July 9, 2020

iMonk Classic: Stupid Ministry Tricks: The Best of My Bone-Headed Ministry Mistakes (+ A Bonus!)

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From June 2009

It came to me today that many of you have probably felt that this web site was remiss in offering practical encouragement to those who are laboring in the work of ministry. Here I am, 33+ years into this business, and I haven’t really shared much of the wisdom of my own experiences. I intend to correct that with today’s post.

In the following paragraphs, I am going to rescue those of you in ministry from the feeling you have that no one could ever be as bone-headed as you. From the annals of my own life and ministry, I share with you now the following true stories meant to encourage you to start tomorrow with a smile, saying “I may be an idiot, but I’m still way ahead of Spencer.”

As a bit o’ background, I was a youth minister- mostly- from 1976-1988. Then I pastored four years, but also did a lot of youth ministry in that church after the youth minister quit. NONE of the incidents recounted below happened where I’ve served since 1992.

BTW- in order to protect the innocent, I will change a few facts here and there, but I assure you that what you are reading is not fiction. 100% true.

1. I love hayrides. Ours got rained out, so smart guy here gets the church bus (used for senior adult trips), fills it with bales of hay and drives the kids around for a couple of hours. I’m not sure that bus ever was clean again. I got yelled at, deservedly.

2. I showed a movie to a large mixed group of families that had a flash of a woman’s breast. Everyone gasped. Of course I didn’t preview it.

3. I took my youth group to see the movie “Darkman.” I just didn’t realize that it was rated “R.” No sex or language, just a lot of intense violence, much like the average meeting of our junior high ministry. This one did not go unnoticed by a parent, so she arranged for a called deacon’s meeting and read the schedule of every movie ever played at that theater for the last couple of years. It was the closest I ever came to being fired and I totally deserved it.

4. Two of my deacons made a big deal about me taking the a.m. service ten minutes too long two weeks in a row, and they humiliated me in front of the rest of the deacons over it. No affirmation of my preaching at all. Just p.o.-ed that I had gotten them to the restaurants a bit late. I was angry; really angry. The next week I preached for 12 minutes total and dismissed the service at 15 minutes till noon. The reaction was predictable. I actually consider that one of my finer moments. If your view of preaching is “How soon do I get to dinner?” you deserve to be accommodated.

5. I scheduled a concert on a Friday night after football season was over. Well sort of over. It was the Saturday of the state championship game for our division, and our town’s team had been 0-11 the previous year. So what were the chances? Turns out pretty good. They made it all the way to the state championship. I had to cancel the concert and eat the deposit personally. (To soothe the pain, my kids took all the posters and plastered them on the walls, ceiling, floor, desk, etc of my office. Then stuffed the room with crumpled up posters that fell out when I opened my office door. Never say kids don’t care.)

6. We played soccer in the sanctuary. I think. I blanked this out. No one ever knew. I think a dog was in there, too.

7. A few of my students apparently used mission trips as an opportunity to get to know each other in the Biblical sense. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but several have told me about it since they’ve become adults. While I thought we were doing backyard Bible clubs, some of these little church angels were fellowshiping like bunnies at the first opportunity. I wasn’t totally unaware of this though. During a Christmas play rehearsal one year, I took some kids to a room to practice and walked in on two kids (not working with me) practicing something unrelated to Christmas in a Sunday School room.

8. I rented and showed “Bambi vs. Godzilla” at a mid-week Bible study. This was back on reel to reel. I have no idea what I was thinking.

9. I used Van Halen music as a wake-up call for a Baptist youth camp. Quite a few complaints, but I thought “Dancing in the Streets” was a good choice.

10. When I was in my first regular preaching gig at age 18, I tried to preach on the prophecy of Daniel’s 70 weeks. An old man stood up about half way through and said, “We have no idea what you are talking about, son.” Thanks to that man, I abandoned dispensationalism.

11. I had Jesus try to quit a Passion play I was directing. He said it was just too intense for him. (Totally true.)

12. One of the Oak Ridge Boys- I am not lying — crashed a revival I was preaching and demanded to be able to sing in the service. I said no and the guy said, “Do you know who I am?” and left cussing me. He had great hair and a hot wife.

13. I was hired to be a summer youth director only to discover there was a lay couple there, loved by the kids, busy doing great ministry for the past ten years. The pastor neglected to tell me he didn’t like these people. (He turned out to be a jerk no one could work with.) So I did nothing for two months but hang around while kids kept asking “Who is that guy?”

14. I brought in a band to do a concert, and the lead singer told such incredible, explicit drug use stories that the pastor pulled the plug on the show and sent everyone home.

15. I have attempted to work with a host of people- I mean several in various churches- who were all determined to fire me and I knew it. After working with one for weeks on summer recreation leagues, he brought me into the pastor’s office and promised to personally build and fund a new youth facility if the pastor would fire me immediately. He didn’t. I asked the guy for Reds tickets the next month. (I have a strange attraction to my enemies. It’s bizarre.)

16. I once hired a guy as an intern who spent the next three months trying to consolidate support to take my job. I kept asking him what he was doing and he’d say nothing. I finally got the nerve to fire him and he left the church and the faith. He married one of our youth group girls in a few weeks. He eventually became a lawyer, so he was in league with the devil.

17. I let some kids watch a movie on HBO (long ago) in my office. Listen folks. Don’t ever do that. I had more angry parents than I could count, even though the movie was harmless. I don’t know how I made it through that one. (I have problems with movies. Have you noticed?)

18. I once took our kids on a mission trip that we’d planned for months. Our contact was a local director of missions, not the pastor we would work with. All seemed fine. (Can you see this coming?) When we arrived, the pastor had no idea who we were, had no housing, no places for us to work and DIDN’T WANT US THERE. So we negotiated with him and he agreed to let us sleep in the church basement, feed ourselves and find our own places for Backyard Bible Club. He wanted nothing to do with us. The next morning was pouring rain, and there we were, on the streets, door to door, asking for homes to do Bible clubs for the area kids. This was not an area that liked Baptists, by the way. By noon, we had four places, none connected to the church. We had a great week, though the pastor treated us like a disease. When we were leaving, three of our boys were mooning him in the bus windows. I was almost angry at them. Almost. Lesson: ALWAYS make an advance trip yourself.

19. My first mission trip (1980) was worse, but it makes me look like such an idiot that I can’t tell you the whole story. It’s amazing my kids didn’t starve. I’ll just say that the two other youth leaders I worked with took me aside and had a talk with me at the end of the week. I got the message, and eventually became very good at mission trips to the inner city and Appalachia. And much better at planning.

20. Yes, I drove off and left a kid at a rest area once. Are you happy now?

21. Oh yeah. I was the lowest paid guy on a church staff where I worked, and the parents thought I did a good job, so they commandeered a business meeting, amended the budget and gave me a big raise. This was back in the day when $16k + benefits was normal for a new, full time, youth guy. I won’t tell all of this story, but I was counseled, for the good of the staff, the process, etc., to turn it down. And guess what? I did. I went before TWO morning services and declined the raise. I look back on that now and I hang my head in shame. Mama and Daddy did not bring up a boy to be that dumb, I promise. But that’s what church work will do for you. I think God has kept me poor ever since because “Well, OK…if you don’t want it…”

• • •


Talk about Stupid Ministry Tricks! Michael Spencer once wrote, “If I become Lutheran, Anglican or Catholic, it will be because I watched this too many times.”


  1. The bonus footage just goes to show you can “worship” with anything. Oh, you won’t grow spiritually at all, but you can jump around a bit, and confuse your lack of breath and the strong bassline with the Holy Ghost.

    As to what Michael had to say, I can relate. Anyone who’s worked with kids can. By and large the parents expect you to babysit your kids, and God help you if you actually teach them anything that doesn’t fit with their preconceived ideas, or otherwise discomfit them. But thank God my position was not one where the deacons or laymen could get me fired. I would never work for such a church. I wouldn’t last; but more importantly, no true prophet would last either.

  2. We’re looking to hire a youth pastor in the next month, think I’ll force him to read this.

  3. How did anyone else make it past two minutes into the video. Ewwwwww!

    • I didn’t bother. I just skipped forward to see if anything different happened. Little did.

    • Yes I’m glad it wasn’t smell-o-vision too!! (I lasted 3.5 minutes!)

      • yup…worst as in WORST worship exhibition, manipulation, hype, nonsense, goofiness, pseudo-spiritual abomination this side of Exodus 32… 🙁


        is this Rick Pino at a Ramp service? this is why i do not state lightly that such uber-spiritual apostolic/prophetic signs-and-wonders groups targeting youth are very, very, very dangerous…

        and this short video representation the least offensive of the the propaganda & programming these kids are subjected to…

        Lord, have mercy… 🙁

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Yeah, it’s Rick Pino. The first blogger to post that video a couple years ago followed it with a rant about Rick Pino; judging from RP’s music, apparently RP has a bad case of “Jesus is my Edward Cullen!” (at about that level).

          The actual YouTube page for that video has comments about how the original song was not only about a pole-dancing stripper but “written and sung by a gay transvestite”.

          And it could have been worse. According to another blogger, at Jamaican street concerts it’s not only common for the audience to spin their T-shirts right round baby right round, but to set them on fire before doing so. “More Fire! More Fire!”

  4. I can relate to more than a few of those…especially #4. The only PROPER length, apparently, is to preach so the service ends right on time. (never mind we have no control over special music, etc….) Yeah…good times.

    I tied a kid to a chair in VBS once because he wouldn’t sit still. Nerf gun wars in the church. Was publicly thankful for a few funerals because I needed the cash…yeah, we’ve all done stupid stuff.

    And, for the record, I stopped at 1:50 into the video….I’m Anglican. (Well, I was before I pushed “play” but that reinforces it!) 😉

  5. As a youth minister, I’ve got my own manual of what not to do, from the brief time period I did that job:
    1. Do not play ultimate frisbee in the sanctuary or full contact soccer in the fellowship hall.
    2. Do not employ as a SS teacher the most humble man in the church who decides it isn’t worth his time if less than 5 kids show up.
    3. Don’t show the kids “300” or “Dogma.” I must have had rapport, because I never got caught for that one.
    4. Make sure it isn’t raining if you plan a paintball day.
    5. Make sure all the mentally challenged bring their meds to camp.
    6. If you take the kids “reindeer humping” (look up at urban dictionary) at Christmas time, neither allow photography or them to hit the nativity scene at the Mormon church.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      You know, there is a LOT of sitcom potential in a church setting.

      (Never mind that every sitcom with a church setting has been incredibly lame…)

      • I don’t know about that. “Amen” was OK, except for the deacon’s daughter with the extremely whiny voice.

  6. I was wincing and grimacing through the first minute and a half of that video. Then when he sang, “You spin me right round, Jesus“–I shouted like I’d been punched in the stomach, and fumbled feverishly to stop the video. I shudder to think what might follow…

    • That’s probably a universal experience for anyone who is reading this. You described me to a tee. Wincing-grimacing. Wow! Aaahh! Help! Stop! Couldn’t watch more than a minute and a half in total. Head still shaking reflexively.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And there is worse out there. Lost somewhere in the wilderness of YouTube (and probably taken down after the Internet publicity) is a Megachurch spectacle that got dubbed “World’s WEIRDEST Church Service.” It consisted of:

      * Stage set (presumably in the sanctuary, where my church would have its altar) of a gigantic board & spinner from Milton Bradley’s Game of Life.
      * Main vocalist (“Worship Leader”?) in the worst red lobster fursuit this side of a CSI episode, “singing” the early Beatles piece “Come Together” a capella in a style & delivery straight out of William Shatner’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”:
      “HE SAY!
      * Backup performance artists onstage/in the sanctuary included a snake-handler, a mime climbing a non-existent ladder, and Strawberry Shortcake doing a tap dance.
      * I am NOT making this up. According to the original blog source, this was for real “Worship”, apparently the warmup to a sermon at some Megachurch.

  7. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    This is a classic IM piece. Had me grinning all over again. And as for the spinning socks vid… yeesh. That and the one with the “Holy Hokey-Pokey” are worse than being rick-rolled.

  8. Thanks for the laughs, again. It’s always surprising to me how universal the evangelical culture and its issues were/are. I went to a Christian boarding school overseas where one of the numerous silly rules was that movies were prohibited. I and a few friends snuck out to see Star Wars only to see a few of the younger teachers from the school a couple of rows over and down. We didn’t tell on them, and they didn’t tell on us.

  9. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for posting this. Great stuff.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says


    (The one that keeps getting taken down as fast as anyone can link to it…)

    “Just like that 80s hit about a pole-dancing stripper, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And (separate in case CM is still deleting links) here’s The Pony Version!

  12. I had a junior high youth group my 8th grade year that was great. My senior high group at the same church (9th grade) was nice but dull, doing the same activities the same way over and over again.

    10th grade at a different church I liked the senior high youth minister all right. But his replacement halfway through my junior year I didn’t care for. He jazzed up the music and a lot of the “window-dressing”, which drew a lot more kids in, but he also told a lot of off-color jokes which at the time seemed really inappropriate. Which seemed especially ironic in light of the fact that we got the standard “sex is God’s wonderful gift; save yourselves for marriage” lecture almost every other week. (This same youth pastor now leads a huge megachurch in another state; go figure. And no, it is NOT Mark Driscoll.)

  13. I remember when Michael first wrote this. I laughed out loud then too! As a former youth pastor, I can so relate. I once left a girl 25 miles from home at a Lazer Tag facility. Always check the bathrooms.

    • Well, in your case get someone ELSE to search the bathrooms . . . Or you’ll be able to trump Michael!

    • I had 2 kids run after the bus yelling once…good thing someone spotted them:) We were at least 25 miles from home. Good times.

  14. My pastor didn’t mind at all, I honestly believe he thought this was funny. I was throwing candy from the balcony out into the sanctuary during the closing ceremony for our VBS and busted one the lights in the chandelier. Kids are scrambling over each other to catch and pick up candy, and couldn’t hear me shouting about the broken glass pieces also raining down.

    I was able to watch 2 min 5 sec of the video. Is there some kind of prize?

  15. I would imagine the youth slipping off to “know” each other would be a common experience of all clerics throughout time, the biological imperative being what it is and adolescence being what it is. It’s interesting that with all the care now being taken into protecting the youth from adults (whether through insurance requirements, reputation protection or just actual concern), there seems little inclination to protect youth from other youth.

    • Very true…..

    • Crooked Bird says

      The funny thing about this to me is the contempt some of the youth seem to have for the adults just for not knowing. Even years later. The reason I say this, of course, is that I’ve heard stories of this kind of thing told to me in exactly that tone, by people in their twenties.

  16. The mother in me is wondering how many of those kids actually found their shoes after that….. Just another thing on my list of reasons why my girls don’t participate in youth group.

  17. Maybe I’m just too OLD, but I didn’t get how that video could be possibly considered “christian”.

    Was I missing something?

  18. After seeing this, I’m just super happy I was raised a Roman Catholic. I will never complain about CCD classes and the Confirmation retreat again.

  19. This is somewhat off topic, but if you fastforward through the scary video, four others pop up in a ‘if you liked that, you might also like’ fashion’. On the top right is ‘worship leaders nightmare’. The guy finishes a song and another guy comes up to pray, but the worship leader trips backwards and right into the big set they have on stage. Wood and ‘stuff’ is flying everywhere and someone rushed on stage to dig him out, but the other guy just keeps praying and then, presumedly after his ‘amen’ (there is no sound), he goes to help. For some reason, the entire thing struck me as hilarious.

  20. I laughed as hard as I did the first time i read this. I was really drawn to this site by Michael Spencer’s honesty and the humulity he could illustrate when looking at himself. I found him so interesting after the first few posts I went and read his archives. It would be years before I ever left a post, more happy to lurk and just see what he had to say. Miss the guy.

  21. Crooked Bird says

    Oh, man, movies.

    At our tiny church my husband and I volunteered to be youth leaders for awhile with the help of another couple. We thought movie nights at our house would be great. We were all set to show them Princess Mononoke on the first movie night and then two of the teens showed up saying they had watched it two days before. We own almost no movies, but their older sister had brought her entire DVD collection in a carrying case, so we flipped through it looking for options.

    We settled on, if you can believe it, Blades of Glory. We hadn’t seen it or any Will Ferrell movie. The other couple had, but couldn’t remember anything objectionable. (I understand this; I once took my dad to a movie containing almost-full frontal nudity that I’d completely forgotten.)

    A parent came in halfway through the movie. Need I say more?

  22. This post brought back memories of a church van full of youth breaking down right in front of a gas station/diner/adult video store in the heat of summer with no other refuge for miles in any direction. That was an interesting four hours.

  23. My church youth group started our meeting with a showing of “Bambi Meets Godzilla” EVERY WEEK.

  24. Dodgeball in the sanctuary is a time honored tradition at our church.

  25. I convinced my youth leader to let us do the “Tampico Challenge” at winter camp when I was a sophomore in high school. Basically, the challenge consists of trying to chug a gallon of an off brand fruit drink in 15 minutes. Three of us participated while the rest of the camp watched the spectacle. There was tons of orange vomit and well…poor youth leader.