When I (Veronica) was on maternity leave with Emma last year, I was introduced to a podcast (Failed Missionary with Corey Pigg) and a book (The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright) on the subject of what happens to the Christian spirit when a mission fails. It had been a little over two years since moving out of southwest Atlanta, where my family lived for about a decade engaged in urban ministry, and I was still grieving how the experience ended. Corey’s and Jamie’s perspectives reminded me that I was not the only “missionary” to walk away from the mission field disappointed.
I’ve blogged previously about processing the lack of positive change from our efforts in the community (see When Outcomes Disappoint) and how in retrospect I can see how the failures forced critical thinking and better solutions to the complex issues facing poor neighborhoods. But there was another component that hung over me like a cloud for a long time…a sense of spiritual guilt…I felt like I failed God.
Over the many years my family contemplated moving out of our southwest Atlanta neighborhood I would often think of the passage in Luke 9:62:
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”
When we finally did move out, even though it was the right decision for our family and our health, I felt like this passage described me – a spiritual failure and wannabe disciple who proved my unfitness to work for God. Even with this awareness, we left anyway. Lord, forgive us.
And yet, as I continue to write and process my journey, I think that’s exactly what God has done – forgiven us. I think Jesus’ words were and are true. It takes firm dedication and singleness of mind to do any great mission, but especially Kingdom work. Jesus needs serious and consistent workers.
But what I am seeing afresh in this verse is not the old failure I used to carry from falling short of God’s requirements, but rather the very real proof that God forgives and makes unfit people into fit people by the giving of unmerited grace and support. I am still in urban ministry today, but in a new and better way – praise God.
The truth is, I did put a hand to the plow and look back. Actually, I walked off the job altogether!
But God in his kindness took the fragments of my spirit and life experience and wove them into a different ministry toward the same Kingdom ends – healing those who hurt that face limited resources.
I hope one message the book drives home is that second (and third, fourth, fifth, sixth) chances are available not just for those who are in need of healing in poor neighborhoods, but for the missionaries and do-gooders who, like me, struggle to get it right the first time.
Take heart friend, your story isn’t over yet.