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Fixing Mistakes in Ministry

Oops, I did it again! (With apologies to whats-her-face) I messed up, did something wrong, screwed up, or totally blew it. We’ve all been there. We thought we had everything planned perfectly, but forgot that one crucial detail that caused us to pull a Homer (“DOH!”). I have been there more times I can count. I thought I’d write a witty story about one of those many times I’ve fallen flat on my face just to prove that I indeed am not perfect.  But since I am sure I post my mess-ups on this blog far too often (after a while you might think I don’t know what I am doing!), I thought I’d post some famous fails from other people.

  • Henry Ford forgot to put a reverse gear on his first automobile.

  • Albert Einstein’s parents were told he might be mentally retarded.

  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

  • Napoleon finished near the bottom of his military school class.

  • The Beatles were turned down for a recording contract by Decca Records.

  • John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by sixteen agents and a dozen publishers.

Oops! It kind of puts some of our mistakes in perspective. Most of our ministry mistakes are of the mundane kind – we forgot to do something, and things didn’t work out as planned. Sometimes, though, they are serious. I recently read on a message board of a youth minister teasing a youth so severely that the teen stormed out of the youth room in anger. I knew of one youth minister that got too carried away with horsing around and ended up breaking a kid’s arm. I heard of one instance where a teen was accidentally left at a rest stop (before the age of cell phones), and no one noticed for several hours that they were not there (just a personal note…NONE of these were done by me). Whether big or small, mess-ups have consequences. Some are temporary; some might well end up being eternal.

Let me take a short detour here. Mistakes are inevitable. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not human. For example, take a look at the very best baseball players in the world. The highest batting average last year was Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins. He hit .364 for the whole year. That’s 36% success. Which means he FAILED 64% of the time. Mistakes and failure are signs that you are actually doing something. The easiest way to not make mistakes or not fail is to not even try. So don’t get discouraged by mistakes.

That being said, a mistake only becomes bad when you do not make an effort to correct the error. So, once you mess up, take pains to make it right. How can we do that? Here are a few suggestions…

1. Apologize immediately – Identify the mistake you’ve made, the consequences you’ve caused, and the person (or people) you’ve harmed. Once you’ve done that, apologize immediately and sincerely. “I’m sorry” may not seem like it will fix the problem, but acting as quickly as you can to take ownership of the problem will help keep it from spreading.

2. Correct quickly – Do what you can to make the situation right. Oftentimes, this takes humility because even though we said we’re sorry, we sometimes think we’re still right. Let the guiding principle be to make our relationships right, not to simply prove we’re right. Do everything in your power to make the other person happy. You can’t always do that, but at least someone can’t point to you and say, “They’ve done nothing to fix this.”

3. Learn completely – After you’ve done your best to fix the problem, take a step back and evaluate. Was there something you could have done differently? A mistake is useless unless we learn from it and grow. Some of the best things in the world have happened because people have learned from their mistakes.

4. Encourage fully – A mistake does not make a person a failure. Once all is said and done, encourage the people involved in making the mistakes. If it was you, pick yourself up and move forward. If it was someone else, continue to encourage them and show them that they are on the right path.

Let me close this blog post with a story that might be well known to you (or perhaps not). April 23rd, 1985 is the “birth day” of one of the biggest mistakes in corporate America. On that day, Coca-Cola changed the formula of their popular soft drink. For decades, Coke had held a dominate share in the market. But by 1985, Pepsi had taken large shares of the market and was threatening Coke’s superiority. So the Coca-cola company changed in response to that threat. Even though people liked the taste better, a massive national campaign was launched to bring back the old flavor (and this before Facebook groups! How did they manage?) It took less than 3 months for Coke to bring back the original flavor, called “Coca-Cola Classic.” Within 6 months after that, Coke had not only regained its original position but also gained in market share. What had seemed like a massive failure turned into one of the best things that could have happened to the company.

The lessons for youth ministry are clear. You will make mistakes. You can correct them. Act quickly and decisively. Most importantly, approach your mistakes with humbleness and gentleness with the desire to make things right. 

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Bill Nance has been a youth minister for over 10 years. He currently volunteers at an inner city youth mission as well as writing and sharing his experiences.