Lessons I've learned from mistakes I've made
During my 12 years of pastoring, I’ve made my share of mistakes. But unless I am willing to learn from my errors, I’ll never become skillful. Pastoring more than one church has never been easy, especially for those not gifted in multitasking; but as Robert Schuler says, “I’d rather attempt something great for God and fail than attempt to do nothing and succeed.”1 Errors may dampen our spirits, but listen to what Ellen White says: “Do you make mistakes? Do not let this discourage you. The Lord may permit you to make small mistakes in order to save you from making larger mistakes.”2
Hopefully, the following suggestions can help save a new (or experienced) pastor from repeating a few of my lapses.
Gear sermons to local needs
I’ve learned that a good sermon for one congregation can totally miss the mark in another—on the very same Sabbath. I have memories of launching into a well-prepared message only to suddenly realize, by the blank stares before me, that the sermon had little bearing on the particular needs of my immediate listeners. The sermonic need of one congregation may not be the same as another’s. Churches cannot be called clones. A message on the historicist principle of prophetic interpretation may be helpful in a church facing the inroads of futurism, but it won’t touch the hearts of a group of worshipers who are grieving the death of a teen in a tragic accident. That illustration may be an extreme example, but it demonstrates that on a given Sabbath different flocks will often have different requirements.
While some sermons can be successfully preached to multiple churches, others based on the same text may need to be customized to emphasize the truths relevant to the church at hand. There will always be Sabbaths when entirely differing messages may be called for by individual churches. Hence, many pastors must prepare several sermons per week for just one of their congregations. This includes messages for midweek prayer meetings.
Preparing two or more quality sermons in a week takes advance planning. Some pastors annually take a full week or more to plan their preaching year. Others plan quarterly or monthly. But even an hour of planning at the beginning of the week can help make the Sabbath messages more fitting. The sooner pastors develop plans as to text and topic, the more time remains for efficient sermon building.
Choosing appropriate weekly scripture passages on which to base sermons often turns out to be the biggest task, but here a thorough acquaintance with the contents of Scripture becomes extremely helpful. The Bible has more than enough varieties of messages on which to base timely discourses that speak to local circumstances. Jesus showed His command of Scripture when He spoke from well-chosen verses, and He quoted quickly and easily, fitting scriptures in answer to His questioners.3
For those weeks when no special congregational needs seem to be present, I have found it helpful to simply choose a psalm, a parable, a gospel passage, or a section of Paul, and preach exegetically. This method has its blessing: the communication of new truths or emphases from previously overlooked scriptures.
My mistakes in preaching have taught me that a polished sermon is good but a relevant one is better. “A word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23).4
Be sensitive to the mood of your congregation
In one district I had a congregation that enjoyed a great year of growth, while, unfortunately, the other church struggled to grow. I was so excited about what God was doing in the growing parish that I enthusiastically reported the successes when I stood before the struggling church. Soon I learned that what was great news to me was actually frustrating to some present. They were discouraged. Talking about others’ triumphs only made them feel worse, and I would have been wise to say less about the “good” church and more about what God could do with the present flock. Napoleon recognized this leadership principle when he remarked that “a leader is a dealer in hope.”5
The good news is that every church— no matter how heavily burdened with problems—can be blessed in unique ways. The struggling church in the above experience required a lot of my attention, including seemingly endless meetings to put out fi res, and I often felt that I was failing in my efforts to help them. But a unique thing happened. The extra time and effort spent with the people created a loving bond with the pastor. All the dilemmas were not solved, but on my final Sabbath I was surprised at the outpouring of heartfelt thanks and appreciation that I received. Churches are people too; they need affirmation and optimism. Focus on the positive. Watch for God’s blessings. Soon even your slowest church may “see the salvation of the LORD” (Exod. 14:13).
Trust God to solve district problems
In one region, the smaller of my two churches had worship service at 9:30 A.M. and Sabbath School at 11:00 A.M., with the larger church having the traditional schedule so that both churches could share the pastor for worship services. At one point the smaller church wanted to change its divine service from 9:30 A.M. to 10:00 A.M., hoping the later worship time would make it easier for people to attend and thus facilitate growth. The challenge was how to fi t this new plan with the larger church since it would require them to adjust their worship time by 30 minutes.
A representative from the smaller church visited a board meeting of the bigger church to request the modification. Predictably, some on the board resisted the idea of adjusting the time of their service. To me, the little church’s request seemed reasonable enough, and as I listened to the reactions my frustration mounted. I considered their reluctance as stubbornness, and I blurted out a threat to alter my own preaching schedule to meet the needs of the smaller church. This stirred up a sharp counter-threat from one upset board member. Tension filled the air. Fortunately, the heat died down, and we were able to go on with the meeting, but the request was rejected.
As it turned out, the smaller church decided to go ahead with a three-month experiment of the time change, even though it would decrease my pulpit time with them. But after just a few weeks of trying it, they discovered it was not the solution they hoped for, as a number of problems were created that they did not foresee. As soon as the allotted time for the trial ended, they went back to the 9:30 A.M. worship service, breathing a united sigh of relief. The district scheduling conflict solved itself.
I learned from the ordeal that sometimes churches don’t get along; and more importantly, that I should not get emotionally involved in their quarrels. The problems can’t be ignored, but they must be addressed prayerfully with a pastoral attitude toward all. In this particular case, God had the problem solved from the beginning. But even when the argument persists, we should follow the advice of the wise man: “The fear of man [or a congregation] brings a snare, / But whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe” (Prov. 29:25).
Be balanced in your church workload
One year a successful evangelistic series caused me to forget that I was only one person and that a church can become overworked. When the next satellite series was promoted, I urged both churches to host it, thinking I could multiply the success already achieved. What I didn’t think about was that the evangelistic church was tired from a series of outreach efforts that year. Wanting to be cooperative, they agreed to another one; but when the satellite series started, attendance was small. I then found myself spending half of my time trying to implement a program that was not taking root in one church, while the same program was inspiring new life in the other church and attracting a number of new seekers. But because of unwise planning, I didn’t have adequate time to give to the mission that was going well. By trying to do too much I ended up burdening myself with extra work that wasn’t needed, not to mention money spent that could have been better used in a different way.
In their book, Simple Church, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger narrate a story of the First Church and the Cross Church. First Church was well-known and abounded with ten programs per week, including two worship services, Wednesday night discipleship classes, home groups, Tuesday morning men’s and women’s meetings, Thursday night visitation, youth choir, and children’s choir. Yet despite the intense round of activity, the church was at a standstill of nongrowth for five years because the congregation was actually weighed down by all the activities.
Cross Church, however, was not as well-known and hosted only three programs per week: the weekend worship service, small groups, and ministry teams. They have found that faithfully working a simple plan has enabled them to grow much over the past twenty years.6 The lesson is obvious—more does not necessarily mean successful.
God once put limits on Paul and Timothy when they “tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them” (Acts 16:7). Instead, He sent them to Philippi, narrowing their activity to the area where it would succeed.
I have learned from my mistakes to be more sensitive to my own limits and those of the parishioners and to focus energies in the direction of God’s leading. In district churches this could mean hosting major programs biannually instead of yearly and otherwise mapping out a sensibly doable plan for all parishes involved. Also essential, there must be prayer for the Spirit’s guidance, and a willingness to make adjustments when necessary.
Provide printed schedules
I have endured a few embarrassing moments as a result of trying to conduct church business solely based on my memory. Forgetting a board meeting is humiliating, troubling to discover that I have scheduled two overlapping appointments, and unsettling to find that a misunderstanding has led to a last-minute vacancy in the pulpit schedule. All of these mishaps could have been avoided if I had printed out calendars for myself and given them out to the proper leaders ahead of time. If small families need date books, how much more do multichurch districts. The extra time spent in typing them and making copies or emailing attachments to the elders, results in a reward of smooth functioning programs. Once God wrote His message on a wall so that no one would miss it (Dan. 5:5), and He inspired 66 books of written messages for the world. This ought to say something about the importance of printed communication.
Concerning the efforts of pastors, Ellen White wrote, “For want of experience, mistakes will be made; but if the workers connect with God, He will give them an increase of wisdom.”7
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1 Quoted in Mark Finley, Padded Pews or Open Doors(Boise, ID: Pacifi c Press Publ. Assoc., 1988), 52.
2 Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publ. Assoc., 1967), 124.
3 See Matt. 5:17–48, noting especially verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 4:16–30; 24:27, 44–48. For examples of immediate scriptural answers, note Matt. 12:1–8; 19:3–9; 22:23–33; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 4:4,8,12.
4 Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
5 Quoted in Robert D. Dale, Pastoral Leadership (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986), 14.
6 Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006), 41–44.
7 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publ. Assoc., 1943), 246.