August 10, 2020

Stupid Ministry Tricks: The Best of My Bone-Headed Ministry Mistakes

headIt 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…”

Comments

  1. iMonk,

    Would you give us 21 more of your bone-headed ministry mistakes? Because we haven’t been stumbled nor led astray badly enough 😉

  2. Brian: I removed Bob’s post. It was inappropriate alarmism. Thanks.

  3. Michael,

    Great post. I went on a church youth mission trip to Mexico. True story. Bus broke down in Moab, Utah. The youth pastor is hanging out with one girl in particular. He tells us that someone in the group has sin in their life. Hence broken bus. We all pray furiously. Oh, God, forgive me. He gets caught a little while after we made it back.

  4. urban otter says

    iMonk, were you using the name “Doug” back then? Because I swear I was in your youth group.

    Fresh out of college, Doug hit his low point as youth minister the night he showed us “The Exorcist” during a church lock-in. None of us were off playing bunnies *that* night. We were too busy huddled together in one giant terrified clump screaming the church down. And then we went home and told our parents…

    Poor Doug. It’s a wonder he survived.

  5. Point No. 6 reminded me of something I did when I was in high school and not even saved yet: I can’t remember why, but I decided it would be a great idea to sneak in the chapel and start turn over all the chairs, tables, etc. (I don’t recall doing anything to the pulpit, or that there was a pulpit.) It was the worst one-man riot you’ll ever see, and some of the eighth-graders were wondering what on earth I was doing.

    Point No. 10 was your best. I wonder if that might work for the rest of us: if our pastor starts preaching on the Iranian presidential election leading to the invasion of Israel and the subsequent countdown to the Rapture and the Tribulation, if we all stand up and tell him ‘we have no idea what you are talking about, pastor’ if he’ll take the hint and stop 🙂

  6. Number 10 is PRICELESS!
    God bless you.

  7. #14 – except the lead singer told excessive sexual escapade stories about how church girls were “easier” than non-Christian girls and Christian parents needed to protect their daughters. Parents got outraged and pastor pulls the plug. Parents didn’t know that the girls were already promiscuous and every one of them got pregnant before graduating high school.

    —-

    When the new, single, and fresh out of bible college youth pastor arrived, the church hosted a single ladies meeting / makeover at the church. What they did not tell anyone was that it the guest speaker was the new, single, and fresh out of bible college youth pastor and the church was using this as a way to bring forth “wife candidates” to this pastor. As he finished, the women’s ministry leader made everyone of these girls stand up and give a brief speech to introduce themselves to the youth pastor. It worked – he married one of them and twenty years later – they are still married

    Same pastor shows up at the church after the honeymoon with her garter belt around his rear view mirror. An Elder sees it and after church, the pastor and elders escort him to his car and demands that he never show up at the church again with the garter belt around the rear view mirror or risk being fired. He complies..

  8. Just remembered this … I attended an Episcopal church as a teenager (mid-1980s), and we didn’t really have a youth group. Aside from there being only about eight teenagers in the entire congregation, there may have been another reason: I heard from one of the old guard at the church about a previous rector who got fired in 1974 after they found out he was smoking pot with some of the teens.

    Top that one.

  9. alvin_tsf says

    thanks for this iMonk. but i laugh nervously. you see, i am just starting out in the youth ministry in our church. and i know i’ll do worse…

    i can totally empathize with the movies thing.

    have a blessed day and thanks again for your courage in sharing these things.

    but seriously, keep writing sir. you are a great voice in the wilderness. one that every christian should hear.

    alvin

  10. Oh this is great! As a veteran of many youth trips and camps, and a mom of eight who loved camp, I totally relate. Oh the broken hearts and sky-high phone bills. I have been yelled at by many deacons for what shall remain undisclosed sins (mostly regarding my worship music). Rock on!

  11. RayA

    I was in that youth group…thought I would be funny one night and walked back in to youth group get-together after saying goodbye at the end of the night, yelled “cheezit, the cops are getting off the elevator!” Watched two friends and the curate toss their weed out the 17th floor window of the curate’s apartment. I was laughing w/ a few others…they were not.

    The same curate later became the rector of another parish in the diocese and decided it would be good for the diocesan youth leaders (adults and teens) to evaluate a sex-ed curriculum for the whole diocese. So the powers that be set up a weekend retreat. The curriculum included movies of…ummm…curricular value, made by Masters & Johnson, et al (yeh, them). Did I mention that it was a co-ed retreat? Those were some really awkward evenings around bedtime.

  12. Michael,

    Thanks for the laugh…I’ve done 1, 2, 4, 6, 10, and 20, and much more–e.g. dodgeball in the front yard of the parsonage where I was living (2 plate glass windows and 1 plate glass door). I am so glad I’m not alone.

    #6 was touch football and kickball (from the balcony).

    #9 in when I was in high school varied between Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Supertramp or Reo Speedwagon depending on who got to pick the music.

  13. I directed a children’s choir at the church. We were cleaning up the gym to use for a dinner theatre. Parents were setting up tables & chairs, while a set of bleachers were pushed back into the wall. I hear a gasp and then a call for my name. The parents were stunned to see a couple dozen used condoms all over the floor that was under the bleachers. I called my boss (the Minister of Music) to view the remains. Everyone in the room was just stunned to realize that kids were doing it, apparently a lot, in the gym.

  14. I think my high-water mark as a youth pastor was when I found myself marooned for several hours with 20 or so teens at the sleeziest truck stop/adult gifts and videos store in the state of Arkansas. While the local mechanic (picture Charles Manson with a protruding beer gut) made top dollar adjustments to the church bus, I watched over the kids in the grease-encrusted dining area, counting them every fifteen minutes and threatening dire consequences to anyone who tried to leave my sight — even to go to the restrooms, which were a cross between a bio-hazard dump and a gallery for anatomical art and gutter poetry. Needless to say, bladders were very near to burstring before that ordeal was over.

  15. Great Post!
    At least the teaching of the Word wasn’t messed up!
    This also is another reason the internet is so wonderful! It’s easier to be embarrassed if you are somewhat anonymous.
    Anyway, it was fun to read & almost makes me glad I wasn’t raised in the church!
    [I still can’t imagine a missions trip where the hosting church didn’t know. I assume it wasn’t in a foregn country. Now that would be a mess!!!!]

  16. I’m sending a link of this to our (incredible, wonderful) youth minister.

  17. Those stories about missions trips brought back memories. I only ever went on one, though. First the bus broke down in middleofnowhere Eastern Washington. Then we got in trouble for griping about the youth pastor’s wife’s cooking. Then the pregnant helper had a mini-stroke while riding a scooter. Then the bus’s clutch went out in the middle of Portland.

    Ahh, good times.

  18. I love #4!

  19. These were great. As a former youth minister, I have been defended by the pastor from angry parents, deacons and various committee members. As a current pastor I have defended the youth pastor from the same groups. It’s been quite an experience to say the least.

    And when I was in the youth group we raced to the van to get the back seat in 15 passenger van so we could make out with our girlfriends while taking the jr high kids home first.

    Can’t decided if I should tell the story of my students going to the bathroom out of 4th story window…..guess on the number.

  20. MAJ Tony says

    Worst thing I recall from our little Catholic parish youth group was “Weird Science.” I don’t remember who got the video, but it didn’t get very far. We were almost all distance cousins, so not much going on in the romance department.

  21. Strobe Light Pillow Fight Night. It was up to the other intern and me to oversee this debacle. The effect of the strobe light in a gym is overwhelming, but when we turned the main lights back on we had kids strewn all over the place. Some idiots had shoes in their pillows, some boys were beating the hell out of little girls. We decided to organize “The Gaunlet,” two lines of about fifty kids each swinging their pillows in a downward, chopping circle. This way we could control the action. Again, an amazing spectacle once the strobe lights took effect. Trouble was, two guys with heads down raced off from opposite ends. I’ll never forget the angry father telling me about $2,000 worth of damaged dental work done.
    DSY

  22. I too love hayrides, it was on a hayride years ago that the preachers daughter taught me a lesson on biblical knowledge of the Song of Songs kind.
    Many of these stories seem to be encouraging heterosexual activity. could that be put in the win column?
    I was once involved leading a youth group when a 14 year old boy claimed to have been raped by a 14 year old girl off of church property, TWICE. Try as I might, I just could not relate. Things sure were different in the 60’s.

  23. Michael, only someone involved in youth ministry could fully appreciate the fact that you couldn’t make any of this stuff up. You literally can’t exaggerate the kinds of things you’re likely to encounter along the way. This was priceless! My own contribution to this thread will be mild by comparison.

    We’re on a retreat and the youth director decided to make a pot of ravioli for the group. He asks me to stir it occasionally. Well, let’s just say I took my job seriously and stirred it – a lot. By the time we were ready to eat we had a pot of ravioli-flavored mush that the teens weren’t particularly excited about eating. Ever since then, I was banished from anything having to do with food preparation. When we left that church recently, the youth director presented me with a gallon sized ravioli can with the names of all of the youth leaders on it.

    My brother-in-law used to be in youth work at a different church and he had a better food story. Seems a couple of the youth thought that a pan of brownies laced with laxatives would be a wonderful addition to a love feast amongst the young folk (must have been watching Dumb and Dumber to come up with that one). The reason they got caught was because they were the only ones not riveted to the commode for a couple of days afterward. My wife and I actually sat in on the leaders’ meeting in which this incident (among others) was discussed and dealt with and I was trying very hard to maintain my composure.

    Jim K.

  24. I have to admit, this makes me feel a little better. I’m a youth pastor going through a bit of discouragement right now and it is good to see that people can make it through this stuff!

  25. My apologies for the F word in a previous comment. Sorry to all.

  26. One more…
    I was a student leader in our church college group. I planned a car scavenger hunt that sent people hunting for one of the clues in the town cemetery after dark (I neglected to think about that while hiding the clue in the afternoon). The first group to hunt for that clue had a very uncomfortable conversation with the police who happened by…”I’m sorry officer, we’re here as part of a church event.”

  27. All we’ve really had to sort out in the youth group where I volunteer is a few almost fist fights. Granted, we’re policing hard for things like drugs because half of the youth volunteers were saved out of being the people your parents told you to stay away from.

    Back in my SBC youth days, I was an integral part of getting my large youth group banned from a certain service-oriented youth camp.

    We’ll take stopping the fights over anything I put my youth leader through.

  28. I had a kid on a ski trip who came up to me in the lodge and said, “Uh, Daniel? … I ripped my pants. What should I do?” I looked down and saw that somehow there were rips in about three different directions across the front of his jeans, and almost the entire front of his boxer shorts were visible. I started laughing and couldn’t stop, so he had to look for someone else to help him. Somebody’s mom had to find some new pants for him. I still don’t know how it’s possible to rip your pants like that.

  29. Neither my wife nor I have ever been “youthies”, but we enjoyed great relationships with some of the youth in the church we met in 13 years ago. Took 10 kids to a concert. Newsboys, Plankeye, and Geoff Moore and the distance. 6 of them were PKs. Yeah, many of you know what I’m talking about….

    As soon as we got there and got our seats (general admission), one of the girls had to go to the bathroom. My future wife sent her off with another girl. All of a sudden, one of the older PKs had to go too, so we sent him off with his friend. 10 minutes later, I’m shaking my head and she looks at me, “What’s taking them so long?”

    Uh, they were 4 sections over holding hands enjoying the concert.

    Later, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… where’s 10? Who are we missing? Tim. Tim was 10 years old and the youngest of the senior pastor. Found a security guard, who called on his radio, “I got two parents who lost their kid.”

    At the time, we weren’t even DATING. But, yeah, we lost the pastor’s kid.

  30. “Fellowshipping like bunnies” is the best phrase EVAR. When I read that there would be a retreat for teenage BOYS and a different one for teenage GIRLS in our church bulletin, my first thought was “Oh, this is to keep kids from fellowshipping like bunnies on retreat.”

  31. Goodbye to those beautiful and ugly moments of the past…I’m welcoming the future…

  32. blwells45 says

    Having done youth ministry while still in college, and then spending the next 6 years after graduation as a youth pastor, all I could do was nod my head and laugh. Glad to know I’m not the only one…… Your blog is a joy to read. I am constantly forwarding posts on to my senior pastor saying, “iMonk hits another homerun!”