A blog post by Megan Clapp
About a year ago, I made a pretty big mistake. I attempted to make a huge change in our Sunday School programming, and it was a colossal failure.
I had spent a full year working with the youth and family leaders in the congregation. We produced a vision statement, and relationships among the people in the group seemed to have mended. We were on the same page and moving forward instead of treading water in the current program.
I had heard about a great program for faith formation during a workshop at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza, and I excitedly shared the information with my team when I returned from the event. Some were excited, and some were skeptical, but we kept talking all winter and into the spring.
We were facing a volunteer shortage in our Sunday School program, and it felt like a good time to move into something new. As we continued to talk about the fall programming, we put together a long term plan to gradually transition from our current Sunday School program into an intergenerational faith formation program. The congregation had successfully started a new worship service on Saturday evenings, and one of the team members proposed connecting this new faith formation program to the new service.
I was excited. I had followed the conventional wisdom of not changing anything for the first year, I had built relationships, and together my team and I had come up with a vision that seemed like it would be successful. We presented it to council and to other congregational leaders, and our plan was encouraged and supported. Now it was time to bring the committed Sunday School volunteers into the conversation.
I scheduled a meeting, got my power point ready, and assembled the youth and family team, but no one else showed up. Not one single person. Instead of wondering why no one showed up, I made an assumption that they didn’t care what we did, so we moved forward with our plan, but with one big change. Since the volunteers and teachers didn’t come to the meeting, we didn’t think we would have the volunteers for the first stage of our transition plan. So we decided to skip stage one and go directly to stage two: getting rid of the Sunday morning program and switching everything to Saturday evenings.
I cringe as I write this, and you are probably cringing, too.
The backlash from that decision was incredible, and many relationships that I worked so hard to establish in the first year disintegrated before my eyes. We held a meeting for all parents and concerned parties. The goal was to formulate a new solution for Sunday School together.
But it was too little too late, and I had waited too long to bring in the people that should have been part of the conversation from the beginning. Sunday School stayed the same, the number of volunteers stayed the same, youth and family team members left the team, and we were in worse shape than we had been before I had even arrived at the congregation.
I admit I felt very ashamed about this ministry disaster for a long time. I saw myself as a terrible leader and as a terrible pastor, and this perception certainly didn’t help things. But as I look back on it all, I have realized that if I hadn’t made this mistake, I would have made another. And making mistakes, even big ones, doesn’t make me a bad pastor or a bad leader or a bad person. It makes me a human.
I have a quote hanging on my computer from Barbara Brown Taylor; it says, “Being ordained is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly, allowing other people to learn whatever they can from watching you rise and fall.”
Put your own title in there: being a youth director, a volunteer leader, a disciple — none of it is about being perfect. Instead, it’s about sharing what you learned from the rising and the falling. I fell hard when I tried to change Sunday School. I fell flat on my face.
But the process provided me with information and illuminated where I could grow. It showed me that what I learned in seminary does actually have applications in the real world of ministry. It showed me where I had missed some steps so that the next time around I could make sure we didn’t stumble in the same places. Without this mistake, how would I have learned these things? Probably from another mistake.
I used to be scared of mistakes, but now my goal is to make a lot of mistakes, to try new things, to take some risks and see what happens, and to learn and grow from the trial and error that is part of Christian public leadership. The more mistakes we make, the better we get at working through them by foreseeing the consequences and giving those around us the freedom to make mistakes without being shamed or judged.
I made a big mistake, but I learned a lot, and I’m a better leader for it. Here’s to having the courage to make bigger and better mistakes.
Megan Koepnick Clapp is a pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Andover, Iowa. She is passionate about helping God’s people grow in faith that is connected to every part of life, not just the Sunday morning routine. Megan is married to a pastor, and they are constantly dreaming and scheming together about the future of ministry and the church. Megan is a graduate of Luther Seminary, and along with her M.Div, received a degree in Children, Youth, and Family ministry.
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