Embracing Disappointment: The Art of Letting Go in Ministry

As we journey through life, we encounter milestones that feel almost surreal. One such milestone is the realization that we’ve spent most of our lives working together in ministry. For instance, my partner and I recently celebrated three decades of partnership in the mission we call “Desiring God.” But as we grow older, we must also confront the natural disappointments that come with leadership transitions.

Disappointments in this context refer to the times when God “dis-appoints” us from roles and responsibilities to which He had once “appointed” us. Every appointment eventually leads to a corresponding disappointment. Preparing for these disappointments is an essential aspect of faithful Christian stewardship, but it is often neglected in favor of resources that help leaders enter their leadership seasons.

In my personal experience, I’ve learned several core values that have helped me prepare for and navigate disappointments in ministry. Here are four essential values that have guided me through these transitions:

  1. Love Jesus’s increase supremely. As we follow the example of John the Baptist, we must remember to love the increase of Jesus’s glory more than our role in that increase. The way a leader relinquishes their role for Jesus’s sake might just speak the loudest of their love for Jesus.
  2. View yourself as a steward. The apostle Paul viewed himself as a servant of Christ and a steward of the gospel entrusted to him. As leaders, we must also see ourselves as servant-stewards, laboring for the joy of others and avoiding giving unnecessary offense to our Christian brothers and sisters as well as unbelievers.
  3. Watch for and support your successor. Unlike King Saul, who sought to eliminate his competition, we should follow the example of Jonathan, who supported and encouraged David as the next king. Christian leader can and should befriend their successor and do everything within their power to help them launch well into their season of leadership.
  4. Love them to the end. Jesus loved his disciples “to the end” (John 13:1). As faithful Christian leaders, we too should love those we lead until the very end.

When the time came for me to step down as the founding CEO of Desiring God, I worked with our board to create a transition process that culminated in my colleague, Scott Anderson, becoming CEO. Under his leadership, the ministry has grown more fruitful, focused, and efficient.

As the founding leader, I am filled with joy witnessing the next generation taking over and doing everything better than I ever could. It’s a taste of the humble joy of heaven, where every saint overflows with joy as they see Jesus increase and remember how God graciously gave them each a small, temporary role in that increase.

Although I didn’t embody these values perfectly, they nonetheless shaped and guided me. I believe the Lord honored my imperfect striving and blessed my friendships with the men who were appointed to take over after me. Embracing disappointment and letting go in ministry is a vital part of our growth as Christian leaders.