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.

Job descriptions for pastors are generally the second-least realistic descriptions in the world, next to singles' personal ads. Pastors are expected to lead, counsel, preach, teach, administrate, fund-raise, vision-cast, visit the sick, marry the love-struck, and bury the dead. No one could do all these things. Jesus didn't do all these things. You will never be able to do them all. Get over it.

Ignoring your spouse, blowing off the kids, hydroplaning over the state of your soul, being apathetic about hunger and suffering and injustice in the world, failing to love the real-life people God places in your church and world.

Actually, these are all excellent things to feel guilty about. This is what guilt is for—as long as it leads to actual change. Just don't waste your guilt on those things that ultimately don't matter.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

Confession  |  Discouragement  |  Grace  |  Guilt  |  Self-examination  |  Soul
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