My Worst Mistake As a Minister

All ministers make mistakes and I want to tell you about what I believe is the biggest mistake I have made as a minister. When I say “mistake,” I mean the sort of things we do because we didn’t know any better which are done out of naïvety as well as a lack of experience and wisdom. In other words, I’m not talking about sin per se, although my biggest mistake did come with a lot of hubris and pride. So it does involve some sins of the heart and that is why I’m so thankful for the grace of God that forgives sin and lets one learn from the mistakes of the past.

Churches and Ministers

So let’s talk about churches and ministers. Churches call upon a minister to serve with them as a pastor (that’s the typical function whether or not the minister is referred to as a “pastor”). Besides preaching and teaching, the church anticipates growing and engaging in ministry among their community and beyond because they have a minister.

Ministers know this, as I certainly did and still do. I’ve read plenty of books on all things ministry and church growth. In 2007 when I graduated from seminary with my Master of Divinity, the word missional was just beginning to appear on the horizon. The emerging church, which now seems more like just a new approach to the church growth movement, was all the rages. I had read books like The Purpose Driven ChurchBuilding A Contagious Church, and Church For The Unchurched along with many other books, articles, and even blogs. The books all detailed the strategies of some of the biggest growing churches in America.

What I came away with was the idea that I had to have the vision for where the church needs to go, how the church can grow evangelistically and engage in ministry among its community. After all, I’m the minister with the theological education who has read the literature on church ministry (note the hubris and pride!). It didn’t dawn on me, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered at the time, that most of these “high-profile” churches were planted by their current pastor, who had a blank slate to cast a vision and that the church I was called to serve was an existing congregation with an existing culture.

And so here is my biggest mistake: I came to serve in a church with my vision of how the church should be and where it should go.

That was a mistake and a big one. When a minister serves a church that has already existed for a number of years, that church already has a culture. More importantly, God has already been at work in that church. Regardless of whatever problems the church has (as many churches do), God has been at work among those Christians forming them and gifting them for participation in his mission. Failure to see this and respect this has disaster written all over it.

A Change in Leadership

What has changed for me as a minister? I still believe the minister should have a vision for what God is calling churches to become. However, ministers need to hold that vision with humility and openness because they certainly are not the only ones in a church that God has imparted a vision for the church upon. So instead of coming in to serve by casting a very top-down vision and expecting the church to jump on board with that, the minister needs to come in first listening and learning.

As a leader, not the leader but a leader, the minister needs to hold out a vision of Jesus. That is, the minister needs to share with the church how Jesus expects his followers to join him in participating in the mission of God. This is done through preaching and teaching in both formal and informal settings, such as during the Sunday worship gathering or while sipping some great Brazilian or Ugandan brew at a local coffee house. But… Just as the minister holds this vision of Jesus before the church, the minister must also be listening and learning from the church to know where God has led them thus far and how God has gifted them for ministry. Then, and only then, is the minister able to help the church begin discerning where God is trying to lead them for the future. Once the church, together with the minister and other leaders (e.g., shepherds), have spent time discerning how God has gifted them and where seems to be leading them, then the church can begin assess and implementing whatever changes seem necessary.

For example, one of the challenges many churches face is that they are saddled with too many programs that have become more of a tiresome burden. So in order to move forward in following Jesus, a church may need to let go of something in order to do something. It’s like the first disciples who had to let go of their fishing nets in order to follow Jesus and become the fishers of people Jesus was preparing them to be (cf. Matt 4:20). A church, through discernment, may sense that God is leading them to engage in acts of mercy by using their building to be one of several neighborhood churches who feed the homeless one night per week. So maybe instead of participating in a weekly traditional small-group meeting every week, the small-groups take turns once a month serving meals to the homeless instead of just gathering for some Bible-study. But the church will only know this as the minister, along with other leaders, and the church are discerning together how God has gifted them and where God is leading them.

My Last Thought

The top-down approach may work but in my experience, it causes more problems than it solves. More importantly, the top-down approach is borrowed from the world of corporate America rather than from Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to be servants like him and if a minister wants the church to learn how to follow Jesus more deeply and passionately, it begins with the minister exemplifying the servant-leader approach of Jesus to the church.

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4 responses to “My Worst Mistake As a Minister

  1. Excellent insight!

  2. Good stuff. I find this a tough line to walk. I probably started my ministry being too passive out of fear of what you write about. I’m still trying to find the right balance. Thanks.

    • I understand. And I certainly don’t believe that being a servant leader means being passive. We serve by going first where we believe others must go, though we must remain open to the oths as we listen to them so that we don’t run off and leave them behind in a struggle. A very helpful book to read on this is Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve.”

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