Battling Discouragement

About 10 years ago while working at a parish I came into my pastor’s office upset. The project I had been working on for months was falling apart.  I was counting on the efforts of several volunteers who had done a poor job, and then quit. Left with too many things unfinished I was ready to give up on the project.  I was also concerned that this would make me look bad even though I thought I had done everything I could to manage the situation. I expected my pastor to either give me a pass and let me drop the project altogether or be really disappointed.  Instead, he asked me a question. “What are you afraid of?”

While I can’t remember the exact words, I said something about being afraid of what he would think of my failure, even though I didn’t think it was entirely my fault.

What he said in reply I remember as if it were yesterday. “Fear is the root of discouragement.  You need less fear and more courage. That’s where the Spirit of God dwells, in the heart of courageous souls.”

His response shook me.  I realized I was discouraged because I had been acting as though this work depended entirely upon my efforts. I was not depending on God’s grace and wisdom to act courageously, even in the middle of hardship and failure.

Everyone who works in ministry gets discouraged, priests and laity alike.  As a result we act defensively or play it safe and this hinders our work. Within a team, discouragement can lead us to make decisions that maintain the status quo at the expense of new, good ideas.  Decisions based on fear don’t serve the Kingdom of God or the mission of the Church.

The best antidote to discouragement is prayer.  By turning to God for guidance and strength and asking for the gift of courage we put ourselves in a receptive attitude.  Rather than dwelling on the failings of others or our own, we ought to fight against accepting an attitude of pessimism. Thinking that things will always turn out badly makes us ready to give up and is a sure step towards lukewarmness.

Another source of great discouragement is a lack of trust among coworkers.  Too often we work counter to one another even when we don’t intend to. One sure remedy to this difficulty is mission alignment.  Having a unified goal changes the rules of engagement with the spirit of discouragement because it allows the spirit of unity to reign instead.  When a team is united in their mission and they have a high level of trust they can act courageously. They will be much more inclined to build one another up, even in times of struggle or failure.  Also, when teams are working together more cohesively they are less likely to cause discouragement in others by doing things that counteract each other’s efforts. Is there anything more frustrating than pouring our heart and soul into something good only to have someone come along and tear it down?

This is why we work so hard with team leaders to show them how to help their team establish a thematic goal: a single top priority usually within a 3-12 month timeframe.  Weekly meetings, focused on the thematic goal’s progress, help teams stay on target. This concrete goal setting and completion of a shared mission provide a sure foundation upon which to build a team’s battle plan and ward off discouragement.  As St. Paul writes in Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

You may wonder about that project that caused me so much discouragement.  Once I got courageous about it and prayerfully found some new volunteers, it changed from a small parish event to a diocese-wide conference.  Instead of reaching dozens of families it reached hundreds. In fact, it got so big, it required that members of the parish staff learn new ways to work together with volunteer leaders.  The Holy Spirit had something new to accomplish through courageous souls. All we had to do was battle discouragement together.