Mea Culpa: Learning From Mistakes in Ministry (Part 1) By: Kyle McClellan

I’m a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church planter living and ministering in my hometown of Fremont, Nebraska.  There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about that, I know – but here’s the rub: if you had told me ten years ago that this would be the case, I would have laughed at you, cussed at you, punched you – or some combination of all three.  Why?  Well, probably because I would have told you that I was either not gifted for it, theologically opposed to it, or would never, ever, ever in a million years think of going back to The ‘Mont.

Not Gifted for It

I would have told you, ten years ago, that I was a pastor/theologian.  Preaching and teaching were my primary gifts – not the kind of glad-handed evangelism I thought was a part of church planting.  I mocked, with great scorn and contempt, the guys who were a part of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Seminary.  “Maybe, when they grow up, they’ll put their big boy pants on and read some books without pictures in them.”  I mean, who actually thinks you can plant a church around Word, prayer and sacrament?  Thanks but no thanks.

Theologically Opposed to It

As an undergraduate Bible major at Taylor University, I read John Piper’s Desiring God.  Reading that book carpet-bombed any theological system I thought I had growing up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance.  I entered Southern Seminary as a “Piper Calvinist” and grew in my love and understanding for the sovereignty of God – especially as it related to the salvation of sinners.  While I was certainly sympathetic to Reformed/Presbyterian soteriology, well, they baptized babies – didn’t they?  Again, thanks but no thanks.

Never Going Back

“The plains leave an indelible mark upon one’s soul – both for good and for ill.” – Willa Cather.  The joke in high school: Fremont is a great place to be from, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  Athletics was my ticket out of my hometown, and while I enjoyed coming back to visit my parents, I had felt the ill mark of the plains upon my soul.  Thanks, but “wild horses and nickel beer” couldn’t drag me back.

How Do I Get There From Here?

            So, with three strikes, how did I get here?  First, through my mistakes – I plowed quite a bit of ministerial ground with my chin.  Second, to quote my grandparents: “The Lord God Almighty overruled our (my) dumbness.”[1]  While the second factor certainly trumps the first, my mistakes are much easier to identify, discuss and learn from.  The second is cause for doxology, but not so good for analyzing.

Let me put it another way: from 1996-2006 I pastored four different churches.  The first (while in seminary) was from November 1996-1999.  The second: 1999-2000.  The third: 2000-2003.  Finally, the anchor leg went from 2003-2006.  Only one of those congregations was sad to see me go.  Two of them ended with me resigning and pitching a fit on my way out the door.  The remaining church found the deacons asking me to leave, and I had the good sense to ask for some time to find a new place of ministry.  Not a great start for a guy who had been told he was a “5-talent minister” and a Preaching Award Winner while in seminary.

Mea Culpa

I wish my story was unique.  Sadly, it’s not.  There are too many young guys, fresh out of seminary, who are getting bludgeoned in local church ministry.  The concern of the folks at Practical Shepherding, and my reason for writing, is that lots of dudes think they are totally blameless in this process.  Sure, they may say different, but deep down they are indignant at God for calling them to churches that would not respect or submit to their giftedness.  It’s not really their fault – it’s the pastor who preceded them who wouldn’t know exposition if it bit him in the keister.   It’s the good-old-boy deacon board, or the church diva whose husband needs to man up and put a muzzle on her.

There’s no use denying that there are unhealthy churches out there – or that some churches would be of highest use to the Kingdom by closing their doors.  That, however, is beyond the scope of my concern here.  My concern is that we learn from our mistakes, quit blaming others for everything and move forward in a way that demonstrates God’s grace to His people.  Take the attitude of an athlete watching game tape: I messed up.  Mea Culpa.  I’ll learn, correct the mistake and (by God’s grace) do better next time.

Picking

Providentially, it took three months of walking 20+ miles a day picking books at the Amazon warehouse and the wise counsel of a friend to learn this.  After I resigned, I still had a wife, two kids and a mortgage.  The church gave me three months severance – so I had to find a job.  What did my big, bad M.Div. and “5-talent skills” get me?  A job working 10-hour shifts at Amazon.    Jesus and I had some junk to straighten out.  I thought most of it was His – but it turns out I was wrong.  I would walk (did I mention it was 20+ miles a day?), pick books and rage inwardly to the One who called me to ministry.  It took every day of the three months for me to finally shut up and listen.

At the same time, a wise and experienced pastor friend of mine encouraged me to find an older pastor (not in my denomination) and try to get the color and number of the bus that had just run over me.  John Sartelle did not know me from Adam, but he graciously gave of his time and counsel.  We met every week for a year.  John listened to me vent and asked questions.  The good folks at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church bestowed love and grace to our damaged[2] and gun-shy family.  The Lord God Almighty was overruling my dumbness.  I was finally at a place where the honest assessment of my own mistakes could now begin.

So what did I learn?  What mistakes did I identify?  We’ll save that for next time . . .



[1] While in their 60’s my maternal grandparents were mugged in their driveway.  My grandfather was a WWII Navy vet, and tried to fight the two guys off.  One of them had a gun, and grandpa was shot in the hip.  When interviewed in the Omaha World Herald afterwards, grandpa gave testimony to his own stupidity and God’s goodness.

[2] My wife Amy is amazing.  She never once suggested we chuck the church thing and move on.  Instead, she affirmed my calling and God’s goodness to us – channeling her inner Barbara Hughes (if you’ve not read Kent & Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome, shame on you).

Kyle McClellan is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fremont, Nebraska.  He has degrees from Taylor University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He is married to Amy and has two children.

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10 comments on “Mea Culpa: Learning From Mistakes in Ministry (Part 1) By: Kyle McClellan
  1. Sheldon says:

    Loved the first installment! Thank you for being open and willing to share the hard times of being a pastor.

  2. Derek says:

    We share very similar stories. Thank you for sharing this. I am currently a pastor in PCA in central PA.

  3. Roy Yanke says:

    Kyle (and all who have walked where you have walked) –
    Your story is repeated 1500 to 1800 times a month. But the good news is there are folks who care – many who now serve in ministries that care for pastors directly. I want you, and all our hurting brothers, to know that we are here for you. I hope you will take the time to find out about who we are, what we do, and will spread the word.
    http://www.pirministries.org

  4. Anonymous says:

    Please put up part 2 soon!

  5. Ken says:

    Wow, I felt like I just read my own autobiography. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve definitely made my fair share of mistakes but letting others in and asking for help has been my downfall.

    I was really encouraged to read this and appreciate you sharing.

    Ironically, I find the more valuable lessons are the ones who have fallen and got up than any super “talented” pastor can share.

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  8. I have to say my favorite line is “the church diva, whose husband needs to man up, and put a muzzle on her”. lol
    Looking forward to reading your book, and look lifting you up in prayer as you contine to write.

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