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5 Mistakes I Made Early in Ministry (and How to Avoid Them)

  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
I love it when leaders share their success stories. It’s great to pick up transferable principles and try to work them into your life. But there’s a part of me that likes it even more when leaders share their mistakes. When someone shares their mistakes, I feel like I can relate to them. It reminds me I’m not alone. And it shows me we’re really all in this together. People admire your strengths, but they resonate with your weaknesses. So let me share with you some more of my weaknesses as a leader. Some of these mistakes, I made starting out, while some I still struggle with. I’ll bet you can relate. For all five mistakes listed below, I’ve had to adjust the sails and learn new behaviors that make me more effective at what I’m called to do. The best part, of course, is once you’ve noticed the mistakes you naturally make, you can learn new skills to maneuvre around them. It’s the self-aware who grow the most. Here are five leadership mistakes I’ve made that (now) you no longer need to:

1. Thinking a leader needs to have all the answers 

As a young leader, I was afraid people would notice that I was young and didn’t know as much as I should. I took me a few years to become comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” Wish I’d learned that right off the bat. Ironically, people already know that you don’t know. And when you say you don’t know, it actually creates empathy and a better sense of team. Now more than ever, I fully realize how much I have left to learn. If you want to drill down more on finding your confidence as a young leader, listen in on my conversation with Clay Scroggins, who at age 34 recently became the lead pastor of North Point Church in Atlanta working under Andy Stanley. Clay is tremendously transparent about his struggles as a young leader. That’s one of the reasons I admire Clay so much. And likely one of the reasons why he’s leading so much so young.

2. Trying to be too original 

This characterized my first seven or eight years of leadership. I didn’t know you could take what others have done and simply implement it (I’m not talking about plagiarizing sermons or stealing proprietary ideas here—but about ministry models and strategies that you’re free to use). I’d go to a conference and feel I’d need to change something enough to put ‘my spin’ or ‘our spin’ on it. Well, sometimes your spin on a great idea makes it worse. If you really have an original idea that’s going to change things—use it. But there are smarter people who are further along than you from whom you can borrow. Sometimes you just need to give yourself permission to borrow. Give credit, and don’t stifle ALL your creativity in the process, but it’s OK to take the best ideas and put them to work in your context. You don’t need to be unique. You just need to be effective.

3. Using people to accomplish tasks

I feel so bad about this one. I’m a task guy. Early on, sometimes I saw people as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. It’s a goal of mine to do what great managers do—not use people to get tasks done, but to get ‘people done’ through tasks. When you use people, you lose people. When you value people, they stay. So stop using people.

4. Depending too much on my own strength

Being an A-type personality has strengths and weaknesses. Looking back, I wish I had developed a better sense of team earlier and I wish I had sought out mentors earlier. I’m still also trying to figure out the balance between Jesus’ teaching that human effort accomplishes nothing and that we need to serve and lead with all diligence. I love how St. Augustine phrased it over a millennium ago: Work like everything depends on you. Pray like everything depends on God.

5. Pointing out what’s wrong—not what’s right 

This is something I still struggle with daily. I immediately notice what’s right and wrong, and gravitate toward fixing what’s wrong. I’m king of this. And ironically, it motivates me to get better. But it can end up being demotivating to the people around you. I’ve had to learn to celebrate the wins (there are a ton of them when you look), point out what’s right and high five the team. It doesn’t take much strength to point out what’s wrong. It always takes strength to point out what’s right when you see what’s wrong. Only once you’ve celebrated what’s right should you move to what’s wrong. Otherwise you knock the wind out of people. Honestly, this is still a daily discipline with me. And I don’t always win at it.

What About You?

Those are five leadership mistakes I’ve made. How about you? What are you struggling with? How are you overcoming? What are you stuck on? Scroll down and leave a comment.