Over the past few weeks I have shared with you three mistakes that I made in ministry and some of the lessons that I learned from those mistakes. I decided that I had better stop with one final mistake or you might start wondering if I ever did anything right. Why am I reading this blog if all the author did was make mistakes?
I want to assure you that I have done some things right over the years as well but I will leave it to the people whom I served to determine what those things might be.
Back to the mistakes and my response to them. I do like to think that out of the mistakes I made, I did learn some things. I do like to think that I had the ability to admit my mistakes which opened up the possibility of learning from them.
Misunderstanding who I was
I preached my first sermon when I was seventeen. Unfortunately people told me that I did a good job. I suppose that for a teenager I could have done a lot worse but I did not preach a great sermon. I still have a copy of that first attempt and it was a long way from great.
Over the next couple of years I had the opportunity to preach a lot more sermons. Growing up in a community of small churches several of them enjoyed having a young person speak. Again I say it was unfortunate but people kept telling me that I was a good preacher.
I had no formal training. I had limited knowledge of the Bible. I knew almost nothing about how to put a sermon together. With all of those limitations though, one person even suggested that I would be the next Billy Graham. Obviously the person who said that did not have the gift of prophecy.
Those early experiences contributed to my growing up with the idea that I was a pretty good preacher. I have always loved preaching God’s word and so to be told that you excel at the very thing that you love doing was a nice feeling.
Putting things into proper perspective
It took me twelve years to complete a M. Div. degree at Tyndale University College and Seminary. One of the highlights of my time there was taking a preaching course with Dr. William McRae, the President of the Seminary at that time. I also had the privilege of being Dr. McRae’s teaching assistant for two of those years. I learned a lot both about preaching and being a pastor during that time with Bill and will always be grateful for his impact on my life.
As a student in his preaching course I had to preach in front of the class and then listen to everyone’s critique when my preaching was finished. After one of my sermons Dr. McRae offered some criticism that I don’t think could have been easy for him to give. At that moment I was destroyed by his criticism. In fact I almost resigned from my church and quit pastoring.
After about two weeks I decided that I needed to sit down and analyze what he had said. The decision that I arrived at after some serious thought was that everything that he had said was true. His criticism wasn’t easy to hear but it was the truth about my preaching. Instead of quitting, I decided that I would change my whole approach.
That occurred more than twenty-five years ago and I am still grateful that Dr. McRae had the courage and honesty to share what needed to be shared. I think that everyone who has heard me preach since that time has benefited from the changes that I made.
I’m not alone
A few years ago I was asked to help a church find a new pastor. Part of what I agreed to do for them was to go through all of the resumes that the church received. As part of the application process each perspective pastor had to complete a personal analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. One of the things that I found interesting was that each applicant gave him or herself a rating of between nine and ten on their preaching.
I listened to sermons that these people had preached and came to the conclusion that there were a lot of pastors who did not have a very accurate sense of reality in regard to their preaching. I would have given most of the people who applied a mark somewhere between four and eight.
I probably still don’t have a completely accurate sense of my strengths and weaknesses but I think that I have a more accurate picture than I did back then. Now I understand that when people told me I was a great preacher, they were really saying that I was one of the better seventeen year olds that they had heard but I was still just a teenager who had a long way to go before I was even a good speaker much less a great one.
The importance of reality
We all to some degree work with a false sense of reality. The best friend that we have is the person who helps us discover what that reality really is.
Henry Cloud in his excellent book Integrity, says that “reality is always our friend because everything else is fantasy.” I am so glad for those people in my life who have helped me to move from my world of fantasy to my real world. Those people really are a gift that God sent to bless my life and my ministries.