What do you regret in ministry?
I regret my years of acting with a complete lack of mercy, because I immaturely believed truth trumped mercy, and that God not spiritually gifting me with mercy was license to steamroll and brutalize all in the name “being honest”.
I regret my years and years of arrogance, particularly in my early years at Youth Specialties, where my sense that I was so special seduced me into cold-heartedness and dismissiveness with the very youth workers I was called to serve.
I regret every time I have gone on the warpath, calling out someone’s sinfulness or stubbornness or plain ol’ wrongness, only to find out that I had only heard half of the story. Particularly, even though it was years ago now, I regret calling a woman out on my blog (so stupid of me!), hurting her deeply, inaccurate in my assumptions about reality.
I regret rolling over and being the lap dog when my supervisor required me to lay off another employee who, while flawed like the rest of us, deserved better. And I regret that, in my soul numbness during those days, I didn’t do enough to truly celebrate or honor him.
I regret (ooh, this one is difficult to admit) all those times I subtly flirted with girls in my youth group, or played favorites with the teenagers I liked more (the ones who made me feel good about myself), or said something funny-but-hurtful to a teenager in order to get a laugh from others, or undermined parents, or made ministry all about me.
Argh. Really, I tend to be a chipper optimist who doesn’t live with much regret. But knowing I was going to write this post about regret, I thought it would be healthy to give a little heart and keyboard space to some ministry regrets. Those five paragraphs are what came out. Ack. Now I need a stiff drink, thank you very much.
Last year, I preached at my church on the subject of regret. Of course, the reality is: we all experience regret. Even God experiences regret (see Genesis 6:5-6). And since regret is a common experience, it makes sense that all of us church leaders will also have regrets about actions and inactions in our ministry lives.
There’s a funny tension here. Simply dismissing regret, which seems to be the pop-psychology soup du jour, is merely narcissism with a happy face. And it’s not, ultimately, helpful. Yet, being shackled by our regrets is a top goal of the evil one, since it’s the polar opposite of the life of freedom God made us for, and Christ saves us to.
So what should we do with our regrets?
First, I have to name them, with brutal honesty, and grieve the loss or hurt or pain or compromise they created.
This is confessional stuff, and often requires asking for forgiveness. Paul writes, in 2 Corinthians 7, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” Ah, yes, confession and repentance lead to freedom.
But there’s often a mess to clean up, the natural consequences of our actions or inactions.
Sweeping those under the proverbial rug causes the regrets to linger around, often for years. Don’t confuse this for penance; but the freedom lovingly given us by a God who could have designed things otherwise has a necessary antecedent: consequences.
Finally, the failures of action or inaction that lead us to regret provide us – with the right mindset – the best learning lab in life.
Maybe you’re not like me; but I learn exponentially more from my failures than I do from my victories. Of course, this requires a choice on my part, to turn over the rock in my soul and stare at the scary, squiggly things that live there. If I can face these nasties, I have an opportunity to learn. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, I put myself in the stream of transformation.
God doesn’t want me to live a life of regret. But I can’t pretend they don’t exist. I have to face them square on, and push into and through them, to the freedom offered on the other side.
Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.