Friday, May 11, 2012

If I had it to do all over again...

Today I begin a series entitled “If I had it to do all over again”. A series I hope will be an encouragement and learning tool for others who may be facing some of the same dangers and decisions that I faced over the past forty years.

There will be no order to the coming articles. In other words, I will not start with the first bad decision I ever made and work my way to last week. I’ll write about them as they come to me. And be sure of the fact that they will, indeed, come to me. While I’ve heard others say “I have no regrets”, I do not share their confidence in believing that the man I’ve become is awesome and can only be attributed to all the decisions I’ve made in life, even the bad ones.

While I’ve certainly (I hope) learned from my decisions and, in many ways, become a better man as a result of that learning, I’d still go back and change a million decisions if given the chance. And so I begin this series with the following:

If I had it to do all over again, I’d have never thrown out those couches.

When I was a young teenager we had a couch in our church’s youth room. One Sunday night, while most of us were upstairs in the worship services, two hormonally charged young people found their way down to the youth room and did what two young people, who are attracted to each other and have no accountability, do when they’re all alone on a couch together. As a result, one of them ended up pregnant.

Several years later a new youth director came to our church. Upon finding out the news that that very couch had been used as a launching point for a new life, he took it upon himself to immediately throw out that couch. I was seventeen, preparing for a life of ministry, and was furiously taking notes in my head. As far as I was concerned, this young youth minister was a genius, and so I tucked this particular gem of wisdom away. At the time it wasn’t the wisdom of the decision that attracted me, it was the strong decisiveness of the decision. I admired that and also wanted to be seen as a strong, decisive leader.

Three short years later I would move to a small town in America and take over as leader of my own youth group. I arrived on a Sunday night and, upon surveying the youth room, immediately noticed three walls that were lined with couches. Two days later, before I’d even led my first youth meeting there, I loaded up all those couches and donated them to a charity. It was a strong decision and it made me feel like a leader! That Wednesday night, however, it was quickly made clear that not everybody agreed with my decision. In fact, nobody agreed with it; not the young people nor the volunteers. As far as they were concerned I was just a twenty year old on a power trip (which I was). A year later and I was still trying to win over the boys (in particular) who despised me for invading their turf and throwing out what was theirs, not mine.

Two years later I would leave that church and move to another church in small town America. Upon arriving, once again, I spotted a couch in the youth room. This time I did not immediately throw out the couch. I waited a couple of weeks and THEN I threw it out. I was still under the impression that “no couches in the youth room” was one of the foundational building blocks of youth ministry and also still very much believed that “moving in and taking control” was the sign of a good leader. While this particular youth group was a little more gracious than the one before, I still had to spend a good deal of time overcoming the image I’d created of myself: that of a power monger.

Two years after that I would move to a church in the suburbs. This time there were no couches. Instead I was brought in to replace a guy who had been serving as the volunteer youth minister for more than a year. I was under the false impression that he wasn’t doing a very good job of it but upon arriving there I was greeted by a youth group of more than forty young people who absolutely adored the volunteer who had been moved out to make room for me. Furthermore it was suggested that I get rid of one of the Sunday school teachers who wasn’t particularly exciting. I did. For the next year and a half I watched as the youth group dwindled and, as a result, I was eventually let go.

I was devastated but had learned little from the experience except to be leery of people.

After a few short months I was hired on by an international denomination and charity. My job was to help reinvigorate the youth ministry of more than 40 churches in an Eastern State. I eagerly accepted the challenge and, in just a very short amount of time decided that tradition was the hold up. Be it the songs they sang or the clothes they wore it was my opinion that it all needed to go if they wanted their denomination to move forward. I spent five years there pushing my agenda and, while I had some success in small group discipleship, my hope to change a denomination was an utter failure.

From there, in what I can only guess was an utter lack of wisdom on the part of leadership, I was asked to move to one of the largest cities in the world and help reinvigorate the youth ministry of not only that city, but the country itself. Our idea? Change the name of the denomination itself.

You read that right. We decided that the only way for the denomination to move forward was to undergo a complete and utter change of name and identity. Mind you this was and is one of the most well respected denominations/charities in the world. Maybe the most respected. But from within, the few of us who had somehow found ourselves with far too much decision power, had come to the belief that undergoing an identity change was the only way to reinvigorate the denomination.

Mind you, this denomination did and does face some challenges where its values are concerned. In many ways its quaint traditions are held in higher regard than its tradition of absolute excellence. But in hind sight our decision to throw out the couch, the sign, all the old people, the song book, and its reputation (which is very good) was the kind of decision that young, unwise men make. Hand a boy a bike, a board, and three tires and you can bet he’s going to make a ramp that’s far too high and is going to leave at least one of those boys with a sprained or broken neck: which is exactly where we found ourselves. Fact is, most of those involved with that decision (including myself) are no longer working or even involved with that denomination anymore.

From there I moved to a church back in the States. By this time I thought I’d learned my lesson. Even my wife thought I’d learned my lesson. Tread carefully on the things that are sacred to others. Those things might very well be getting in the way of progress, but tread lightly, earn their trust, and try to help them see and make decisions concerning any sacred cows that may need to be nudged out of the way. Until now my practice had been to slaughter sacred cows on the front lawn of the church. Now my plan was to help guide and nudge.

I arrived at my new church excited and ready to be a part of something special, but before I had even started I was informed of a great many changes that needed to be made. Upon arriving at the church and discovering some pretty difficult situations in tact, I approached the lead pastor about the possible way forward. His reply? “Yeah, we’ve known for some time now that there were problems but frankly, we just didn’t want to deal with them so we decided to let the new guy do it.” That’s pretty much verbatim.

I remember thinking that that was a setup. I also remember thinking that that particular decision had lacked some serious wisdom on the part of those who’d made it. That said, I still agreed that the changes needed to be made.

I prayed about it. I asked for advice on the matter. I even spoke to my wife about it who reminded me of the couches I’d thrown out in the past. In the end I decided to ask for the support of the senior leadership on the matter and, after getting their approval, began to move forward with some pretty scathing changes.

Without question there was a backlash of mammoth proportions. Many feelings were hurt. Many egos were bruised. Many reputations were at stake; Including those of the senior leadership who had agreed and approved the changes. I was convinced that the changes were necessary. What I didn’t understand were all of the dynamics playing in the background. The church itself had already gone through some major changes that still stung, and many within the church resented a new guy moving in and making vast, sweeping changes which suggested that they’d been doing it wrong all along.

In hindsight I could not tell you today that I believe those changes were necessary. Certainly the changes could have taken some pretty mediocre programs and made them better. But whether or not they were worth the fall out, I may never know.

In the end the senior leadership decided to make me the fall guy. As far as I know they took no responsibility for what took place and were pretty happy to have somebody else to pin it all to. I left devastated and, frankly, am still pretty broken hearted over it all. But I’m learning, slowly, what’s important. And I’ve definitely learned the importance of LEARNING, truly LEARNING from my mistakes.

If I had any advice for a young minister, based on the above, I’d tell them to pay attention and learn from their mistakes. I’d also tell them to be careful when treading on other people’s sacred cows. Maybe things really do need to change for that ministry to advance, but who are you to make that decision before ever really becoming a part of the community first? They don’t trust you. They don’t know you. And they have no reason to believe that you’re doing it out of love. Fact is, I probably wasn’t. I can’t say that I made any of those decisions out of love. I did think they were necessary. Many of them were made out of a sincere desire to make the ministries more fruitful. But in almost every case I left people in my wake. Mind you, some of the decisions did improve the specifics of the ministry I was charged with overseeing, but I moved too quickly and left too many broken hearts and egos to have made any of it worth it.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d have set aside the identity of hired gun and seen myself more as somebody who was trying to become a part of the community. And only after becoming a part of that community (which would have taken two to three years of building relationships) would I begin to try and help that community of believers begin to make the changes they, in my mind, needed to make to become prosperous again.

Ministry and leadership are difficult. Many of us see ourselves as CEO’s brought in to make the business more fruitful. But we are not CEO’s and the church is not a business. We are pastors, friends, and we’re supposed to be members of the community: a community of people with hearts, souls, and strong connections to the very things we see as road blocks to progress. We should treat both the people and their sacred cows with respect and sensitivity. If I had it to do all over again, that’s what I would do.