Why Churches Make Mistakes, and What
Can be Done About It
I suspect most Christians will
simply dismiss this entire topic. People are human and make
mistakes, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Right?
I'm not just talking about
trivial mistakes here- flubbed sermons or single events that
“crash and burn” somehow. I'm talking about the kind of mistakes
that hurt people and make them leave a church, or disengage from
the church. Or the kind that turn a growing, vibrant fellowship
into a shrinking, fragmented, insecure group of people.
Or in terms of individual
impact, I'm not talking about hurting somebody's feelings from
time to time. I'm talking about things that significantly and
adversely affect people, wrecking not only their spirituality
but preventing any positive impact people could have had
otherwise. I'm talking about spiritual train wrecks, or
spiritual airplane crashes here.
Giving the benefit of a doubt,
no sane person sets out to do these sort of things on purpose.
But such things happen nonetheless. What I hope to explore here
is some of the reasons why these things may happen.
The “Old View” of Mistakes, with Some New Insights
In the field of failure
analysis, human error is generally cited as the basis for
failures and mistakes about 80% of the time. There are some
problems with this conclusion (more about that later), but let's
go with it for now. What this means, when there is an airplane
or automobile accident, 70% (airplane) or 90% (automobile) of
the time somebody messed up. Either they were distracted, they
did not pay attention to something they should have paid
attention to, were fatigued, or they simply failed to properly
control their vehicle as intended. Presumably, the other
failures are due to failures of equipment or factors beyond the
control of the operator.
Joseph T. Hallinan's book “Why
We Make Mistakes” sheds light on the question of human error via
the results of recent research. The book makes for an easy yet
Let me take a few of his
observations and explain how these might contribute to failures
and mistakes in a church setting.
It is a well-known phenomenon
that people focused on one thing miss other things. Hallinan
cites an example of an airplane that crashed because the entire
crew became so focused on an issue with the landing gear. They
lost track of the fact that the plane was losing altitude and it
eventually crashed, killing all aboard.
Even more interestingly, we can
focus specifically on something and still miss what is going on.
Hallinan cites an experiment where people were asked to read a
paragraph and strike out all instances of the letter “e.” Yet
52% of the time, the “e” in the word “the” was missed! In
another experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of
basketball players passing the ball around and to count how many
passes took place. In the middle of the video, a person in a
gorilla suit wandered through the scene, yet less than than half
of the subjects could recall it when asked.
What happens when these
tendencies manifest themselves in a church setting? I'm sure
there are many ways, but here are a few examples:
Hallinan discusses is a tendency in authority-sensitive
environments for the observations of junior, “not the boss”
members to be disregarded if not flatly overruled by the one in
charge. Hallinan cites an example of a surgeon who disputed with
other operating room personnel whether it was a left or right
body part that was to be operated upon, even to the extent of
challenging the accuracy of what was already documented in the
- How many
times are Scriptures studied and passages are actually read
in their entirety?
- We can read
a passage with a foregone conclusion about “what it means'”
How often does the reader of a passage of Scripture ever
question his present understanding of it?
- Quite often,
popular preaching and reading makes its conclusion before
the passages being cited do. e.g. the parable of the
prodigal son (Luke 15) is actually about the older son (that
is the whole climax of the story), not the younger son. But
many tend to “stop early” once they see something useful
rather than attempt to understand the whole parable.
- How many
times do people tell us what is going on in their lives and
we tune out after a short amount of time, having already
made our assessment of the situation based upon our first
- How many
times is personal advice given upon what the adviser “knows”
when that perception is likely to be the result of skimming,
guessing, “tuning out” and the like? If people are likely to
get things wrong on something as black-and-white as the “e”
in “the,” how thorough or certain can we really expect them
to be when trying to figure out what is going on with
somebody mentally, emotionally or spiritually?
What happens when this happens
in a church?
how distractions and losing focus are a major reason for
mistakes. We are doing one thing, but then get distracted doing
something else, and then mistakes are made. How could this
manifest itself in a church?
- Does the
perception of anybody besides the one in charge matter?
- In seeing
the positive things going on in a church or program, does
anybody see the negative things going on? Are such
observations welcome or dismissed?
how “framing” is the term for the thought-influencing
presentation of an issue. It is a way to easily manipulate
people and is often used in marketing. For example, selling
something for “4 for a dollar” is likely to result in people
buying 4 of the item, even if the individual unit price is 25
- We may be
“serving God” but also “serving the church” (or its programs
or leaders), finding ourselves switching back and forth
between them, possibly neglecting other God-given
responsibilities to satisfy church objectives.
- People under
pressure to do too many things at once will make a lot of
mistakes, just like employees in a job trying to do many
things at once will make a lot of mistakes
- People may
be so focused on execution of some plan to notice that the
strategy of the plan itself may be flawed.
Skimming allows us
to take short-cuts in a busy and complex world, but it also
leads to all sort of mistakes. Interestingly, novices do not
skim as much because of their lack of familiarity with the
matter at hand.
- In churches,
contribution is often called "giving to the Lord" but the
money actually goes to the church.
- How many
church euphemisms can you think of? These are designed to
make us think a certain way about something? E.g. “sharing
our faith” sounds nicer and more friendly than “preaching
- If things
are going well, a preacher or leader may say the group is
experiencing “God's blessings.” But if things are not going
well, then “God is testing them” or “we are God's remnant.”
Perhaps God is doing neither, but these ways of framing
circumstances can be used to influence and even manipulate
- Some leaders
want to discuss areas of failure or weakness in members
before providing direction. By framing their direction in
the context of the members' failures, it makes it more
difficult for members to evaluate that instruction
We tend to “wing
it” rather than follow instructions. Hallinan cites numerous
studies have shown that people will ignore written instructions
and only consult them when they are stuck. People tend to act
rather than think. These tendencies lead to all sorts of
- Those who
have been around a church or belief system for a long time
are likely to gloss over inconsistencies, inaccuracies or
- Those who
read the Bible frequently are likely to gloss over it,
potentially deceiving themselves into thinking they are
learning when they aren't. This is especially true if they
don't have a habit of questioning their beliefs or trying to
look at a passage without letting their current
understanding prejudice their study.
In all, I heartily
recommend Hallinan's book and trust the reader will find
numerous application of the ideas in all areas of life,
including church and spiritual life.
- In a church
culture where effort or activity matters more than actually
doing something right, people are more likely to “wing
it” (and are more likely to make mistakes).
- How often do
Christians do some “church thing” while ignoring
instructions (the Bible) and doing what they think
appropriate, only consulting the instructions (the Bible) as
an afterthought or to justify their actions?
However, there is more to the
idea of failures being attributed to these and other human
factors. This leads us to the “new view” of human error.
The New View:
Human Error as a Symptom, not a Cause
In his book “The Field Guide to
Understanding Human Error,” Sidney Dekker offers a serious
treatment of the “new view” of error. Though primarily concerned
with issues of safety in fields such as air travel, his work
readily has application in any field where mistakes can be
catastrophic, where there is a desire to truly prevent or reduce
the frequency those mistakes.
Dekker characterizes the “old
view” of human error as the “bad apple” view. In other words,
something normally works, but somebody messed up something
somehow, and that human is the “bad apple” an otherwise good
system. This view is attractive because humans certainly do make
mistakes, but it suffers from many problems.
Using hindsight, it looks for
where a person made a mistake-- took an action that led to the
accident or incident. Then it evaluates how that person “failed”
to do the “right thing” which is evident now-- in hindsight.
But in reality the “bad apple” operator was competent, trained
and able to function quite well. It is often doubtful if anyone
else could have perceived the situation any differently or done
any better to prevent the accident; he or she did what anybody
else with the same training and circumstances would have done.
If that person is a “bad apple,” then everybody is an eventual
“bad apple.” And that doesn't really help prevent errors in the
Thus, the “old view” simply
blames people, and leaves systems alone. This is self-serving
for those heavily invested in the systems. It allows them scold
those “bad apples” to get them to try harder, pay more
attention, or the like. Or, they can get rid of the “bad apples”
and find “new, better” people-- and hope that everybody has
forgotten this event the next time the same thing happens.
Ultimately, allowing people to
take the blame for mistakes attributable to the system is a
deceptive act. Dekker cites 5 characteristics of systems that
make the “bad apple” theory useless at understanding why
problems and mistakes can occur:
In any case,
errors or mistakes are symptoms of trouble deeper inside of the
system. People are doing reasonable things based upon the
parameters of the situation, their training, their point of
view, and the focus of their attention and the objectives at
hand. So when something bad happens, there are plenty of other
places to look besides the person who might otherwise be blamed,
provided one is honestly serious about preventing the event from
- Safety is
never the only goal. Organizations exist to provide goods
and services and to make money at it;
- People do
their best to reconcile different goals simultaneously (e.g.
service or efficiency vs. safety);
- A system
isn't automatically safe: people actually have to create
safety through practice at all levels of an organization;
pressure influence people's trade-offs, making normal or
acceptable what previously was irregular or unsafe;
- New tools or
technology that people have to work with change error
opportunities and pathways to failure.
So the “new view” looks at
strategic objectives and the entire system, seeing how problems
result from the entire system.
Serious Mistakes in Churches
Serious mistakes damage people
spiritually or seriously detract from the mission of the church.
How can churches prevent those mistakes? There is room for a lot
of discussion on this topic, but I'm going to advance some ideas
based upon the concepts in these books and my experiences.
Reject the “Bad Apple” Theory
The church must realize that
mistakes are not because of humans messing up an otherwise
functional and safe system. Churches must realize that if
something in the church works well, it's because effort has been
put into to make it work well. Safe, functional systems do not
come out of nothing with no effort. Churches need to look long
and hard at their systems and their core beliefs, values and
practices, and not just blame the people when things don't go as
expected. When people and their faith get hurt, the place to
look is at the system, not the person who was hurt or some “bad
apple” that messed up.
The church must realize that it
often deals with things that are very difficult to address and
thus “tread lightly” to avoid damaging people. Building a
Christian is not like building a shack. You can look at a 2x4
and know how long it is. If it isn't just right, a good
carpenter knows how to fix it so it is right. But you cannot
look at a person and know exactly what is in someone's heart,
soul, mind, or future. Even knowing someone as well as they
could be humanly known, another person still cannot tell what
goes on in the heart, mind or soul of another person. So how can
they tell them anything about these things with any degree of
certainty? How can they know what God's plans for them might be?
Many spiritual leaders seem to
suffer from something that might be called “Nathan syndrome,”
named after the prophet Nathan after his confrontation of David
(2 Samuel 12:1ff). Some have somehow gotten the idea that
spiritual leadership has at least some component of exposing and
rebuking the hidden failings and sins of others, and finding
that “one thing” that is the key to all of the rest. While
Nathan had divine assistance in his case, leaders today cannot
rely upon that same kind of assistance. And where does the Bible
tell us this is the key to Christian leadership or ministry?
Going around identifying the “secret issue” and rebuking it
seems like an attractive method of leadership, but that's a
fallacy on many levels and highly prone to error and damaging
Given the inherent uncertainty
about what is really inside of people, the church is rather
foolish to rely upon leaders and their judgments and make too
much of them. They are even more foolish to rely upon
high-profile “star” leaders that are supposedly better at this.
When people are given a role beyond what any person ought to
have as a role, doesn't the act of giving that person that role
become the causative factor in detrimental outcomes? And when
high-profile leaders make mistakes, the impact is even more
significant. This leads to the next recommendation.
Trust God, Not Church Systems, Leaders or People
The church must rely on God a
lot more than it relies upon itself, it's organization, leaders,
programs and the like. Often, churches put personalities,
organizations and programs in place, ostensibly to fulfill the
work of the church, and market themselves featuring those
elements. Do you see how God and the gospel are now secondary in
Then (like good modern
managers), they support these things and encourage participation
in them. If the people “really want to grow” or “really want to
be faithful to God” (notice how the issue is framed), they will
participate. Whatever activity is measured and rewarded is the
activity that you get. Then leaders can boast about this result
or that result and how wonderful their ministry or program is.
But when you reward people for
doing things that are highly prone to error and hurtful
mistakes, doesn't that mean there will be more hurtful things
The role of leadership and the
activity of churches ought to be re-examined with Scripture in
view and its end-goals in mind. Maybe the apostles were not the
simpletons some suppose them to be in having the approach to
ministry and leadership that they had. Modern churches often go
beyond their example to the harm of others.
to the “Back Door,” and Not Just the “Front Door”
Often, mere “net growth” is used
to measure the health of a church. But consider two groups that
are “plus 10” for a period of time. One added 10 new people, the
other added 100 new people but lost 90, for a net of 10. Which
sounds healthier to you? Mere net growth is not a good
measurement of the success of a church or a program. The number
of people leaving a church after having been damaged by it is at
least as important a statistic as the number entering it.
If not hurting or damaging
others is not an important priority, then people are likely to
be hurt as the church follows through on its programs and the
like. When hurt, they will be viewed as mere collateral damage
to the overall “success” of the program.
I know it will irk many
Christians to say that those who leave a church ought to be
considered at all. Often these “leavers” are regarded as
quitters, fall-aways, worldly, traitors, “church-shoppers,”
“didn't want to be true disciples” and more. All of these
dismissive considerations serve to invalidate their experiences
and disqualify them from any analysis. But that's not being
honest. Knowing what I know about people who leave a church once
they are invested in it and how painful it can be, I'd say these
people ought to be considered at least as much as (if not more
than) those who remain. How can a church prevent mistakes if
none of those mistakes “count?”
Jesus spoke of a shepherd who
had ninety-nine sheep (Matthew 18:12, Luke 15;4), but knew that
one was missing; he went after it and took more joy in finding
it than in those who did not stray. Too many “shepherds” today
would simply rather go looking for another sheep.
about the Results
Churches and church leadership
sometimes miss or dismiss critical evidence about mistakes.
Where there is high turnover on staff or large numbers of
people leaving, something is amiss with the system. Blaming the
people who leave is no solution at all.
Further, people who leave a
church or are on the margins are not around to be counted or
surveyed. A church can say they baptized x number of people, but
will any ask how many are still around after a period of time,
or how many were deeply hurt?
It's one thing to be positive
about what is going on, but it's no virtue to deny reality.
Sadly, the church has often had
a reckless attitude towards hurting individual Christians. Some
passages are distorted or torn from their contexts to justify
the idea that hurting people is OK. A few would be:
Some churches have
a warped attitude that taking hard treatment and abuse proves
one is a “real disciple.” But Jesus is the one of whom it was
said "a bruised reed he will not break” (Matthew 12:20).
He is the one who said, “come to me all you who are weary and
burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
rebuking Peter (Matthew 16:23).
- Paul telling
the Corinthians his letter “hurt them” but there was a good
result (2 Corinthians 7:8).
rebuke of the Ephesian church (Revelation 2:4).
are not allowed to have hurt feelings or consider their
needs (Luke 17:1-10)
Even if a church made not
hurting Christians its top priority, it would still happen. But
how much more will it happen if a church has “producing results”
as its objective and “not hurting people” was nowhere in view?
Mistakes happen in churches, but
their impact can be devastating to individuals and churches as a
whole. The church cannot claim to have the most important
mission in the world and have an indifferent, irresponsible
approach to mistakes that would not be tolerated in most any
other endeavor. Accepting mistakes means accepting the
consequences of those mistakes.
Mistakes can occur from varying
“human error” elements. Church leaders would do well to
understand these things and reduce the potential for mistakes.
Mistakes also happen because of
systemic issues. Conflicting priorities and objectives are
always present in any organization, and if not addressed these
put people in a position where mistakes are certain to happen
again and again. The way to build a safe system is to build
safety into it at all steps along the way, and churches are no
Local churches need to take an
inventory of the mistakes and detrimental effects taking place
in their ministries, and take steps to prevent them in the first
place. It is never acceptable to just slough off mistakes with
dismissive statements like, “Christians are human and they are
going to make mistakes” and “people need to learn to forgive
mistakes in the church.” That is a cop-out and avoids dealing
seriously with the problem. This logic would not be accepted in
any other area of concern-- imagine someone saying those things
if the average driver was involved in a serious auto accident
This is not about perfectionism,
grace or forgiveness. Sure, there is grace for mistakes; God
forgives. In fact, not all mistakes may even be sin. And
sometimes God turns mistakes into good things as a result of his
But these mistakes and
strategically misguided thrusts of ministry can be far more
damaging than some sins. It's because of the damage they do that
these things deserve attention.
If the church takes these things
more seriously, their frequency can be reduced. Some may even be
able to be prevented. Then the good work of the church can
proceed without being eroded by the mistakes.
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