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Home > 2012 > April Web Exclusives > Guilt Gone Wild

Mark Twain reportedly said that man is the only creature that blushes—or needs to.

Guilt is perhaps the modern world's most undervalued commodity. Our capacity for it is a hint of our meaning and destiny. We are able to knowingly create good—and evil. The ability to experience guilt is a sign of health. The only two kinds of people who experience no guilt are saints and psychopaths.


I often think that guilt is a particular hazard for people involved in ministry and church leadership. I don't mean the kind of 'godly sorrow' that the Spirit brings to lead us to repentance and full life. I mean the kind of chronic cloud of inadequacy and general 'loserliness' that chokes motivation and saps energy. So here are a few chronic guilt-inducers that you might want to consider unloading.

Not pleasing everyone.

A friend of mine left the marketplace to start working in the church. He said his biggest surprise in his new role was that it can seem like everyone in the church feels like his supervisor.

Technology makes the greatest talks in the world available to everyone. They're free to compare and contrast with whomever happens to be the live teacher at their church. And everyone has opinions. Years ago when I spoke at a conference a total stranger came up to me and said, "I thought your voice sounded familiar. A friend of mine gets all your tapes—and sends me the good ones."

I think pastors in particular struggle with guilt here for a few reasons. One is that the pastorate attracts a disproportionate number of people-pleasers (as opposed to other occupations like being an umpire or marine drill sergeant or wedding coordinator). Another is the nature of our work. We deal with what matters most. If we fail, then the maintenance of sacred doctrine and the eternal wellbeing of souls are on the line. But if my guilt detectors go off every time someone is not pleased with me, they will never turn off! Whom did Jesus not disappoint?

Not reading everything you should

A university faculty member I know says the biggest lie in the academic world is, "Yes, I've read that book." Since I went into ministry, there has been a stack of books and journals that I have not yet gotten through. Calvin and Luther never had to deal with this information glut. Most of the wonderful stuff that keeps getting written every year you will never read. If you did nothing but read all day, you'd never absorb it all. Plus no one would pay you. Get over it.

Not remembering enough names

I have been doing church ministry 30 years. I still don't have a good response when someone whose name I've forgotten says, "Do you remember who I am?" Babe Ruth used to call everyone "Kid," because he couldn't remember names. You could go that route. Another option is the one used by Jim Carrey in the movie Liar Liar. When he was temporarily unable to deceive, he greeted somebody with, "Hi! You're not important enough for me to remember your name." I wouldn't suggest using that one.

Not keeping up with expectations.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Posted: April 23, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Sergio Arce

May 24, 2012  9:07am

Great article, especially the non-recommended piece of advice to combat not remembering enough names, "Another option is the one used by Jim Carrey in the movie Liar Liar. When he was temporarily unable to deceive, he greeted somebody with, "Hi! You're not important enough for me to remember your name." I wouldn't suggest using that one." - This one made my day. Thanks!

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Timothy Wright

May 08, 2012  4:44pm

Hi, John, I am not guilty. Jesus paid for my sins. I am the righteousness of Christ in God. I am his Son. I am seated in the heavenlies. I am hid in Him. Love Ya. Tim

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May 04, 2012  5:36pm

Good article, but you failed to mentioned that pastors or ministry staff lack the leadership skills to assign task. Some take it upon themselves to do all the work because they don't rely on their assistants to help out. They need to train others to carry the burden and stop being a one man show

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Wes Harrison

April 27, 2012  7:58am

If I didn't know better I'd think this article was written directly for me. How appropriate for me today!! I can't save the world...only Jesus could do that. Lord, give me the clarity to know what you have called me to and to let go of the rest.

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April 26, 2012  8:52pm

Thanks, John, for pointing out, once again, the kinds of unrealistic expectations from which we need freedom. I live and serve in a multi-racial country. Some names are three syllable Asian names;some are long, difficult, Indian names; and some are very Arabic sounding. Added to that, I serve multiple churches in multiple places. As hard as I try, I simply cannot remember all those names. So far, my best strategy is simply honesty, especially if I cannot pick up any clues from the conversation. Thankfully, the people here are tolerant and merciful, at least most of the time. They just tell me I am getting old! One other thought about guilt. It is worst for me when I compare myself with other people in a negative manner. That's when I need the scriptural remedy found in I Cor 3- Every man will be judged for his own work. Blessings to All!

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