Failure is a refusal to learn from mistakes. All of us mess up, and no leader is fully free from regrets. To turn back the clock to key moments in life and get a mulligan – what a dream that would be! But that’s not how life in this fallen world works.
What are some of the biggest blunders you’ve made as a leader? Recently, I took time to reflect on a few of my “what-was-I-thinking” moments? The examples I’m about to share are just the tip of the iceberg of mistakes I’ve made, but it may cause you to feel less alone as an imperfect leader.
I once told my church where I was going to be buried – in Colorado, next to Buffalo Bill. Why did I make this bold prediction? I wanted to reassure the people in my church plant that I had no plans to leave them. In that moment, it was the truth. The only thing I could clearly see in my windshield was church-planting multiplication in the West. Nothing else was on my heart.
Fast forward several years, and I’m writing this article in my home in Nashville, Tennessee – more than a thousand miles from where Buffalo Bill lies. God changed my heart, opened a new door to lead Lifeway Christian Resources, and gave me faith to walk into the unknown.
As I look back, I realize how immature it was it for me to make a promise about my lifelong calling. Who has concrete information about their future? Scripture warns us repeatedly about putting too much stock in our own predictions.
James 4:13-14 says: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring – what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (CSB).
This passage makes it clear. We shouldn’t presume to know God’s plans. I’m careful these days whenever I feel tempted to make promises I may not be able to keep.
Expectations of grandeur
A second mistake I’ve made relates to having unrealistic ministry expectations. There are so many aspects of life where expectations are dangerous.
For example, as the president of Lifeway, I’m constantly asked to fill in for out-of-town preachers. As I drive to a church to preach, I often visualize a packed room full of enthusiastic listeners. In this daydream, my sermon ends with me being greeted by a receiving line the size of a crowd waiting to board a Six Flags rollercoaster.
This imagined scenario has never become a reality. Congregations are usually less than thrilled to learn their pastor is out of town, and when word gets out attendance often takes a severe dip. Filling in for a pastor doesn’t always feel like an over-the-moon experience. However, the act of preaching and the joy of knowing I gave a winded pastor a weekend with his family should be its own reward.
Expectations of others
Let me share another mistake I’ve made when it comes to expectations. In the past, I’ve been unclear in my expectations of staff members. Like every boss, I have certain standards in mind for the frequency of communication as well as my involvement in their assigned ministry area. Through failure, I’ve discovered my expectations often live entirely in my head where people can’t see them.
As the saying goes “clarity is kindness.” It’s the role of a leader to explicitly state his or her idea of what success looks like. For this reason, at Lifeway, we’ve chosen a development theme of Compassionate Candor for our employees this spring. Our anchor text is Ephesians 4:15, which says believers should “speak the truth in love” to help them mature in Christ.
Years ago, I heard someone say that gossip is when we say behind someone’s back what we would never say to their face. Flattery is the opposite—when we say to someone’s face what we’d never say behind their back. It’s dishonoring to the Lord to flatter people—telling them what they want to hear while holding back helpful words that could build them up and make them better.
If you’ve ever received a hard word in a kind package, you know how impactful and needed compassionate candor is. I try to be careful with unspoken expectations and push myself to externalize my thinking as often as possible. That’s only fair.
Giving fear control
Lastly, I’ve too often allowed fear to prevent me from following God. This article is a prime example.
Since coming to Lifeway, I’ve had a nagging sense that “something is missing” in my life. That thing is my passion for writing. I love to craft thoughts and create content, but the past two years have been a season of writer’s block in the worst way.
Every time I’ve sat down to begin writing, my inner critic takes the mic and tells me all the reasons why my ideas are dull, unoriginal and a waste of time. Like preaching, writing is its own reward, and the peace that comes from putting thoughts down is palpable. Writing makes me feel free and fulfilled. A good piece is worth the work even if only a smattering of people chooses to read it.
Julia Cameron, in her book “Write for Life,” says: “We all have an inner critic, a kind of schoolyard bully who will diminish our efforts – usually in a less than sophisticated way.” She recognizes that all creative people must face these demons and decide what to do. Cameron continues, “My critic is nothing but a bully, and everyone knows that when you stand up to a bully, it backs down.”
That’s what I’m doing here in sharing some of my biggest mistakes in ministry. Hopefully, I’m causing you to feel less alone in your struggles. I’m standing up to that mean voice that says no thinking person will ever find this interesting.
I’m learning to learn from my mistakes.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ben Mandrell is president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources.)