We all make mistakes. And God can use all of our mistakes, missteps and mess ups as essential ingredients in transforming us into his masterpieces!
Over the last 27 years of full-time professional ministry here are my ten worst ministry mistakes:
1. Not prioritizing prayer
Up until 2008 prayer was the caboose, not the engine, of my ministry efforts. Sadly, it took The Great Recession to see true progression in my prayer life. Now prayer, specifically intercessory prayer, is driving my ministry efforts forward in ways I never could have imagined. Learn from my mistake in this area and let prayer propel your life and ministry efforts forward (1 Timothy 2:1-8.) You will not regret it because God will do "exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine...."
2. Putting ministry before marriage
Twenty years ago my wife and I had a blow up during a Bible study where I eventually came clean about my "mistress" called ministry. It was embarrassing (since I was the pastor of the church) but liberating at the same time. The cat was finally out of the bag because everyone in our church soon discovered (thanks prayer chain!) that there was a giant pain point in our marriage.
This phenomenal church rallied behind us and helped us make strides in our marriage. Since then we have experienced steady progress toward victory. I thank God for a loving, strong and committed wife who has been willing to journey with me through a quarter of a century of failing forward toward a healthy marriage.
3. Separating evangelism and discipleship
For years I viewed evangelism and discipleship as distinct Christian priorities. There was growing deep in disicpleship and then there was going wide with evangelism. But over the years God has made it clear to me from his Word that both are so intertwined that separating them risks breaking something precious.
When Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 4:19, "Follow me and I will teach you to fish for people" he forever linked evangelism and discipleship. As my friend Doug Holliday says, "Any disicpleship that doesn't begin with evangelism and end with evangelism is not Biblical discipleship."
As a result of this realization, we have identified seven values that can help any youth leader build a youth ministry that is effective when it comes to winning teenagers to Christ, equipping them to grow in their faith and unleashing them to reach others. Apply these seven values in your youth ministry context and you will discover the power of keeping evangelism and discipleship side-by-side, not separate.
4. Ready! Fire! Aim!
Last year I had the privilege of going to a shooting range with a minsitry partner and he let me shoot his sniper rifle. He coached me through the process and really helped me learn how to aim. He explained to me that an inch off the bull's eye at 100 yards means completely missing the target at 1,000 yards.
What's true in shooting rifles is true in leading ministries. If we are one inch off the bull's eye God has for us in ministry, we may completely miss the mark a decade from now.
Working with great "sharp shooters" like our President, Debbie Bresina, and our Vice President of Minsitry Advancement, Phil Hildebrand, has helped me slow down, take a deep breath and take true aim before I squeeze the trigger. This ready/steady process has moved us from a "Ready! Fire! Aim!" ministry to a "Ready! Aim! Fire!" one.
5. Reacting vs. Responding
My family is a group of reactors. When I was a kid, I witnessed my family "react" to situations with fists and fury. My very urban, very violent family members were ready to throw down in an instant. I thank God that over the years they all have been redeemed by Christ and transformed by the power of the Gospel!
But I did get a strong dose of their react first, think later DNA. This sort of zero-pause reaction time has gotten me into trouble over the years in ministry. While I don't usually throw someone in a headlock I can quickly attack someone verbally if I feel cornered or being condescended to.
I'll never forget getting a confrontational e-mail from a national ministry leader who didn't like one of my sermons that he hadn't even heard. He had heard about it and didin't like what he thought I had said. His arrogant e-mail made me so mad I was ready to get on a plane, fly to his house and confront him to his face.
One of my co-workers at Dare 2 Share simply said, "Respond, don't react." So, instead of boarding a plane, I stopped and prayed. After calming down I wrote a direct but gently worded e-mail with my manuscripted sermon attached. Within hours, he e-mailed me and apologized. After reading my sermon he admitted that he had jumped to the wrong conclusions about what he thought I was implying. He asked for forgiveness which I gladly granted.
"Respond, don't react" was some of the best ministry advice I have ever received.
6. Failure to multiply leaders
For years I was the only one who preached at Dare 2 Share. I did the inspirational talks, trained the students and equipped the youth leaders. After an early disastrous experiment in letting other speakers do the training, I got nervous about giving up the microphone. So, for almost a decade, another communicator could only get the mic if they pried it from my cold, dead fingers.
Over the last several years that has changed dramatically. We have intentionally begun to equip other leaders to inspire, equip and lead. Although it takes longer (and can still result in some micro-disasters) the benefits have been amazing. More teenagers can be trained in more places by more people.
I don't want to die, but I want to be able to die and have this ministry vision still move ahead powerfully. By multiplying leaders, this can actually happen.
7. Counting the wrong numbers
In the church and Christian conference worlds attendance numbers reign as king. But they shouldn't. It took years for me to realize this important truth. As a matter of fact it took a research project that we funded for me to finally accept that one thing mattered more than attendance.
That one thing is impact.
This reality is pushing Dare 2 Share's entire ministry model upside down so that we can have as deep as an impact as possible with as many teenagers as possible (in that order!) We are excited to see what the results will be!
We must be concerned about the right numbers: the number of disciples being made and multiplied, the number of our teenagers growing deep in their faith and the percentage of our teenagers actively sharing their faith.
Big attendance numbers are fine but big impact numbers are even better!
8. Not taking care of myself
Having been out of shape in my late twenties (I weighed a junk-food-induced 225-ish pounds for awhile) I know the kind of impact that a blubbery, buttery body can have on the rest of one's ministry. My energy levels were low, my production levels were medium and my temptation levels were high.
It took some close friends speaking hard truth into my life to help me begin to break these chains. When I finally did it really helped me minister more effectively on every level.
9. Comparing and competitiveness
"We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise." 2 Corinthians 10:12
I've never been good at sports so preaching and ministry growth has always been my court, field and octagon. And I want to dominate my sport.
There have been far too many times than I'd like to admit that I've been driven by competiveness rather than Christ. To be honest, I have to consistently monitor my ever-straying heart to keep it riveted to Christ and working for his glory not my own.
10. Self-reliance vs. Spirit-dependence
Early on in my ministry, I tended to be a "jumper cable Christian." I'd get a spiritual surge of energy from the latest/greatest preacher, podcast or praise song and get the Jesus jolt I needed to make it through the day. The problem is that, with this sort of hook-your-jumper-cables-up-to-the-anything-other-than-Jesus, you inevitably run out of juice.
Over the years I've been learning more and more what it means to plug into the steady current of the Holy Spirit who dwells in me. Regardless of mood or proximity to charged up events or preachers or music, He is the "ever ready" power source to give me the strength I need to walk victoriously over sin and advance His cause in my sphere of influence. Now I seek to live in a daily declaration of dependence on the Holy Spirit. This practice has allowed me to do ministry with less highs and lows and keep in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:25.)
These are my ten worst ministry mistakes. If you feel so led, share one or two of yours. And let's fail forward together until we finally fall into the arms of the Lord Jesus who is cheering us on from the finish line!