Written by Nigel Roberts
on 21st February 2023
Disappointment is not something we often talk about in youthwork. A recent request to write a grove book on the subject forced me to think about it for the first time in a realistic and honest way. I realised that in my own life I had experienced profound disappointment with myself, with others on my team, with the church, with young people and sadly with myself and God. Thinking about my experiences made me realise how close to losing everything I had come. To admit to disappointment was to admit to failure and that just hurt too much.
Failure is a word we often refuse to acknowledge. Failure implies lack of faith, lack of ability, wrongdoing. Yet we need to recognise the reality that some if not much of what we seek to do will not end well. Projects will fail, relationships may break, and whilst it will be important to evaluate the reasons behind their collapse they are not a reason to run or give in. Samuel Wells, writing about failure says
‘Life begins with failures, because until then we’ve lived in a fantasy bubble…. The most powerful person in the world is the person who isn’t paralysed by fear of their own failure.”
When I first became a worker with Youth for Christ I was so excited. I had dreams and visions of a church filled with young people praising God, of schools where collective worship was amazing because God was tangibly present. I saw CU’s bursting at the seams. Many of you reading this might recognise that dream. You might share it. After 7 years I made the decision to move on with these dreams still unfulfilled. The night before I made my decision, I had a vision. I was standing in a field, and it was beautifully ploughed with furrows in lines awaiting planting. Stones had been taken from the soil and were piled at the field’s edge in little cairns. I took in the view, turned round and went through the gate and there faced another field. But this was overgrown, filled with rubble and in need of lots of hard work. It was as if God said your time is done. You’ve prepared the ground. It’s for another to plant, another to nurture another to reap. Here is your new ground. The visions and dreams I had had when I started were for the mission but had not identified my particular part in that mission. The one God had wanted me to play. That vision helped me face up to my disappointment in leaving my first centre. I thought I had failed, but in fact I had done exactly what God wanted me to do. He was not disappointed, rather, he was pleased.
Iain Craib defines disappointment as the failure of our dreams, hopes or expectations to manifest. It is only because we fill our lives with hope that we open ourselves to the possibility of disappointment. If we filled our lives with fears instead, then disappointment would never occur. He argues that often we place unrealistic expectations on our ministry sowing the seeds of disappointment from day 1. The secret to avoiding this or confronting it is to realise and discover what are God’s hopes and expectations of the ministry in which we are involved?
There is a hint of this in the Emmaus story in Luke chapter 24 v 13. I think that this story carries at its heart a real sense of the disappointment of the disciples. Its openly expressed in v 21 “we had hoped he was the messiah who had come to rescue Israel”. They had joined with the mission of Jesus and got caught up in the excitement of what was happening. Their imaginations were fired by a combination of what they were experiencing and what they understood of their own teaching and faith. They had hopes. They could see how it was all going to end. It was going to be wonderful. But instead, it ended with a crucifixion which the disciples couldn’t even face, though perhaps Cleopas’s wife did (John 19:25).
Then Jesus explains that their vision for the mission didn’t match that of God and using scripture he opens their eyes to what God had intended all along and in doing so allows them to see the events of Good Friday in a completely new light. It wasn’t a failure after all. There was no need to be disappointed in fact there were real grounds for hope. Real life transforming hope. No wonder they raced back to Jerusalem after all this.
What we call disappointment may not be anything of the sort. We can’t deny our feelings. We must give space for them to be expressed but there is more to discover. So isn’t it time we were honest and admitted to disappointment. Isn't it time we shared those disappointments with those we trust and isn’t it time we used them to refocus and move forward into all that God has for us.
Nigel Roberts has recently published a Grove Youth book on this subject. You can find out more information and purchase it here.
 Wells,S (2013) Learning to Dream Again, Norwich, Canterbury Press p189
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Every chaplain in whatever context does their work starting from a foundation of theology. I work out of a theological web; a series of interconnected theologies, which, when woven together offer a rationale for chaplaincy that has biblical integrity and educational/pastoral attraction. At the heart of that web is what I term the theology of chaplaincy as a gift.
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