Making and mending pastoral mistakes

It is something we may not like to acknowledge to ourselves and to others, but as Pastors we make mistakes – regularly and sometimes even repeatedly. We are fallible men, charged with a phenomenal task, which often outstrips our abilities and sufficiency. In the mix and mess of our lives, and those of others, errors are bound to happen. In this post I want to explore what we should do when we make the wrong move in ministry, suggesting some safeguards against getting things wrong, and some steps of recovery when we do. I am not here handling moral failure or ministry defection, but rather the ordinary and mundane mistakes that are made when we are doing our best to honour Christ.

Anticipate your mistakes
One of the surest ways to make mistakes is to believe that they will never happen, or that I am in some way cruising above them at high altitude. Pride and complacency, and a sense of independent sufficiency, are the first moves towards getting things wrong. It is vital that we honestly assess the task before us, and feel the tremble of inadequacy, the very live possibility that we will fall short in how we seek to serve Christ. This is not to encourage paralysis but perspective, it is not a call to scupper our good intentions through fear of default, but to weigh what we do against the bias of our faulty perspectives and defective abilities. Part of this anticipation might be to arm others for the fact that there are times when I will need to be corrected, or when I will need to row back from a previous position.

Choose your critics, and then trust them
There are, sadly, many church members and leaders who will not do our ministry good. Among them might be the hyper critical individual who can spot a fault in the stripes of our shirt, who has made it their goal to employ their ‘gift’ of discernment as fully and loudly as possible, at every opportunity available. Such people are not the critics we need to credit with any airtime. We can be the whipping boy for the disappointments and dysfunctions of other people’s biographies, we can be the focal point for undiagnosed issues in the individual levelling the charges, and we must solicit help from other leaders to work out when this is the case and how we are to handle it. Listen to the voice of the callous critic, take to heart what they have to say, and your longevity in ministry will be horribly reduced.

Equally dangerous is the casual affirmer. This is the individual who is linked to us (by bonds of friendship, family or fraternity) whose perception of us might be even more unhealthily positive than our own. In the eyes of such a person our every sermon is a model of fidelity, our counsel comes with the fragrance of divinity, and their arbitration of disagreements we might face with other leaders and members will almost always vindicate our perspective. Such people are sweet friends but dangerous critics, and in our fallen nature we might feel a sense of attraction to sharing with them so that they can second all our views and lament our wounds with us.

The choicest critic is the man or woman whom we know loves us, who is looking out for us, and who can capably show us not just where we’ve gone wrong, but where we can put it right. In pastoral ministry this might be our wife, it might be a fellow elder, or it might be a discerning church member whose care and concern for us has been proven over the long haul. Such a person is a rare jewel, and should be handled accordingly. There are vanishingly few people with the gifting and insight to tell us the whole truth, and in so doing say ‘I love you in Christ’ with every syllable. We should seek such people out, and when we find them, we should seek their counsel as often as possible. They will not always be right, but hearing their voice, listening to their reasoning, giving them room to provide evidence of how we have been at fault might just save our ministry, and our conscience in the process. With such a person it is good to listen when they approach us, but it is also good to proactively involve them in thinking through decisions we have made, conversations we have had, and priorities we have set.

Learn to say sorry without caveat
We are living in a world which has made true apology almost impossible. We are caught between the rocks of an online world which never forgets and won’t forgive, and the prevarication of weasel-word apologies on the part of public figures, which manage to absolve the perpetrator and indict the victim. In this atmosphere it is easy to deny our mistakes for fear of censure, or displace blame in pursuit of easy vindication. We must avoid both of these dangers at all times.

Already this week (and it’s only Tuesday) I’ve had to apologise for a ministry mistake. It is nothing of massive import, but acknowledging it mattered to the person in question. Where I miscommunicate, where I misjudge, where I mishandle biblical texts or hurting people, I need to own this swiftly and unreservedly. This Lord’s Day I want to correct a formal mistake I made in handling the acrostic nature of one of the poems in Lamentations that we are working through in our morning services. No one else is cognisant of the mistake, it is of a trifling nature wrapped in a throwaway comment during a sermon, but I know it is there and I want to make people aware that I didn’t get it right.

Such things are good for all parties where there is health in our relationships. Saying sorry, admitting that I’ve got it wrong, liberates me from my own perfectionist streak, it helps me to go on serving the Lord, knowing that there is a grace buffer around all of my endeavours. It holds out to me the hope of retracing my steps, or correcting my wrong thinking and acting, and tells me that growth is possible in ministry every day. It also takes me to the feet of the one Perfect Man every morning, asking that he might purify me, that he might refine me, that he might enable me, as a saved sinner, to serve him with integrity and humility.

In a healthy church context, far from fracturing the confidence of our congregation, saying a sincere ‘sorry’ might actually confirm for them our need of their prayers, and our rejection of any wrong expectations of deity and aseity that being a pastor can attract. Training those who trust us that we sometimes make the wrong call, sometimes misunderstand or misapply a text, sometimes miss the most pressing pastoral issues, and sometimes offer the wrong counsel, should instil in them a sense that we are servants and not masters, ministers and not miracle workers.

As Pastors we make mistakes. Let’s not be surprised by them, let’s listen carefully to them, let’s learn and grow in our ministry, let’s be ready to repent and make restitution for where we go wrong. The health of our hearts demands it, the health of the church depends on it.

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