And neither do seasoned leaders
So who doesn’t make mistakes as a leader?
We could talk about dumb mistakes, like the time I decided to use gas to start a bonfire in my backyard … as in a whole can of gas … as in me almost blowing up my family and neighborhood in the process. But chances are you’re too smart to do that. Instead, let’s talk about some other true stories that could possibly help you.
I’ve been a senior pastor for 18 years. We’ve seen some incredibly good things over those 18 years. Our church has grown immensely and we’ve got an unbelievable team of people who have rallied around a common mission, vision and strategy. But I’ve also made my fair share of mistakes in those almost two decades.
I’m sharing my top five mistakes with you in the hopes that you can avoid the same pitfalls I fell into. Along with each mistake, though, I’ll also share some strategies that can help you avoid them.
Mistake #5: Misjudging Trust
Trust is the fuel relationships run on. But getting trust wrong is easier than getting it right. My misjudgment of trust showed up in at least five different ways in different seasons.
Trusting everyone. By default, I’m a fairly trusting person. When you trust everyone, you really discriminate against people who are especially trustworthy. You also allow people not capable of handling the trust extended to them to misuse it and hurt others. Trusting everyone ultimately hurts everyone.
Not checking track records. Whenever trusting someone with responsibility, it’s important to assess how responsible that person has been with previous assignments and elsewhere in life. And while everyone gets a fresh start with the Gospel, trustworthiness in the past is the best indicator of trustworthiness in the future.
Trusting too late. Like almost every leader, I got burned a few times on trust. For a season, my default moved from trust to suspicion. I missed out on some great leaders in that season. I missed out on seeing leaders around me reach their potential.
Not trusting. I mention this only because I’ve seen this too many times. Get burned badly and some leaders just stop trusting. If you trust no one, you will eventually have no one. Get on your knees and get to a counselor immediately if that’s you.
Not realizing that alignment is a critical ingredient to organizational trust. Just because you can trust someone personally doesn’t mean you can trust him organizationally. Usually, mistrust emerges in an organization when someone is given leadership but then starts to run in a different direction than the organization is running. For example, a musician who loves Jesus and loves tuba music—no matter how skilled they are—is going to be a bad fit on our team.
When deciding whether someone should take on leadership at our church, I look for alignment around our strategy and our values as much as anything else. When you have that, you can go far. Creating a high trust culture moves things further faster.
Mistake # 4. Trying to Help Everybody
In many vocations, but particularly in ministry, you really want to help everyone. I know I did. Then I met “Betty” (not her real name). I was in ministry maybe six months when Betty arrived. Soon Betty brought Brian, her husband. Betty and Brian weren’t affluent by any means. They struggled to pay the bills and had some serious and sad personal issues in their lives. I wanted to help. And I didn’t want to give up. After a while, it felt like there was no end to the trouble, and no matter what we seemed to do, it never helped enough.
Four years after they came, Betty and Brian left—stormed out, actually, in quite a dramatic fashion. Her reason? The church hadn’t done enough for them. It floored me. I had made more visits to their home than anyone else’s. We had helped them through more crises than any other family I could think of. And, I’m quite sure they received more financial aid than anyone at the time.
It broke my heart when they left, and truthfully, it also bothered me. But the experience taught me something: You can’t help everyone. In fact, what I learned was there’s a world of difference between someone who says they want help and someone who actually wants help.
Here are five attitudes or qualities to look for that indicate whether a person truly wants help.
- Gratitude, not entitlement
- A desire to help others
- Commitment to a mission bigger than themselves
- Progress in their personal walk
If you want more on how to handle this, Henry Cloud has a fantastic book called Necessary Endings. I highly recommend you read it.
Mistake #3: Inadequate Leadership Development
Nothing stunts the growth of a ministry faster than inadequate leadership development. It’s a mistake almost every young leader makes. If you don’t handle leadership development well, at least three things happen.
- Things that start small stay small.
- Even if you grow, you keep hitting unnecessary growth barriers.
- You miss the potential of the ministry God has given you.
I made three critical mistakes in the area of leadership development.
I tried to do too much myself. Many leaders are afraid to release leadership to others.
I used recruiting leaders as a substitute for developing leaders. The problem is that it creates an artificial growth barrier and expects people to go elsewhere to develop.
I didn’t articulate expectations clearly enough. This frustrates you when they are missing the mark they don’t know exists, and it frustrates leaders because they can’t see their goal.
Ultimately, you will limit your potential unless you address all three. So how do you move into a place where leadership development happens?
Train leaders, don’t just teach them. Teaching people tells them what to do. Training helps leaders acquire the skills they need to do what you’ve asked them to do.
Clarify parameters in writing. You need to create a position description for every volunteer that clearly outlines what to do. You might even want to go further than that and create a “win” for their area.
Mentor key leaders. This is where it gets personal. I try to always have a half-dozen people I’m building into personally. The point is to help them grow as people as much as leaders—to share life together around a common cause.
Mistake #2. Tying Self-Worth to Progress
As a young leader, for things to go poorly didn’t just mean I was doing a bad job (which might actually not always be true); it meant I really wasn’t good for much. Don’t get me wrong. I probably never would have said that out loud. But I felt that way. However, it might mean the mission has become less important to you than your personal success.
We all have to go through some tough seasons in which: decisions didn’t translate into immediate growth; decisions that were arguably good for the organization were unpopular at first; and, hard work didn’t translate into momentum. It takes more leadership to lead through a difficult season than it does to lead through a great season. But it also takes a huge hit on your self-esteem if you’ve hitched your personal sense of self-worth to the progress of the organization. So how do you decouple self-worth from progress?
Root your devotional life in Christ. In ministry, it’s easy to confuse your work with your walk. Don’t.
Think of myself as a child of God first and a pastor second. To get into that space, just ask yourself a simple question: If you couldn’t do ministry starting tomorrow, what would be left of your Christian faith?
Have great people around you who love you for who you are. Yes, you will always be “the leader” to many. But cultivate a few deep and real friendships where you’re just you.
Take the long view. Truly great leaders manage to find a way when it looks like there is no way. Don’t just look at tomorrow. Think about where you could be five years from now if you persevere.
Mistake #1. Handling the Pressure of Ministry
Of all the mistakes I made as a young leader, I think the most costly mistake was knowing how to handle the pressure of ministry. Ministry brings pressure that seems to be unique to the calling. Ministry combines three areas of life that are intensely personal: your faith, your work, and your community. Because of that, it gets confusing. Throw your family into the mix (because they believe what you believe and are friends with the people you/they lead and serve) and, bam—it’s even more confusing. Because of this, things that normally happen “at work” very seldom stay “at work.” And there’s a lot at stake.
These four strategies will help you learn to handle the pressure of ministry well.
Understand the perfect storm of work/faith/community. Church world is the only place I know of where what you believe is what you do and the people you serve are also your friends. You need to understand this. Understanding why something is emotionally confusing is the first step toward untangling the confusion.
Find friends who aren’t in your church or organization. Be friends with the people you live with and serve, but find some friends you can talk to about anything. An easy choice is to find a peer (pastor or key volunteer) in another church or community.
Seek a Christian counselor. I’ve gone to a counselor numerous times over the last 12 years. I’m pretty sure it’s why I’m still in ministry and why I’ve got a solid marriage today. Don’t think of it as an expense. Think of it as an investment.
Develop a devotional life that has little to do with work. One of the common casualties of serving in the church is your devotional life. God loves you for who you are, not for what you do.
So those are at least five mistakes I made that you don’t have to. I’m praying. It helps.