I'm sharing five mistakes I wish I had made a lot sooner. Sooner, I say, because some lessons I seem to insist on learning by the experience of my own failure rather than by the observation of others' mistakes. These are ones I wish I had gotten out of my system sooner.
And, I'm sharing these five (there are more, believe me), because there is no reason for you to go out and repeat them just for fun. Of course, if you're the type who insists on sticking your tongue to the frozen flag pole of life just to see what happens, then by all means go out and make these same mistakes as quickly as you possibly can.
- Mistake: Failing to check with a person before calling on him/her to pray publicly.
During the prime-time Sunday morning worship service I cold-called one of the ushers to pray over the offering. I knew him to be a growing disciple and (at least in this point of my ministry days) routinely called on congregants to pray without warning. Never again! Ronny began with the usual, "Dear Heavenly Father" but then froze up and couldn't utter a word. The guy next to him had to jump in and rescue him. After the service I apologized to him, because it was definitely all my fault. I never again called on someone to pray unless I had cleared it with them first.
Lesson: Someone's comfort (or even ability) to pray in public often has very little to do with their level of spirituality. Always get permission first, even if it's a simple blanket approval for future use.
- Mistake: Missing the forest for the trees.
The family trees, that is. More congregants than you realize are related, either by blood or by marriage. Bank on that! Some of them so dislike each other they won't have anything to do with each other in a normal setting, but don't be fooled by that. As the saying goes, "blood is thicker than water!" That is, if/when things get testy in the congregation, family loyalty (blood) almost always prevails over church family loyalty (water, as in baptismal water).
Lesson: Short of asking everyone to submit a drawing of their family tree, as soon as possible on arrival at a new ministry assignment, find a trusted veteran of the church to fill you in on who is related to whom.
- Mistake: Thinking I could change people.
While riding horseback with a very close friend on his cattle ranch, we rode by what he referred to as the "sick pen." Explaining what he meant by the term, my friend said, "Yeah, if a cow gets sick, I put them in this pen and doctor them twice. After that, it's between them and the Lord." No doubt, people are NOT to be treated merely like cattle. However, I had to learn the only person I can really make adjustments on is me.
Lesson: The Holy Spirit and God's Word are the only real change agents. I can teach the truth, lovingly, and pray for people, but ultimately it really is between them and the Lord.
- Mistake: Taking myself too seriously.
In a previous post about performance orientation, I confessed to an early season of ministry when I was overly sensitive to people's comments about my ministry and my sermons. Truly, not everyone who comes by to shake the pastor's hand on the way out of church says something positive like, "Nice sermon pastor!" Believe me. I've heard it all.
Lesson: A seminary professor was right–none of us will ever be everyone's cup of tea. I had to learn that sermons, in some ways, are a lot like meals. Everyone has their own taste and preferences.
- Mistake: Taking things too personally.
One of my most beloved lay leaders and friends seemed to oppose just about every decision the church leaders and I tried to lead the congregation to make. So, I asked him about it one morning over coffee. He explained that he didn't think it was healthy for any decision the church made to be unanimous, so if it looked like something was going to go through too easily, he was committed to vote against it. He added that he didn't think it was healthy for a pastor, even his favorite, to get the big head, so he would routinely vote "no" in order to keep me humble.
Lesson: Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason why people oppose leaders or goals they are trying to reach. So, I try to remember this–people aren't so much against me as they are for themselves.