My Seven Worst Mistakes as a Pastor

In the August 5, 2010, edition of the Baptist Message (our Louisiana state weekly), Lifeway President Thom Rainer talked about seven mistakes he had made in his ministry. Give him credit, he admitted that if he wrote about all the mistakes he’d made in the Lord’s work, “it would have to be a multi-volume series!”

Before getting into my list, Thom’s deserves a look-see.

He wishes he had spent more time in prayer … given his family more time … spent more time sharing his faith … had loved his community more … had led his church to focus more on the nations … he wishes he had focused on critics less … and last: He wishes he had accepted the reality that he cannot be everywhere and meet every need.

My hunch is that almost everyone who has spent a few years in the Lord’s work can say ‘amen’ to everything on that list. My second hunch is that there is no one among us without regrets we did not do more of this and less of that. In fact, the more years you log in this work, the more scars you accumulate, the more experiences you pile up and the more regrets hound your attempts to sleep.

“A pastor lives in a world of unfinished jobs.” That’s one of my foundational truths. If the preacher cannot learn to turn it off at night, he’ll never get any sleep and not last. There’s always someone else who needed a call, a meeting that needed planning, a sermon going neglected. There’s always something.

“Regrets? I’ve had a few …” I’m hearing Reverend Frank Sinatra’s voice in my head now.

Want my list? Pull up a chair; this may take a while. I have 10 mistakes as a preacher, 10 as a pastor, 10 as a visionary leader for my church, 10 as a leader of the church ministerial staff, 10 as a denominational worker …

Get the idea? Anyone who does anything for the Lord and mankind in this life is going to do a less than perfect job.

No one wants to grovel in regrets. I assure you I don’t. (Even though I’m still going to give you my list.)

But there is a huge reason for not going into a litany of our failures and mistakes: God works even in our mistakes and can make good emerge from them. As a result, even though we look back and see the times we dropped the ball, we give thanks for what He accomplished through it all.

If you plotted on a graph the “advancement of my ministerial career”—as Paul said, “I speak as a fool”—you might conclude that I made a serious boo-boo in moving from Charlotte N.C. in 1990 to suburban New Orleans. Until then I had progressively moved upward. Suddenly, I’m taking a nosedive and assuming the leadership of a church one-half the size of my previous congregation. The new church was still smarting from a massive blowup 18 months prior. Money was tight, feelings were raw, leadership was fleeing.

In terms of the will of God, coming here was no mistake. Only humanly speaking might it be seen that way. However, God is sovereign and He did some mightily wonderful things as a result of this faith decision: gave us a precious daughter-in-law here and then three super grandchildren, a church with a world of great friends, and then after 14 years He moved me into the leadership of the local Baptist churches just in time for Hurricane Katrina!

The point is God can bring good out of little. He knows what he is about.

OK. On to my list of worst mistakes as a pastor.

1. I should have found a mentor early in my ministry and made good use of him.

After majoring in history in college, I began pastoring. Not exactly great preparation for this work. My efforts were like trying to invent the wheel. I started from scratch in every sense of the word. What I wish I had known—and had the gumption to act on—is that behind the door of almost every Baptist church (and a lot of others) was a veteran preacher who would have been glad to spend time with this kid pastor and help him. All I had to do was ask. And I didn’t.

I didn’t ask because I didn’t know they were available. So I tried it all by myself. Over the years, I’ve worked to mentor a lot of young preachers. I remember what it was like being in their shoes.

2. I wish I had become a better, more disciplined student of the Word.

Now, my hunch is most of my professors thought I was a pretty good student. I made good grades. Not the best in the class, necessarily, but did well enough to get into the doctoral program without taking anything of a remedial nature. But I knew I was coasting.

What I wish I’d done back in college was to get with some excellent students and copied their study practices. As it was, I seemed to do as little as I could get by with.

Wish I’d applied myself more in the study of Greek and Hebrew. I took the required courses and enjoyed them. But I needed another year of each to have enough skills to function. When I meet a veteran pastor who can open his Greek or Hebrew Bible and read it, my heart is filled with admiration.

3. I wish I had made myself buckle down and begin to write books over 30 years ago.

I’ve written articles for Christian magazines almost from the time I finished seminary. The list of published works (like that) probably would number in the hundreds if there was any way of running them all down. But all along, I’ve wanted to write books. Over the years, I did write a couple and when the publishers turned them down, they were relegated to the closet floor. No telling where those manuscripts are now.

My dad was probably pleased by the eight books of cartoons I did with Baker Book House of Grand Rapids. They sold a combined total of 300,000. But he once said, “I want you to write a real book.” And I understood completely what he meant.

One day a few years back, I was wandering in Lifeway Christian Store on the campus of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A man whom I did not know, and to my knowledge have never seen since, said to me, “You don’t need to be buying them. You need to be writing them.” Pow.

I’ve been trying. And on this blog, I have enough for a dozen or more books. But to organize and edit and then see them through to publication and marketing—those are major issues entirely. Sure wish I’d mastered this years ago!

4. I failed to master the craft of preaching early enough.

What I needed was one-on-one instruction from a mentor. The classroom classes on preaching did not work for me. I was too much of a rebel, I’m thinking, looking back. Too determined not to make my sermons sound like everyone else’s. And therefore, I failed to pick up some needed pointers on basic sermon preparation that could have made me more effective much earlier.

I’m 70 years old. (I started to add, “If you can believe it.” lol. You can, but I can’t. As Thom Rainer said toward the end of his article, “This life is so incredibly brief.”)

I feel that I’ve finally learned to preach. Not as good as anyone else, but just the way the Lord wants me to do. As far as I can tell, I’m preaching the best I’ve ever done right now. A little late, perhaps, but one does what he has to.

5. I wish I had achieved a proper balance in my self-confidence and kept it.

I was in my mid-30s and pastoring the wonderful First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi. A missionary who visited our church and sat in the congregation said to me later, “I have never seen a preacher who is so relaxed in the pulpit.” I’m still trying to figure out whether that was good or bad.

I think it was a reference to my cockiness. Over-confidence. The feeling that “I can do this.”

In time, the Lord would send along some church members—and in one case, an entire church—with the assignment to clip this young upstart’s wings. And they did. I went to the other extreme in my confidence, even wondering if I could do this at all.

Somewhere in the middle is the road. It’s a confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ, a confidence that He called me into this work and is accompanying me, and “it’s about Him, not me.”

6. I wish I’d had a stronger, more consistent prayer life through all the years.

Everyone says that, don’t they.

It’s true. Period.

7. I regret that I was not a consistent and persistent soul-winner for much of my ministry.

Very early in my pastoral ministry, I set myself to learn how to approach strangers and steer the conversation to spiritual things and to lead those responding to Christ. When we brought a pastor or evangelist to our church, I would take him visiting with me in order to learn from him. I attended the conferences, took the training, did the work and led a lot of people to the Lord.

So what happened? What happened was that the pastoral work gets busy, the denomination calls, the phone rings, the invitations to do this or that multiply, and soulwinning visiting and even casual witnessing become a thing of the past.

I’ve heard this story from numerous pastors over the years. Some were successful in holding to their evangelistic personal work, but only by saying ‘no’ to other things. It requires a discipline that I did not exercise and wish I had.

Thank the Lord I’m still alive, still in the work and still have the opportunity to finish strong. That’s real big in my book right now.