations shape the way people judge a pastor. Every minister encounters these expectations. Some people believe that a pastor should visit the sick in the hospital. That means every sick person, including those who are only marginally related to the congregation. And the expectations often extend to include something like clairvoyance—after all, the reasoning goes, the pastor should know when people are in the hospital. Almost every pastor has stories about how offended someone was because “no minister visited my father/mother/daughter/son/long-lost-cousin in the hospital.” People don’t think through the mechanics of how a pastor would know their father was in the hospital or that their mother required a pastoral visit. All they know is that “good pastors visit the sick and you didn’t so you must not be a very good pastor.” We are often judged by other people’s expectations.

Other people’s expectations are not the only part of this hospital misunderstanding. The pastor has expectations too. The pastor, for example, expected someone to call her. I was talking recently to a colleague about this moment of misunderstanding. She described her own years in pastoral ministry and the sadness (and anger) she often felt when she found out that a parishioner languished without her knowing it. She said that at some point in her ministry she had to realize that there was a certain absurdity to her expectations. Most people do not have experience with what happens when a loved one enters the hospital. In the midst of the fear and stress, they often do not think well. Every pastor knows that. And many people simply are not going to remember to call the pastor. They have too many other things on their minds. My friend realized that her expectation was unreasonable. So she tried to change her expectation. She tried to educate people who heard about a sick congregant to call the church, even if they were not a family member. And she did something else as well. She shifted her understanding of blame. She no longer wanted to blame people for not calling her. She still had to accept the anger of people who blamed her for not visiting. (Other people’s expectations that “the pastor should have known” remained unaffected by her insights.) But she knew that sometimes pastors have to bear people’s anger even when the situation is not the minister’s fault.

That is why visiting the sick turns out to be an easy example. A mature pastor well understands that she cannot feel responsible for unspoken needs (although the pastor will want to figure out how she could have found out about the needs). No, the harder situation comes when the pastor has to knowingly fail someone’s expectations. For example, many parishioners believe things like: “pastors solve problems” or “if you love someone, you will shield them from pain.” But there are plenty of moments when the most loving thing a leader can do is to let someone solve their own painful problems. I can’t tell a couple how to save their marriage. They have to do the hard and painful work of listening to each other’s complaints and finding a way to make a life together. I am not with them when the husband has to decide whether or not to break his commitment to be home on time. And I can’t be there when a wife gets a call from her husband saying that he has to fly one more time to Dallas on short notice. The hard decisions come from within—from within the person and within the relationship. They have to do the work. And I have to fail that couple’s expectations that I am the one who can make their marriage healthy again.

I may not be able to solve their problems, but I can help. I can listen, point them to resources, and ask them the hard questions that they would rather avoid. Ronald Heifetz has said, “We have to fail people’s expectations at a rate they can stand.1 What that means, for now, is simply that pastors often have to fail the unrealistic expectations of parishioners (and of themselves). Many people expect, for example, that hiring a new pastor will make the congregation’s problems disappear. Indeed many congregants greet the minister with two highly contradictive expectations. They expect the pastor to make the church grow and they expect the minister not to change anything. But growth is, by definition, change. People don’t think through the implications of their conflicting expectations. In fact, they often do not know that they have such expectations. They only become aware of the expectations when someone does not measure up to them. So the pastor has to fail those expectations. But the new minister cannot simply announce on the first Sunday, “I am not the answer to your problems.” The honeymoon would end right there. Nor can he say too quickly, “You are going to have to give up some things you cherish if you wish to grow.” Again, people would not be ready for the message. A leader must fail people’s expectations at a rate they can stand.


1 Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994) 83.