So, a young pastor is struggling to provide for his wife and small children. His salary has been reduced because of the recent years of financial turmoil in the U.S. and his congregation’s giving is half of what it was. His book allowance, travel, professional development and hospitality budget have vanished along with the church credit card. His work load is up, his salary and perks down. He’s struggling not to be motivated by his earnings, but it’s hard for a guy not to be motivated by potential reward! But, he’s got an ace up his sleeve, he thinks: he’s got $10,000 in a savings account thanks to previous years of frugality. Instead of dipping into the 10 k to pay his mortgage, he decides to make a risky investment of this money to make a cool half million…and loses it all. His wife is angry, and now, not only does he have to deal with his mortgage, he has to get a second job to buy food and pay other bills, thus keeping him from spending time with his children who he dearly loves. Now, he clearly made a mistake. He shouldn’t have made that investment.

Was the investment not only a mistake but a sin?

Pastors nearly all struggle to hire and or call staff that fit into a well rounded team. So Bill hires Mark as his assistant pastor after doing whatever “due diligence” he possibly can. It only takes a few weeks for Bill to see that Mark was not all that he thought Mark would be, but like most pastors he’s an optimist and does all he can, devoting more and more time to Mark to bring him up to speed in his position. Some progress is made, but Mark cannot be motivated enough and never really produces, but builds a support network as all staff do, and when it’s clear to Bill that it’s not going to work out and Mark has to leave, Bill has a fiasco on his hands because Mark’s supporters think he’s great.

Was hiring Mark not only a mistake but a sin?

I think I’ve come to see that pastors are mortal, like everyone else even, though we think an M.Div means we’re really “Masters of Divinity”! Like all fallen people, we have finite intellectual, emotional and decision making equipment and we do make mistakes in judgment. We err. We make bad decisions. The young pastor above made a mistake for sure. He could also have sinned in that greed could have gotten ahold of him and motivated the investment. He might not have gotten any sound counseling from godly Christians before he made the investment. He also might have been simply tricked by a smooth salesman. Pastor Bill above made a mistake most probably in hiring Mark. Did he do all he could to find out about Mark? Did he check references? Was Bill just too overwhelmed with his own workload to do a thorough search for a staff member? Did Bill’s optimism cause him mistakenly to ignore the few red flag warnings that popped up during the interview process?

Anyone reading these fictitious case stories can find logical responses to what I’ve written and shoot holes in them for sure. But my main point in all of this…is, that…

What helps me as a pastor is to see that not all of my mistakes as a pastor are sins. There is it seems to me, warrant in making a distinction between making a mistake and sinning. I have made many mistakes in ministry, and if I view them all as sins then my guilt is overwhelming because I have sinned against Jesus and His church! That’s tough to handle. If all of my mistakes are sins then I want out of the ministry because there is no room for me to be human. We make mistakes in listening to people’s stories in counseling, in hiring staff, in confronting someone in sin, in planning a program and in a thousand other ways. We’re GPs and there is no way we were trained for the broad range of duties that we as pastors have every week. There is absolutely no way we pastors can do our work without making mistakes…it’s too big, too grand…to overwhelming. I’m not the Lord of the Church, and mistakes help me remember that!

Some theologians might well say that because God is sovereign, we really can make no mistakes because God’s will is predetermined. They might say there is no such thing as a mistake because God’s sovereignty over rules our actions in every case. But, can we talk? Surely, I have made ministerial mistakes and so have you. Not all of these mistakes are sins. It helps me to be able to say, “I made a mistake” and not impugn the Sovereignty of God. Check it out:

Proverbs 16:1-9 (ESV)
1 The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. 2 All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. 3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. 4 The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. 5 Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished. 6 By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil. 7 When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. 8 Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice. 9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

Charles Bridges on this text says:

A fine description of the Sovereign government of God! Inscrutable indeed is the mystery, how he accomplishes his fixed purpose by free-willed agents. Man without his free will is a machine. God without his unchangeable purpose ceases to be God. (Mal. 3:6). As rational agents we think, consult, act freely. As dependent agents, the Lord exercises his own power in permitting, overruling or furthering our acts. Thus man proposes; God disposes. Man devises; the Lord directeth. He orders our will, without, infringing our liberty, or disturbing our responsibility. For while we act as we please, we must be answerable. We observe this supremacy, in directing, not only an important end, but every step towards it; not only the great events, but every turn; not only in his own people, but in every child of man .

I like what Bridges says, but he leaves out the clarification that we really are not free-willed agents this side of the Fall, but sin bound agents, and fallen agents. We can only do what our nature dictates.

William George Jordan said some interesting things way back in 1909 about mistakes:

  • “There are only two classes of people who never make mistakes-they are the dead and the unborn.”
  • “An oyster never makes a mistake-it has not the mind that would permit it to forsake an instinct.”
  • “Mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom, the assessments we pay on our stock of experience, the raw material of error to be transformed into higher living. Without them there would be no individual growth, no progress, no conquest. Mistakes are the knots, the tangles, the broken threads, the dropped stitches in the web of our living.”
  • “Mistakes are always a part of learning. The real dignity of life consists in cultivating a fine attitude towards our own mistakes and those of others. It is the fine tolerance of a fine soul.”
  • “Let us thank God when a mistake shows us the weak link in the chain of our living.”
  • “Omnipotence cannot change the past, so why should we try? Our duty is to compel that past to vitalize our future with new courage and purpose, making it a larger, greater future than would have been possible without the past that has so grieved us. If we can get real, fine, appetizing dividends from our mistakes they prove themselves not losses but-wise investments.”
  • “Musing over the dreams of youth, the golden hopes that have not blossomed into deeds, is a dangerous mental dissipation.”

The Gospel changes everything…certainly our sins and especially our mistakes! Thank God for Christ! My mistakes are not fatal, God is not surprised, and Romans 8:28 is true.

When you've made a mistake

Some conclusions I would draw in talking to people who make mistakes…and to ourselves as pastors:

  1. You made a mistake. We make mistakes in a broken world, since we are broken, even if regenerated people. What factors led to your making such a decision? Did you get godly counsel? Enough counsel? Why did you make a bad decision in this case and what would you do differently next time? You may not be able to marshal the reasons why you did what you did. Such is our own human complexity. But try.
  2. If there is sin in it, you need to repent of your sin (greed? Or?) And then ask for forgiveness, which would certainly be granted you in Christ.
  3. Accept Responsibility for your mistake. Don’t blame anybody but yourself. “A real man rejects passivity, accepts responsibility, leads courageously, expects the greater reward.”
  4. Seek God’s grace to deal with the long term effects of your mistake, ie, working two jobs, accepting your wife’s legitimate anger. Realize it may take years to dig yourself out of the hole caused by this bad choice you made.
  5. Be a living example to others not to make the same mistake. In other words, seek to turn your mistake/failure into a ministry opportunity.
  6. Deal with your anger. The longer you have to live under the effects of a bad decision, the more anger you will feel from time to time. Be careful not to take it out on your wife or kids or God or other people. Do not become so angry at yourself for your mistake that your whole life is defined by this mistake.
  7. Pray for Deliverance. It may be that God will miraculously bail you out of your financial hole. Normally however our mistakes come from fallen thinking, incomplete knowledge or information or hasty action, and God normally is not the God of bailout.
  8. Remember that God is not surprised by your mistake, but in some mysterious way, knew what you were going to do and incorporated this act of yours into His plan for your life. While you may be tempted to assign culpability to God for knowing you would make this mistake ahead of time and did not stop you, realize that Scripture does not give us this freedom. It may be that you wish to assign at least some of the blame for your act on God. Realize, We are responsible for our mistakes and sins. But God will turn your mistakes which He knew of ahead of time, and which is a part of His plan, into spiritual growth opportunities that can indeed turn out for good (Rom 8.28), in the way of your good and His glory. Wait on the Lord, depend on His grace, and play the man!

Well, there it is. I’m going to go and lick my wounds from some recent mistakes. But I’m still in the game, and I hope you are too.

Strength and Courage!

Pete Alwinson