One of the things we don’t talk about much, it seems, is the mistakes that we make while in the ministry. Now, I don’t want to mislead you, of course pastors are perfect…..well if you know me, you know that isn’t true. I am not sure why some others won’t readily admit it, but I have made quite a few mistakes while serving in the local church. In most cases, the mistakes are benign, a phone call and/or an apology and all is forgiven. Contrary to popular belief among ministers, I have always found most people I have served to be caring, thoughtful, and people I really love.
There are sometimes, however; when the mistakes we make are really painful, not only to the church we serve, but to our family, and to ourselves. Thankfully, these are usually minimal (because if you make too many you will get fired or divorced pretty quick), but they can stay with you. I can think of three major mistakes that I have made pretty readily, one I wrote about here, the other is for another day, but my biggest failure I feel as a pastor, I wanted to discuss a bit.
I never wanted to be a pastor. I grew up outside the church, and the idea of going to church bored me. I didn’t have any animus towards God, but I didn’t necessarily care to find out more about Him either. My story, like so many others, found me seeking after God because I met a hot girl. I was so very spiritual I know, but the Lord pursued me anyway, and after He reconciled me, I knew that He was calling me to serve in the local church. I went to seminary, and I served with other leaders in our church, and it was really great. One of the principles I learned in my training was that the church should fight for unity, and it was to be the utmost priority. I was told horror stories of churches that divided over doctrine or carpet color, and I agreed that unity had to be primary to make this whole church thing work. I never really found a time when I had to question that conclusion.
That was until my family was called to serve on the staff of a new church in a far away land. Rachel and I had predominately served in large churches, and church plants, so going to a medium-sized traditional church was a context we had not been in for some time. I was also an associate pastor, which took a little getting used to mentally for me.
Initially the transition went well, though the area we lived in was quite unique in the United States: in South Texas on the Mexican border. If you have ever watched Border Wars, there were several episodes shot right around where we lived. Despite the challenges and changes that shocked the system, we quickly fell in love with many of the people that we were serving and we have yet to serve in another place that has been more rewarding. Our kids were serving in youth and with friends in Mexico, we were active in so many ways, and I loved the job I had.
“Jim, so where is the problem,” you ask? The relationship I had with the lead pastor was not good. Not that we weren’t friendly, but our doctrine just did not line up, and that is a kind way of saying that while both of us claimed to be Orthodox, one of us held to Orthodox beliefs and the other did not. The derivation from Orthodoxy was quite severe and I knew that Rachel and I could not stay in that environment if nothing changed, though it would really hurt us if we had to go. If we did stay and the siutation was unchanged, we would be endorsing some very bad theology, and I felt I would be trading God in for a paycheck. I agonized over this decision for weeks. Since I believed that unity was the highest requirement in church I was in a real quandary: do I bring the issues up to someone (other than the pastor, that was already being done), or do I quietly resign and move on. Rachel and I struggled mightily as we sought advice, prayer, and wisdom. Ultimately we decided we should resign and move on. It was that decision that I regret most. Please don’t hear me say that I wanted to cause trouble. I did not. However, by not raising the issues up to other leadership, and resigning, I let the church and pastor off the hook. No one was there to hold them accountable, no one was there to keep pushing back, and no one was left to protect the flock.
When we left the church several people asked why, and we kept the information very minimal, save a few really close friends who prayed through it with us, but we ended up losing a great deal of friends who were told “the real reasons” why we left. Rachel and I both sunk into very low points and it led to the only real marital crisis we have had in 21 years.
I think leaving was the biggest mistake I have made in ministry, and not just because it has scarred my resume so that its been hard to land solid jobs since. It was a mistake because I believed, somewhere inside me, that the Gospel was not the most important thing in the church. I believed that it would be wrong to call out heresy because I wasn’t the lead pastor….and then I read Galatians and I am cut to my core. Paul called out an Apostle for his wrongdoing. Paul called it out publicly and privately. Paul would not let the Gospel be bastardized for anyone – including Peter – and I think to myself “what could God have done if I would have put the Gospel first?” These are not revelations I like to share about myself, and if you know me, you know I tend to think highly of my decision-making prowess. I only share them now because I can trace back so many years of struggle in my relationship with the Lord to that one decision. It has made me skeptical, gun-shy, and critical. I have blamed the Lord for not doing right by me, when I failed to stand up for the most precious truth there is out there: Jesus died to save sinners. I have talked to so many folks, most not in the ministry, who say “Jim you just have to let it go” or “it’s fine, move on” or “that’s hard, but you have to move on.” I know they don’t get it. They don’t understand the deep passion that God has to give for Himself to those who serve Him vocationally, they don’t understand how wounding it is, and how painful. It’s hard for them to connect a passion for the local church, because they view it as a once a week get together, not the hope of the world. It sucks to stand up for what’s right in the wrong way, and then have to live with it. To see the people who were wrong continue on as if nothing happened, continue to hurt a church, and feel like you could have helped stop it. I wish I can say I have stopped blaming myself, or being upset about this situation, but I cannot. It still haunts me.
What is my point in writing this? It is not like I have figured it all out, or to have people who know or were involved in these events rehash them. I write this for three reasons, the first being you never know the struggles those who serve vocationally in your church are going through. Many people see the Sunday experience and do not understand how eagerly and earnestly the powers of evil are waging war on them. Pray for your ministry teams to be able to make the right decisions, not the popular ones. Secondly, I write all this to encourage you (wow, what an encouragement right) who are in similar places: cling to the Gospel. It is better to be thrown out of a church for proclaiming the truth, then to stay under those who corrupt it, or in my case to walk away. You do not want to look back and have the same regrets I do. Lastly, I say this to myself most of all: God saved us to be His children (I John 3:1). He lavished that gift upon us, and good parents do not continue to lord their children’s mistakes over them. Good parents forgive, and encourage their children to accept that forgiveness. I pray and thank the Lord that I am finally beginning to internalize that, and I pray that this truth helps you to let go of all the things you punish yourself for over and over again. It hinders your embrace of God’s love, and it snuffs out the voice He is calling with you to new things.
This ended up being more sermonic than I was expecting, and I apolgize for that. I know some of you may know the events recounted here in detail, and it has been long enough now that we can let sleeping dogs lie, this about my experience. I hold no ill-will to anyone but myself, and I pray for great things from the Lord for all those involved in this part of our story.
To God be the Glory!