Maintaining a positive outlook in ministry

Importance of a Positive Outlook

  • People thrive when you believe in them. Most people tend to have a low view of themselves. Even people who project a lot of confidence or positivity can often be overly self-critical. They need people who will believe in them, who will remind them that God continually works in them.  

  • Effective leaders cultivate the discipline of maintaining a positive outlook. Most of the leaders I know, who’ve planted churches and raised up quality Christian leaders have learned to maintain a positive outlook with their people. They resist giving into their negative thoughts. They “hold their thoughts captive to Christ’s obedience” (2 Cor. 10:5).

But positively, they train their eyes to see the good stuff God has done or continues to do. At the end of Paul’s letter, he urges the Philippians,

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. (Phillipians 4:8) 

But his letter tells us this church struggled with unresolved conflict, growing legalism and lack of humility. Yet, he tells them to focus on the good things God was doing.

  • Spewing negativity doesn’t purge negativity; it feeds it. I’ve never come out of a whine-session feeling relieved. I’ve never vented my frustrations about people and walked away feeling more positive about them. These just make things worse. Even though I fight the negative thoughts swirling around my head, something about expressing these thoughts amplify them.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Rheumatology, researchers asked 40 participants (with chronic pain disorders) to complete a symptom checklist. Then they asked half the participants to keep a symptom diary each day for two weeks, while the other half was not. At the end of the two weeks, those who kept a symptom diary expressed increased frequency (doubled) and significantly increased intensity of symptoms compared with the control group, which hadn’t changed its mean frequency or intensity.[1] In other words, constantly fixating on bad or negative things makes it worse.   

  • Negativity spreads defeatism, defeatism leads to unbelief and unbelief may prevent us from experiencing God’s blessing (Heb. 3). Consider the spies who entered the Promised Land. They came back and discouraged the Israelites from entering the land because of the mighty people living there. And the people refused to enter the land, even though God promised he would deliver them from the hands of the inhabitants. In the same way, spewing negativity about our group may spread defeatism, which may lead to unbelief. And unbelief may result in a hardened heart.

  • Worse, our love for people may grow cold and even threaten the existence of our church (Rev. 3). If as some commentators argue, “losing your first love” refers to losing your love for people in your church, then negativity threatens to cause our love to grow cold for people.

This talk was born out of my own realizations and convictions on this subject. Last year, I noticed my love for people growing cold. I noticed myself wanting to get away from people. During fellowship times, I found myself looking down at my watch. I found that people were getting under my skin more than normal. I sensed something was wrong. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I asked God to reveal what was wrong.

Around this time, I brought a few people with me to visit another church in Idaho. We went to see if we could learn something from them. During one of the services, the lead pastor, Jim Putman, gave an illustration that hit me.

He said as a brand new Christian, he told his dad that he wanted to follow Christ, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with the church. So a few weeks later, his dad called him and said, “Hey Jim, I wanted to get some advice. There’s this family in the church that invited me over to dinner, but they don’t like mom.” The pastor became angry and said, “I get why they may not like you. But mom?” So his dad said, “What should I do?” The pastor said, “There’s no way. They can’t invite you and not invite mom. That’s just not right.”

His dad just paused, which meant that something just happened. His dad said, “Jim, that’s how Jesus feels about his bride the church. You can’t say you love Jesus, but not his bride.” In the same way, you can’t love God and reject his bride.  His dad explained, “The bride doesn’t always look beautiful. She’s a work in progress. And you should see your part in that.”

And it occurred to me. Even though I don’t always feel like loving the church. I can choose to love the church.  If you choose to focus on the broken stuff in the church, there’s plenty of problems to look at. But God wants us to love his bride the church. If we cop a negative attitude toward our church and fail to love it, the church might disappear.   

  • Evangelism thrives in a positive environment. Or to put it negatively, an air of negativity stifles evangelism. Non-believing people won’t feel attracted to a group where the people there feel discouraged and don’t like their group. Often, the fastest growing groups have a positive vibe, which produces excitement.

  • People need to see progress to remain motivated. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile’s research found that nothing motivates more than seeing progress, “This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life.[2]

Seeing a consistent stream of minor successes produces more motivation than occasionally hooking the big fish. According to Terry Orlick a professor of sports psychology says, “Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishment.”[3] Seeing progress has a powerful effect on people.

Video game designers are aware of this and exploit this when they model their games. That’s why in most video games, you make incremental progress each time you play.     

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, I don’t have this problem, because I don’t struggle with negativity.’

The opposite of positivity isn’t just spewing negativity.

It may take the form of:

  • Withdrawing from certain people – You may not sit around and say a bunch of negative stuff about people; you might just withdraw from them. You write them off and try to forget about them.

  • Lacking vision for someone – Or it might take the form of lacking vision for someone. This could happen with the people we're trying to mentor spiritually. We meet with them every week, we study the Bible with them, but we don’t envision them becoming an effective Christian worker. Or we don’t see how they’ll ever change. We continue to meet with them, but we’ve lost sight of their potential.

  • Underestimating someone’s potential – We’ve determined someone’s potential, before allowing God to show us what he or she are capable of doing

If we hold low standards for our people, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many years ago, Robert Rosenthal conducted an educational study where he discovered what we now call the “Pygmalion Effect.”[4] In this study, researchers told one group of teachers that their students were exceptionally bright. Their IQ scores were far superior to that of normal students. They might act lazy at times and they might act like they cannot understand or master some material, but this didn’t fit with the facts. They had a profound capacity for learning and success. Researchers gave another group of teachers a very different perspective of the students they would be teaching. Their students weren’t that bright. Their IQ scores weren’t that high. Although some might show promise, they possess a lower capacity to learn.

What the two different groups of teachers didn’t know was the IQ scores of their students about were the same. They were –for all practical measures– statistically equal.

Time went on and the results were stunning. The students working with teachers who believed in their abilities saw tremendous growth and success. The other students didn’t do so well. After all, what did anyone expect? Researchers stopped the study prematurely because the researchers felt it was harmful to the children.

The first group continued to make incredible leaps in progress and growth. The second group struggled even at its best moments. What was the difference? The students were the same. The difference arose from what others thought or believed they could do. The teachers who possessed low expectations became self-fulfilling prophecies.

  • God is the Great Optimist – Look at how much Jesus had to endure with his disciples. Yet, he saw potential in them. When Jesus called Simon (an emotional and unstable person), he renamed him Gk. petros, the Rock upon which he would build his church.

When Jesus stepped onto Peter’s boat, he saw potential in the big lumbering fisherman. After Peter hauled in that big catch, Jesus said to him, “From now on, you’ll be fishers of men.” And it took Jesus three full years –filled with bumps along the road– to train Peter for this role. But he saw what Peter was capable of doing.

Consider the patience Jesus showed his disciples. Jesus constantly repeated himself to his disciples. He’d tell them that his followers should be servant leaders. But then they’d start arguing over which one of them was the greatest. He’d modeled compassion and love for people who resisted him. But they were ready to call upon God to strike these people down for their insolence. Even though they had a lot of rough edges, Jesus could see slivers of potential in them.

See Paul’s confidence in the Thessalonian’s ability to overcome obstacles they face. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul encourages these believers to endure persecution. He warns them not to be “shaken or alarmed” by those spreading false teaching. And he rebukes the slackers in this group who won’t work and live as barnacles on the Body of Christ. And yet, he was able to say,

But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. And we are confident in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we commanded you. (2 Thessalonians 3:3-4)

It boggles my mind that God sees anything in me that would lead him to carry out his work through me. I’ve got a lot of problems that continue to nag me, even to this day. And yet, Paul could say, “Present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed…” (2 Tim. 2:15). God can see the potential buried in us. And works to grow our potential, while sanding off the rough edges.    

Overly Positive

Let’s look at some of the causes associated with seeing people in an overly positive light. 

  • Don’t want to deal with people’s problems – Some view people in a positive light because they don’t want to deal with their problems. It’s easier to overlook issues than address them.

  • Let their goals bend reality. Others let their goals bend reality. They’re so determined to succeed in ministry, they push for the people they mentor to occupy leadership positions even though these people have serious character issues or had a recent serious moral failure. Or they push for more and more numerical growth even though the spiritual growth of the people in their group lags behind. 

  • Tend to be selective – Often, overly positive people tend to be selective about their positivity.  

Overly positive people tend to aim their positivity toward their own people, but show undue criticism toward others. 

They feel negativity toward people they don’t like or people who rub them the wrong way. But they’re very positive about people close to them. 

In rare cases, these people hold a generally positive view of other people, but have an especially negative view of those whom they mentor spiritually and close friends. That’s probably because they’re close enough to these people to see their problems. Or that they compare their ministry with other people’s ministry and say, “If only I had someone like that, my ministry would be way better.”

If God possesses an optimistic view about us even though he knows all of the things we hide and all of the sin we will commit, then we should hold an optimistic view of people. Now, this doesn’t mean we should overlook people’s problems. But, if we look at someone’s long-term spiritual progress, we should be optimistic about where they’re headed. In fact, consider how much progress your friend, child, or spouse has made in the last year or five years. They’ve made progress.     

Now, some people justify their negativity by rebranding it as “discernment.” But I’ve met a lot of “discerning” people whose discernment hasn’t equated to good results.    

Lack of Positivity: Common Causes

  • Self-righteousness – We’ve lost sight of how carnal we used to be and how patient people were with us.

Even as a spiritually mature believer, Paul never lost sight of God’s grace toward him. For example in 1 Timothy 1:9-15, he says,

For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother…who are sexually immoral…who practice homosexuality…are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News…

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all.

You can’t detect even a hint of self-righteousness in Paul’s voice. He was able to rail against the carnality of his culture, but in the same breath admits that he’s worst sinner of all! We need to regularly reflect on how rocky and difficult our journey was toward leadership. That’ll give us some compassion for people’s struggles.   

  • Failure or Unmet Expectations – It’s easy to stay positive and excited when things are going well in your ministry. But it’s just as easy to plunge into negativity when things aren’t going as well as planned.

And typically, we’re not succeeding on all fronts of ministry. Maybe our church continues to grow, but the person we're mentoring spiritually isn’t doing too well. Or maybe one segment of our church seems to be doing well, but others continue to suffer.    

  • Comparison with others – We look at other people’s ministry and say, “If I had those people in my church, my ministry would be so much better.” But they’re just as good as our people. Or we don’t see their people’s problems as well because we don’t have deal with them.

  • Unrealistic Expectations – We’ve misjudged where our person or people are at. We expect them to give up some selfish habit even though we haven’t provided them an alternative. Or we’re frustrated with them because we expect them to do something, but we’ve never given them instruction. Or we’re impatient and haven’t given them enough time to develop. Unrealistic expectations lead to constant frustration and nitpicking.  

Cultivating a positive outlook and environment in your ministry

  • Direct people’s eyes toward recent answered prayers – That’s why I like to keep a record of my prayer lists. It helps me keep track of intercessory prayers, so that I can spot when God has answered my prayers. And when I see that God has answered a prayer, I bring it to people's attention.

Some of you might be persisting in prayer right now. You’ve been asking God for something and it seems like he’s withholding the answer. He may be using it to strengthen your faith. And at just the right time, he will answer it. Recently, a guy has been attending my small group. He wasn’t sure if he even believed in God, but was investigating Christianity. So for months, the guy who brought him would dialogue with him about spiritual things. And our group would pray for him at our weekly prayer meeting. Well, this guy enlisted to go to the military so there was some urgency to make sure we answered his questions. At his last small group meeting before he embarked to basic training, the guy in our group urged him to consider inviting Christ into his life. Three days later, he texted the guy in our group and said, “By the way, I talked to Jesus and asked him to forgive my sins. I’m gonna trust him every step of the way.” Everyone in our small group expressed their elation over him coming to Christ. But at our next prayer meeting, I pointed out to our group that after months of prayer, God answered our prayers at the very last moment.   

  • Practice and emphasize a spirit of gratitude in your group – Direct people to thank and praise God at the beginning of your prayer meeting. This cultivates faith and excitement.

But we should also find creative ways to remind people of how privileged we are. I remember on one of our annual college ministry vacations, one of our leaders organized a night walk. At one point, he stopped on the beach and suggested we pray. When we circled for prayer, he started by reminding us that we’re the most privileged people in the world –to have money to travel, to have good friendships and to have a relationship with God. That made a huge impression on me.

  • Remind people of past victories. The author of Hebrews helps his audience (who were on the verge of apostasy) cast their minds to the way they held up under persecution with courageous faith. Hebrews 10:32-35: Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten…You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy…So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!    

  • Try catching your people doing something right. In most organizations, leaders spend most of their time catching people doing what? Doing something wrong. If you want to cultivate a positive environment in which people grow, we need to find ways to catch them doing something right. 

That’s especially true with young believers, with whom we are working. But it’s also important for young Christian workers just getting a start in ministry. I find that I need to ramp up my coaching and feedback when the person I'm mentoring starts to build a personal ministry. When they haven't established a ministry, their incompetence and deficiencies aren’t that clear. But when they start building a personal ministry, their incompetence comes out.   

  • We need to tell them exactly what they’re doing right. It’s not that helpful to a young believer when you say, “You did a good job on your teaching.” You should say, “I really liked how you wove antithesis into your teaching, I’d like to see more.” Or, “It showed a lot of tact when you backed off in that conversation. We’ve been talking about that. Good job.” When you tell them exactly what they’re doing right, it suggests you’ve spent time thinking about it and it reinforces what they’re doing right and gives them direction.  

  • We need to tell them the next time you see them. I learned this early on in my ministry.

Years ago, I was talking to an older leader about how the guy I was mentoring spiritually finally made some progress on something we had been talking about for months. And the older leader asked me, “So what are you going to do?” I was confused. I said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?” He said, “You better throw a party the next time you talk to him. You can’t miss an opportunity like that.” He made a good point.

You can’t blow it after the guy you're mentoring finally takes a baby step in the right direction after weeks of raising tension. That’s missed opportunity. A well-timed word of encouragement can inspire and give that person momentum.   

  • We need to catch our person doing something approximately right until they can eventually do it right. For some of us, it’s hard to remember how steep the learning curve was when we first started building a ministry or leading. Or some of us just hold out till our person nails it to encourage them.

But we need to catch our person doing something approximately right until they can eventually do it right. When a one-year-old stands up for the first time and falls, you don’t stand them up and say, “Try again.” You say, “You stood up!” And then the next day when she stands up, takes a step and stumbles, you say, “That’s amazing!” You praise and celebrate until they eventually get it right. You don’t withhold until they get it perfect.

It’s the same with your people. If people are taking stabs at outreach, but are making some mistakes, you praise them for their effort. You celebrate that and give them some constructive feedback. You do this until they get it right!   

According to Kenneth Blanchard, most leaders don’t try to catch people doing something right, they leave them alone and “periodically zap them just to keep them moving.” He calls it the “leave alone-zap style.” Kenneth Blanchard explains what he means in his book One Minute Manager, “You leave a person alone, expecting good performance from them, and when you don't get it, you zap them.”[5] This style of leadership doesn’t work too well with people who lack confidence or feel insecure due to a lack of experience. It leaves them confused and discouraged. They know what they ought to be doing, but they’re not sure what steps to take or if what they’re doing, is right.

  • Urge people to keep going when they experience setbacks or ministry reversals. They often don’t see the big picture. So we need to encourage them to keep pressing forward. I used to draw a lot when I was younger. So when I was in 5th grade, my teacher encouraged me and another kid in my class to enter a citywide art competition. We were supposed to reproduce a famous painting, like Monet’s “Lilies” or Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” on a 28”x 40” canvas or paper. So I worked on this thing for two months.

I think the first month consisted of me starting to sketch my piece and ripping it up and starting over. I tend to be a perfectionist.

When I finally laid down a sketch, I would make some progress. But then I would look at it and think, “This isn’t good.” So I would tell my teacher, “I don’t think I’m going to finish. I’m going to withdraw from the competition.” My teacher would walk me over to my work and look it. She’d say, “It looks good. Keep working on it. You’re not finished. Let’s see what it looks like when it’s done.” That would keep me going for a couple weeks.

But then I’d look at my classmate’s painting (he was my art rival who my other classmates said was better than me) and I’d be ready to quit again. My teacher would urge me. “It looks good, just finish.”

Well, eventually I finished. And I won. And my rival didn’t even place –not that that matters. They hung my piece in a gallery and I got to meet the mayor’s wife.        

In the same way, our people will face setbacks, reversals and failure in ministry. And they’ll experience discouragement, they may even want to quit. But we need urge them to keep moving forward and remind them of the big picture. 


[1] Robert Ferrari and Anthony Russell, “Effect of a Symptom Diary on Symptom Frequency and Intensity in Healthy Subjects” in The Journal of Rheumatology, vol. 37 no. 11 2387-2389, 2010.

[2] Theresa Amabile, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work Hardcover – July 19, 2011.

[3] David Niven, The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, 2009

[4] Robert Rosenthal, On the Social Psychology of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Further Evidence for the Pygmalion Effects (New York: MSS Modular Publications, cations, 1974); Robert Rosenthal, “Interpersonal Expectance Effects: A 30-year year Perspective,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 3, no. 6 (1994): 176-79; Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968).

[5] Kenneth Blanchard, One Minute Manager, 83