I finished up the rough draft of this article and realized it could be the first in a series. I could mention my biggest mistake as a counselor, as a father, as a Canadian, as an immigrant, as a writer, as a son, as a husband, as a Sacramentan.
But I won’t. At least not now. I have tastier fish to fry before boring more people with my mistakes.
But perhaps my most egregious pastoral error can be instructive to some.
In 1982, our denomination in Canada finally allowed women to become elders in our churches. This was the right move and I was eager to set to rights the balance of representation of the governing board of our church. That next winter, I nominated two women to the board and they were both elected.
One of them, an older lady who owned her own business and was a world-class artist, became the most outspoken member of our board. For the most part, the elders were men of German, Norwegian and Swedish descent, very conservative and quiet. This woman was American, raised to speak her mind. She had no problem getting her opinion across.
I don’t think the church was ready for her. I know I wasn’t ready for her. During that first year, I received calls from people whom she had approached about elements of their spiritual condition. She decided it was part of her role as an elder to supervise and direct the spiritual growth of others.
Looking back on it, she wasn’t wrong in this assumption. But the rest of the board had always let me do those ministries, and they were confused about why she was taking on pastoral work. I now see she could have benefited from me telling the other elders that her actions were appropriate for a church leader. But I was intimidated by her and when she was criticized, I didn’t stand up for her.
At one point, she and her husband traveled down to the States to take care of some business concerns. They were gone for about two months. During that time, the Elders board questioned whether she should continue on another term as elder. Since we were coming to the end of the year, they suggested I talk to her and convince her not to let her name stand for re-election. I decided they were probably right.
I now know we were all wrong. I was the most responsible since even then I knew she was doing what an elder should be doing. But I didn’t particularly like how she was doing it. I SHOULD HAVE sat down with her when she returned and instructed her on better ways of shepherding the people in the church. But that’s not what happened.
When they returned from their business trip, she called and asked if she could come in and talk with me. The first thing she said when we met was “I’m afraid I’m going to have to resign as an elder.” This is when I made my biggest error.
I should have asked her why and got to the bottom of her motivation for resigning. I could have said very little and accepted her resignation. But in my pride, arrogance and ignorance, I decided to voice this ill-advised statement:
“Yes, I agree. I think you should resign. It would be for the best.”
She just looked at me with confusion. “Pastor Mike, why do you say that?”
“Well, the other elders and I feel you have been over-stepping your authority and taking on too much responsiblity.”
She looked hurt and angry and just sat there for a few minutes. I didn’t know what else to say so I just sat there. Then she dropped this on me.
“I came into your office to resign because I am going through the worst season of my life. My husband has just told me he wants a divorce, my daughter is fighting depression and I can’t sleep at night. And now, you go and tell me this.”
She walked out of my office and left me to wonder how I had botched this up so badly.
That next Sunday, she got up at the end of the service and told the entire congregation what I had done. While I listened to her describe my failure in front of all my friends and loved ones, I wanted to defend myself. When she called for my resignation I wanted to jump up and challenge her.
But inside my heart, Holy Spirit required me to be silent. At the end of her speech, she sat down and I closed the service in prayer. Then I went to my office and wept.
I look back on it and realized many things were happening. First, I was an arrogant man who thought he had all the answers. Second, I wanted everyone to like me during those years. When the other elders thought my nomination of this woman was a mistake, their disapproval really cut me deep inside. Third, even though I told others I believed in women elders, I really only believed that in my head. In my heart, I wasn’t convinced. I knew that it was the progressive way to believe, but deep down I had not settled my own personal beliefs about women and ministry. Because I had taken steps based on my head instead of my heart, I was not ready to instruct the church when they struggled.
I regret that day in my office when I hurt her. Thinking back on it I am grateful for three things. First, that they didn’t fire me. Second, that this woman eventually forgave me and we became friends–not close, but still friends. Third, I am grateful that every time someone comes into my office for counseling I am aware of how badly I can handle things if I don’t listen before speaking.
It all taught me that when it comes to interactions with others, I need to start with one assumption. Even if all evidence points to the contrary, I really don’t know what is happening inside of them until they tell me.