By Don Wilson
In more than 50 years of ministry, I’m not sure I have ever gone to a conference where speakers shared their greatest leadership failures and mistakes. I have, however, been to many conferences where pastors and leaders shared their greatest ministry success stories. If we are not careful, we unknowingly can discourage pastors who feel like failures because they don’t experience similar successes.
I want to share four of my mistakes in ministry—and what I have learned from them—in the hope it will encourage others.
Mistake No. 1: Believing All Church Leaders Want Their Church to Grow
In working with hundreds of churches and pastors over the years, I have never heard a pastor or elder say they didn’t want their church to grow. And yet, when the church began to grow, it often caused all kinds of conflict among the church’s leaders, many times even causing a church split.
What I’ve Learned: People who say they want their church to grow cannot foresee the emotional pain they may go through to bring about the change needed for growth. A leader’s closest friends may even leave the church. Current leaders sometimes are asked to step aside to accomplish the new vision. This causes lots of pain. In Leadership Pain, Samuel Chand wrote, “Growth plus change always leads to pain. No change leads to complacency. Too much change leads to chaos.” I believe the ability of church leadership to deal with pain (change) is directly related to how they navigate the changes that come from growing.
Mistake No. 2: Trying to Keep Members With Different Visions Happy
Every pastor has seen people leave the church. I’ve noticed that people rarely share the real reasons for leaving, nor do they leave because they disagree with the church’s vision. Instead, they give reasons like “I’m not getting fed,” “the music is too loud,” “the church is always asking for money,” and “this church only cares about reaching new people.”
What I’ve Learned: In the past, when people wanted to leave our church, I often tried to talk them out of it. I tried to show them their reasons for leaving were not valid. They often ended up leaving on bad terms and never returned. I finally realized that people (like churches) go through different stages in life. I learned that when someone decided to leave, I needed only to apologize for not being able to minister to their needs. I would give them my blessing and assure them they would always be welcomed back. To my surprise, after using this approach, many people did return over time because we had created a win-win strategy.
Mistake No. 3: Believing that as the Church Grows, You Must Add More Programs
Logic would indicate that as your church reaches more people, there are more needs to be met, and so the church must start more programs to meet those needs. This line of thinking often occurs when we try to meet the needs of Christians who transfer to our church from other churches. By contrast, unchurched people don’t demand new ministries because they were attracted to the ministries already established in your church.
What I’ve Learned: Rarely can a business or church do everything well. Studies show that successful businesses are known for one or two great things. When a church tries to develop programs to reach everybody, quality is sacrificed and the church loses its distinctiveness.
Years ago, I heard of a study conducted by the late church growth expert Peter Wagner. He wanted to know why churches outside of the United States were much larger and often more effective in their missions than U.S. churches. He found that churches outside the U.S. tended to focus on two things: celebration (worship gatherings) and cells (small groups). By contrast, churches inside of the U.S. tended to focus on three things: celebration, cells, and congregation (specialized ministries for 20 to 100 people). These specialized ministries might include seniors, singles, women, men, recovery, etc. He concluded that these midsized, specialized ministries were very expensive, demanded lots of staff, and were the least effective in growing the church. We found that to be true at our church, as well. We had to ask ourselves, Why are we doing what we do and who are we most effective at reaching?
Mistake No. 4: Not Rejoicing When Other Churches/Pastors Succeed
I am competitive by nature. I am the youngest and the smallest of four brothers who were very successful in sports. Many of my younger years were consumed with training and learning so I could surpass my brothers’ athletic achievements. Sadly, that attitude often crept into my ministry.
What I’ve Learned: Wanting my church to “win” doesn’t mean other churches need to “lose.” God had to change my heart and my attitude so that celebration could overcome my jealousy. I had to develop a kingdom mind-set. When one church wins, the kingdom wins. In our culture, the church is now the visiting team, so I believe it is imperative we work together as the body of Christ and become cheerleaders and encouragers to each other.
These are just a few of the mistakes I have made over the years, shared solely to reassure you that everybody makes mistakes.
In your quest to build the kingdom of God,
- learn not to fear mistakes; they can provide strength and insight for your next big success,
- learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them, and
- learn from the mistakes of others so that you don’t commit the same missteps.