My good friend, Dr. Charles Wood, offers some great observations in his latest missive that I thought would be of interest to my readers. Take some time and read his ponderings on the mistakes we make in churches — from the pulpit to the pew. He stepped on my toes in several areas and I’m guessing he might step on some of yours as well.
There are very, very few areas in which I could claim expert status (I do have an uncanny ability to anger people by what I write). There is one area, however, in which I am absolutely expert and that is in making mistakes. If a mistake could be made, I have probably made it. especially in ministry and the life of the church. Possible “saving graces:” I have tried to correct what I could, learn from them all and not repeat them if at all possible. I have been thinking lately about some of the mistakes I have made and observed, and out of that thinking cones this column.
Mistakes pastors make:
Playing “Johnny one-note” It’s great to be fascinated by the Book of Revelation, but preaching through it over a two-year period may be a little much for a congregation to bear (yes, I have actually known of someone who did so). There is certainly a “list” of themes that should be regularly repeated, but that list is long enough that no hypnotic repetition should be necessary.
Incorrectly estimating one’s popularity: As I have stated many times before, I think the average pastor has far more support in the church than he thinks he does. Those who are upset usually make it known (loudly and frequently). The satisfied rarely say much of anything until they have an opportunity to vote on something. They then almost always come out on the side of a good pastor. There is a flip side to this, however, and that is when a pastor over-estimates congregational support. I have watched pastors approach certain issues of decisions with absolute confidence, only to be shocked by a rebuff (if I remember correctly, that happened to me a couple of times early in my ministry).
Failure to have friends in the congregation: I once heard a pastor brag that he had never eaten a meal in the home of a member or been taken out to eat by any of his congregation. I asked for his rationale; he replied that a pastor could not afford to be closer to anyone than to everyone. I didn’t say anything, but I thought that Jesus evidently didn’t know this (think Peter, James and John), and that Paul had so many friends he could hardly list them all. I had many friends in my four pastorates, and some from all of them including the current one continue to be close to my heart and involved in my life.
Preaching personal opinions as if they were Scripture: This may be the most common error of all those made by preachers. It can - and does - arise from several possible causes. One is pure arrogance in which a man is so convinced that he is right that he needs no Scriptural basis for a,”Thus saith the Lord.” Another cause of this phenomenon is the practice of deciding on a subject rather than first identifying a text. Still another cause is the failure to do careful exegesis (which takes time and effort).
Making decisions on the basis of potential consequences: Although I always tried to think through to worst-case scenarios, I also tried constantly to make decisions based on right or wrong, Biblical principles or other valid consequences. I didn’t want to be “blind-sided” by consequences, but I refused to let potential consequences determine what I did or didn’t do. When I came to the conclusion that the ban on women wearing slacks had no Biblical basis, I simply got up and explained what had led me to make that change. (In that instance, the consequences were far less than I had anticipated because almost everyone was already ignoring the ban except when at church.)
Mistakes church leaders make:
Making major changes at inappropriate times: The worst time that major changes can be made or initiated - in my opinion - is when a church is without a pastor. Such “interim” changes are often made with the best of motives, but they make the search for a new pastor much more difficult. Changes made to satisfy a departing pastor may be totally unacceptable to a new man. Changes made to correct the excesses or shortcomings of a departing pastor often backfire in that an incoming pastor is very different from his predecessor and will be unnecessarily handcuffed by restrictions that he doesn’t need.
Trying to keep matters “secret:” I worked with more than thirty-five deacon boards over the years, and I can only remember two or three of them that did not have a “leak.” I was never troubled by leaks to people who had at least some claim of a right to know (former deacons, former pastors or other Christian workers in the ongregation,etc.). But…”secrets” rarely are such for more than a few days, and when they get out,.they usually cause more trouble than straightforwardness would have caused in the first place. “Secrets” also create the “dancing bear syndrome” in which people who know them are forced to avoid, evade or deny what they know to be true or false. Remember: secrecy is the breeding ground of deceit.
Underestimating the intelligence of the congregation: To some degree, this point is a byproduct of the last one. It is dangerous to assume that people are too dumb or naive to figure out what is going on in a particular situation. I have been sometimes amazed at the perspicacity of some unassuming church members who saw through someone or something being promoted by church leadership.
Inadequately “vetting” a pastoral candidate: So he can preach! Big deal! Thousands of men who have proved to be awful pastors can preach. There’s a lot more to it than that. Careful examination of a man’s character, marriage, family life, community reputation, organizational and leadership skills, and myriad other qualities must be considered. A single day’s candidacy is hardly adequate for even the smallest churches or most difficult fields. Researching resumes and lists of recommendations is essential, and a good question to ask any candidate about these instruments is what places and which names are not on them and why? Calling a new pastor is not rocket science or brain surgery, but it is a very precise decision that must be bathed in prayer and operated with extreme caution.
Failure to provide adequate compensation, assistance and “down-time.” Although many pastors wear “Superman” shirts, they are actually as human as anyone else. The ministry is important and time-consuming, but the family is even more important. If a man’s wife doesn’t wish to work, she should not have to do so, and a working wife’s compensation is utterly unrelated to that of a church staff member. Days off and vacations ought to be mandatory (no one ever had to make me take a day off or head out on a family trip - I only wish I had taken a “sabbatical” to update my education).
Mistakes congregations make:
Selecting lay leaders based on financial or business success: I don’t believe this has ever been a problem in the church here, but in one of my pastorates, I always had men who were not qualified for office, but who were placed there because they had money or were successful in business. A very close friend came into a lot of money very quickly. He was a good Christian and a great church member, but suddenly just about every Christian organization in his area became aware of his godliness and great spirituality. The same groups decided he was not nearly so desirable when the money was just as quickly taken away from him. A man may be a great success in business or profession and an utter failure at home or in his own heart.
Failing to realize that you simply can’t out-give God: My years in a particular pastorate left me with a bad taste in my mouth regarding people of a certain nationality. There were wonderful exceptions, but most were cheap, stingy and devoid of compassion on anyone or anything but their own bank accounts. I have always felt that if there was a need, and I had the ability to meet (or assist in meeting) that need, it was my Biblical obligation to do so. I continue to believe and live that way, and God’s blessing in response has been beyond measure. I feel so sorry for some people who do not understand or experience the joy of giving!
Spreading discord among brethren: I could write a book, but I’ll stop with just one more. I have watched people treat the Church of Jesus Christ as if it were their own fiefdom. I have heard discord spread in the form of “prayer requests.” I even knew of a group of people who covered their discord sowing by calling it a “prayer meeting for the church.” We love our church and want to do everything we possibly can to promote it and its well-being. I simply can’t understand and have no patience with people who think nothing of trying to create problems or damage the church (normally because they have not been able to get their own way in some area).