Jesus: The Leader who Failed

What really constitutes success and failure in pastoral leadership?

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

It had had been a bad week. Three church members had gotten on my case, the board meeting had been a struggle from beginning to end, there had been a teenage suicide, and my sermon had flopped.

Maybe I was in the wrong business. Maybe I wasn't cut out to be a pastor, let alone a church leader. Perhaps, I thought, / ought to just hang up my gloves and call it quits. Maybe I simply ought to face the fact that I've failed.

The failure of Jesus

The good news is that Jesus, the greatest preacher and leader who ever lived, also "failed."

Just think about it for a moment. He had only 12 in His primary congregation. They'd not only heard His sermons; they'd lived with Him nearly constantly for three years. Yet not one of them had really grasped the message He had sought to teach them.

Not only had they failed to understand His repeated predictions of His death and resurrection, but not one of them appears to have been converted before His crucifix ion. One betrayed Him, His chief disciple cursed and swore that he didn't know Him, and all of them disputed as to "which of them was to be regarded as the greatest," even while He was telling them that He would die for them. His disciples were still hung up on this topic as He and they trod the path to Gethsemane (Matt. 26:69-75; Luke 22:14-53; cf. Matt. 20:17-28). They hadn't even made it to first base. Yet it was to these very disciples that Jesus had willed the leadership of His church.

Talk about failure! Jesus had come to the end of His ministry, and it doesn't appear that any of His disciples had actually heard Him. Three years of intensive teaching, with no converts in the inner circle. Three years of preaching, and His audience had failed to respond.

How would you have felt in such a situation? Would you die for such people? And yet the unconverted disciples were just the tip of Jesus' failure iceberg. As He hung on the cross, passersby "derided him, wagging their heads and saying, 'You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.'" In a similar fashion the leaders of the Jews "mocked him, saying, 'He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, "I am the Son of God." ' " Even "the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way" (Matt. 27:39- 44, RSV).

Would you have died for such people? I wouldn't. Had I been Jesus, I'd have come down from my cross and shown them exactly who I was. With a flick of my finger I would have obliterated such a wayward "church" in a nuclear conflagration, but maybe that would have been too quick for them! I think roasting them at a slow sizzle would have been more effective in getting my message across. None of them would have forgotten that object lesson.

In short, I don't think I would have died for either the deaf disciples or the wayward crowds. But Jesus did.

And yet He went to His grave an apparent failure. If His leadership and ministry had been judged simply by what meets the human eye and is valued by typi cal human standards, Jesus should have folded up His sermon notes and turned in His credentials.

I don't want to be like Jesus

Christians hear repeatedly that they ought to be like Jesus. But in this arena I really find it difficult to want to be like Jesus. I don't want to be a Christian leader who fails. I don't do well with discouraging days and unruly, thickheaded people. I get depressed all too quickly and begin to wonder if the world (or at least the ministry) wouldn't be better off without me.

To put it mildly, I like success. In fact, I thrive on it. And I don't mean success in the by-and-by. I mean success today, where I can see it, smell it, savor it, grasp it, touch it, and best of all, count it and re port it to the conference office or any broader audience I can find. "Look at me!" I want to shout as I put my accomplishments on exhibit.

I don't want to be like Jesus. I don't want to be like the leader who failed. I want to be greater than Jesus. I want everything I touch to be a shining success. The only problem with that desire is that it hasn't come true. I have had to face the same problems and the same kinds of people that Jesus faced. And the sad truth is that too often I have had the same kind of results. I haven't been greater than Jesus. I also have failed.

Success beyond failure

Yet I have discovered that apparent failure and ultimate failure are not the same thing. I still remember my first evangelistic series. It took place in Corsicana, Texas, a town of 26,000 people with an Adventist church of 12 members. And of those 12, nearly all were in their 70s, and only one was a male. I was 26 at the time. Now, I have nothing against females. After all, my mother is one. And I have nothing against older people. In fact, I am becoming one. But I desperately desired to have young Adventists of both sexes in my meetings to serve as contact points for my hoped-for converts.

To my joy, there was a young Adventist man attending the local community college. I visited him in his room, prayed with him, and pleaded with him to attend my meetings. He never did. I failed, and for some reason this was a failure that really stung.

In fact, by that time I had managed to fail at quite a few things. As a result of those failures, in the spring of 1969 I turned in my ministerial credentials. Unlike Jesus, I quit. I had even decided to give up Adventism and Christianity.

A couple years later I was driving across north Texas and detoured off the interstate to buy something for my wife at the grocery store in Keene, the location of an Adventist college. As I was going through the front door I was stopped by a young man.

"Aren't you George Knight?" he queried.

I admitted to that fact.

"Do you remember me?" he shot back.

Now, at that point I usually try to fake it, but I was so discouraged that I just told him the truth.

"You visited me in my dorm room in Corsicana. That visit was the turning point in my life. I am now studying to be a Seventh-day Adventist minister." I didn't tell him what I was doing.

The point is obvious. I had been successful but had not known it. I had planted seeds that had germinated underground where I couldn't see them.

My problem was (and still is) that I not only wanted to plant but also to cultivate, water, and harvest, all in three weeks. I can't tolerate failure or even delay that appears to be failure. I want immediate success. I don't want to be like Jesus. I want to be greater than Jesus.

What I had to learn is that even though one may plant, it is others who water, and still others who harvest. It seems I have to learn again and again that it is the Holy Spirit who is quietly working in hearts at each stage of development, and it is always the Spirit's work to do the really important work within the souls of the people to whom I minister.

It was the same way in Christ's minis try, and this is why by all outward standards, He appeared to be a failure. Even though He had planted and watered, it wasn't until after His resurrection and Pentecost that fruit came to maturity on every side. This kind of experience in ministry is also to be ours.

A special promise for pastors and other Christian leaders

One of the most meaningful promises in Ellen White's writings is on this very topic. Speaking of the resurrection morning, she notes that the angel who watched over us in life will then inform us on the "history of divine interposition" in our "individual life, of heavenly cooperation in every work for humanity!

"All the perplexities of life's experience will then be made plain. Where to us have appeared only confusion and disappointment, broken purposes and thwarted plans, will be seen a grand, overruling, victorious purpose, a divine harmony.

"There all who have wrought with unselfish spirit will behold the fruit of their labors.. .. Something of this we see here.

But how little of the result of the world's noblest work is in this life manifest to the doer! How many toil unselfishly and unweariedly for those who pass beyond their reach and knowledge!" Parents and other Christian leaders "lie down in their last sleep, their lifework seeming to have been wrought in vain; they know not that their faithfulness has unsealed springs of blessing that can never cease to flow; only by faith they see" those they have worked with "become a benediction and an inspiration to their fellow men, and the influence repeat itself a thousandfold. Many a worker sends out into the world messages of strength and hope and courage, words that carry blessing to hearts in every land; but of the results he, toiling in loneliness and obscurity, knows little. So gifts are be stowed, burdens are borne, labor is done. Men sow the seed from which, above their graves, others reap blessed harvests. They plant trees, that others may eat the fruit. They are content here to know that they have set in motion agencies for good. In the hereafter the action and reaction of all these will be seen." 1

What a promise! What a reality! We need to see that as a preacher and as a leader, Jesus was only an apparent failure.

He was also the world's greatest success. He was able to persevere in the face of discouragement because He saw beyond the mere physical evidence.

An inside view of a day with Jesus

We need to do our ministry with the same view of things. We need to look at our own leadership and ministry in much the way the Holy Spirit, in the gospel record, looked at the life and ministry of Jesus. Given the purposes of the Gospels, it often seems to us that the three years Jesus spent with the disciples were packed with miracles and great teachings and amazing successes.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the daily ministry of Jesus looked quite different from inside a disciple's sandals. To them, many a day with Jesus was merely an other day of heat, dust, and sweat. Does Jesus have to walk so far? Doesn't He know we are hungry? And do I have to walk with that loud and boisterous Peter, with James and John, who had the gall to bring their mother (probably Jesus' aunt2 ) to try to get them the right-and-left-hand places in the kingdom, with pushy Judas and the rest of the gripers and whiners?

From the inside their days may not have looked much different from ours. Similarly, we like Jesus need to look beyond the daily perspective that contains the discouragements and problems we find in the church and in our lives, to the God who is working behind the scenes in spite of human failings and weaknesses.

Our responsibility

Our responsibility is not to worry about ultimate victory, but to do our part today.

I remember more than 20 years back when I was just beginning as a young professor at Andrews University. As a rosy-eyed young educational philosopher with revolutionary views, it had been my hope to get the whole place reformed and straightened out in short order. But the reformation wasn't progressing as rapidly as I had hoped. In fact, not much had changed since my arrival. I was ready to resign and do "something useful."

But by that time I had learned a few things from the "failures" of Jesus. I finally went to God on my knees and committed myself to staying "in the work" if He would just let me touch one soul a year with His gospel of truth and love.

He has kept His end of the bargain. In fact, in some years I have been able to touch more than one through God's grace. Over the years the greatest inspiration in my ministry has been the example of Jesus, the leader who failed but who succeeded so amazingly.

1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952),
pp. 305, 306.

2 George R. Knight, Matthew: The Gospel
of the Kingdom
(Boise: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn.), p. 280.

A variation of this article was initially
submitted to The Journal of Adventist Education.
The editors of Ministry are indebted
to The Journal for its permission to publish
this article prior to its publication in The
Journal of Adventist Education.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

April 1997

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