Blessed Incompetence


Ajith Fernando


A few days ago, by beloved piano teacher, Mrs Seetha Hallock, went home to the Lord. I was not one of her star pupils; but how grateful I am to her! She introduced me to great western music that has been my hobby all these years. I do not use western music in my ministry at all. It took me a long time let our Sinhala music become something that my heart resonated with. I think that has happened now, and I often lead worship in our church. But for personal devotion and for relaxation and fun few things compare with the blessing mediated to me through Western music.

Mrs Hallock used to compare me with my younger brother Priyan who was so much more talented than I but did not practice his piano much in his younger days. I, on the other hand, through sheer perseverance attained a fairly high level in my British exams—though my marks were never too good. Thankfully, my talented younger brother did not forget his music, and still finds much pleasure in it.

My problem is that I am terribly clumsy with my hands. I am unable to get them to do what my mind tells them to do. So I always made mistakes. When I felt the call to ministry I first wanted to be a musician, especially through involvement in choral music. Soon I realised that I did not have the talent for such a career and focussed on the ministry of the Word instead. Thankfully, I can make my mouth (unlike my hands) obey all that I want it to do, so I am able to enjoy my own music by whistling tunes with all the variations and improvisations I wish for them! But now, despite the frustrations, I thank God for the gift of incompetence in the more traditional forms of music. Before I tell you why, let me tell you something else about myself.

I felt the call to the ministry ever since I committed my life to Christ at the age of fourteen. It was about two years later that I was able to pluck up the courage to tell my parents about this sense of a call. They recommended that I first get a university degree. That was and is a very difficult thing in Sri Lanka, as only about 2 or 3 per cent of students who go to secondary school end up in the university system. Thankfully, now there are other options of tertiary education for late bloomers. But in our time there were very few such options. I needed to do four subjects for the examination and the subjects I had chosen were Botany, Zoology, Chemistry and Physics.

In university, and at the entrance exam in those days, one-third of the grade went for practical work in the lab. My clumsy hands made sure that I was terrible at that. I failed the university entrance exam the first time. The next year I did the exam again and I barely made it into the university. But in university too I had the same problem. My degree was in Botany, Zoology and Chemistry and I loved the subjects. I worked very hard, but I never did well. I usually got good marks for theory and terrible marks for the practicals. I finally completed the degree with a very undistinguished result.

But now, I see that God was working through my frustration during those days, both in the fields of music and science, to prepare me for the ministry I was to have. I have come to believe that a key to being happy in ministry and in leadership is the ability to live with frustration. Leadership is very painful. We usually have to spend more time with wounded people that with relatively healthy people. Yet as the title of a recent book puts it: Hurt People Hurt People (by Sandra Wilson, Discovery House, 2001). The very people we help most inflict us with the most painful wounds. Then there is the frustration of working within imperfect structures, whether it is a local church or an organisation. We would like to quit when we are hurt and disappointed. But if God called us to that work or to those people, we cannot quit.

Moses is often considered one of the most effective national leaders in history. But what a difficult job he had leading an ungrateful, rebellious bunch of grumblers! He often went to God with his pain and complained. But he did not give up. In fact when God offered to destroy the rebellious Israeli nation and make a new nation with Moses as the father of the nation, he refused the grand offer and pleaded for mercy upon the people (Exod. 32:7-14). When Jeremiah complained about the pain of being a prophet to a treacherous people God told him that it was going to get worse (Jer. 12).

Being a leader is a great responsibility. Christian leadership is essentially enabling the people God has given us to work together to fulfil God’s plans for the group. When our people hurt us or turn against us we can’t just cast them aside and proceed with achieving our organisational goals. The success of an organisation and the success of the people who make that organisation must go hand in hand. So in Christian leadership God’s organisational goals run parallel with his goals for the individuals who constitute the organisation. Our responsibility for their welfare does not end when they turn against us. Even if they leave us and slander us, we will keep working for their welfare, as we became their fathers and mothers by becoming their leaders. That is the way parents react to rebellion. The family metaphor for the church, so common in Paul and Peter, is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in our pragmatic world. We are too impatient to practice family in the church! Disposable relationships are so much a part of our culture that even Christians do not feel bad about disposing of once close relationships.

The Christian way is to pay the price of frustration in our commitment to our call to a job, an institution, and a people. That is how we will demonstrate the reality of the value of committed love that is so much a part of the Christian ethic. Let’s fight to uphold Christian values, especially the value of committed love! Success at the cost of values will result in church that considers our costly values impractical. That is the new kind of nominalism that is threatening to attack the contemporary church. In the earlier assault a century ago, people did not believe in the miraculous power of the Word and rejected the authority of the Word. The result was liberalism. The new nominalism will believe in the miracles of the Word but reject the values of the Word. Which is worse? That is difficult to say.

I see another great value in frustration. John Stott used to often complain that the church today is a mile wide and an inch deep. Because we lack in depth we will not demonstrate the glory of the radical Christian ethic which may well be the most powerful tool to commend Christianity to the world in this age. This is because when we lack in depth we will be unable to nurture deep life-change in the people who come to our churches so that they are transformed into the image of Christ. To nurture deep people we must be deep people with deep ministries—a depth forged through pain and frustration.

I do not know how deep I am, but if there is at least a little depth, much of it has been forged through frustration. We often experience failure, but we refuse to give up on the situation. Instead we persevere with the very people who exasperate and hurt us; experiencing more and more failure and frustration until finally a resolution is achieved. Even if we do not achieve a resolution, what thought-provoking turmoil is ours during the period of frustration! We mourn; scream (often silently) in anger; we evaluate; we ask, “What went wrong?” we keep looking to the Scriptures to give us clues that will help explain the situation. In other words, the crisis becomes an opportunity to theologise. The result is deep insights into the ways of God and of humans; that is, deep theology.

Over the past three-and-a-half decades of ministry how many, many times I have felt totally incompetent and unable to handle situation I face. But how much I have learned from those experiences of struggling with incompetence and frustration!

If you are going through painful frustration as you pursue God’s call for you, don’t give up your commitments. God may be preparing you to be the answer to one of the greatest needs in the church—the need to rediscover the depth of Christian values. When our love-affair with pragmatism runs its course and the church looks for something deeper, may it find that many did not bow the knee to shallow temporary gain but faithfully upheld the values that can make the world a beautiful place.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).


Note: The principle that frustration breeds effectiveness in leadership is true in what is called “secular leadership” also. I have read an article about how the trials of living with a very unreasonable and hot-tempered wife helped forge the character of Abraham Lincoln that enabled him to skilfully lead a very difficult cabinet and a young nation to some of the most significant steps of progress in its history (John Piper, “The Slow Fires of Misery: Enduring the Pain of a Flawed Marriage,” in A Godward Life [Multnomah, 1997], p. 33-35).