Remember that time you would rather forget?
I’m talking about a ministry fail that still gives you the willies just thinking about it.
I’d love to hear yours. I’m even creating a contest for you below.
But first, let me tell you one of mine.
It all began at a church I began serving at after graduating college. I was a full-time youth worker in a small town and was told by a group of students that I was taking them to Cedar Point (a popular amusement park in the Midwest). The students didn’t ask me, mind you – they told me.
“It’s tradition,” they said.
Since I was a rookie leader and wanted to please everyone, I advertised the trip and organized a caravan of at least 10 cars to drive… because apparently as soon as we said “Cedar Point” out loud in our small town, everyone and their brother decided they were going, too. Almost overnight, we had 40 kids going with us.
To add to to the equation, I discovered it would take us at least two-and-a-half hours to get there.
I naively assumed that would be the actual timeline and how we could do it all in one day. We met at our church building at 5am to depart.
You know what happened next, of course. We had a few kids who showed up so early that they started causing trouble around the church building before any supervision was there to redirect them. Their energy level only compounded as we waited for the stragglers to show up (including several drivers who were late).
We didn’t actually load into our vehicles until 5:45am.
At around 5:55am, we had our first stop.
Two girls informed me that they needed a bathroom. I explained that we’d only been on the road for ten minutes and they could hold it. They quickly explained that didn’t matter because it was “a girl thing.” I pulled over right away.
Of course, all forty students figured this would be a good time to get out of the cars, too. Not all at once, though – that would’ve been too easy. No – about every 5 minutes someone new got out of their car.
After a half hour at the gas station ten minutes away, we were back on the road.
Within the next half hour into our drive, we encountered a blinding rain storm.
This was the kind of weather that normally causes people to pull over to the side of the road. I was toward the front, and so I motioned all of the cars closest to mine to pull over. They all did, and so I assumed the rest of the drivers did the same. This was before the era of everyone having cell phones, so I assumed if I didn’t see someone we’d simply wait until after the storm for everyone to catch up.
True to my plan, all but one of the cars showed up a few minutes after the storm calmed. We waited for the remaining vehicle. We then waited some more. We waited even longer. We soon realized… they weren’t coming.
To top it off, this was a car of junior high girls driving with one of the student’s older sister who had recently graduated. We started to fear that something had happened… like they had flagged down a truck for help, and a guy named “Toothy” had pulled over to offer them a ride.
Exercising what I thought was good leadership, I sent one of our cars to go back and look for them while the rest of the caravan went forward slowly. At least, they were SUPPOSED to go forward slowly. I’m pretty sure they all peeled out, anxious to get to Cedar Point.
I waited with my van and its students while our “scout car” drove ahead, did an illegal u-turn and planned to return back with the other car.
I came up with some games to appease the kids in my car, all to no avail. Eventually, we found ourselves simply staring off into the distance. Without warning, the car with the junior high girls emerged in the corner of our eyes as it came FLYING by… with no scout car in sight.
I realized it was them, and quickly tried to catch up to them. Their little Volkswagon “Bug” was no match for my mighty-borrowed-from-a-member-in-the-church minivan,
After we flagged them down, they pulled over and explained how they’d gotten lost from the group. As we were talking, our scout car came FLYING by us… and so yet again we were trying to play a game of catch up all the way to Cedar Point. The traffic between us only became more congested, and so we never did quite get as close to them as I’d hoped.
In fact, it wasn’t until we pulled into Cedar Point – now an extra hour later from all of the hoopla – that we finally did catch them.
This, of course, is when we realized… it wasn’t them. It was a car that looked like them that was going to Cedar Point, too.
What were the odds?
My van and the junior high girls’ car unloaded. We caught up with the rest of the group who were laying out on the concrete at the entrance gate, whining out loud about how long they’d been waiting for me because I had the group tickets.
I again exercised what I thought was good leadership by sending everyone else in while I waited for the “scout car” group to arrive.
Ten minutes went by… then a half hour… and another half hour… and another half hour.
Two hours later I realized they weren’t there and I was due to meet the other groups for lunch. And so I left.
(I later learned that about five minutes after I left, they arrived and bought their own tickets and came in. This would leave me stuck with 6 non-returnable tickets, totaling over $200. Upon learning of this, I tried to sell them at face value at the gate… until the park security said it was a form of scalping and I would be ejected from the park if I tried to do it again.)
We made plans to meet in the parking lot near the end of the day at 10pm. Of course, this didn’t really happen until 11pm.
That was also when we realized that one of the cars had a flat tire.
This took us a half hour to change, and in doing so we realized the tire had a warning on it that you weren’t allowed to go over 55mph. The highways we were traveling had signs allowing for 65-70 mph.
We were already an hour-and-a-half behind schedule.
So I again exercised “good leadership” by letting half of the group go ahead of us while the remaining cars crept along with the slow car. This means we were all supposed to travel in one of the two groups.
That didn’t happen.
One car in the first group got lost trying to figure out how to take a short cut.
Another car hit a cow…
yes, an actual cow…
on the final stretch to the church.
One of the other drivers was barely able to stay awake after the long day. She was on the verge of falling asleep the whole drive and was kept awake only by another adult passenger helping her stay alert. That is, when that other adult didn’t fall asleep.
We were due to be at the church for parents at 1am.
My van and a few others pulled in around 4:30am.
Everyone who had been waiting for their kids just got into their cars and left. I just knew that once the kids explained the events of the day to their parents that I would have no problem with anyone questioning my finely-tuned leadership skills. In fact, they’d probably congratulate me for making it through it all in one piece.
After all, it was all about me and the chaos I’d just gone through as a leader. Right?
So… the next day I apparently had more than one phone call to return.
Whether it was a parent who lost a day of work from waiting for us to return, to another who vowed their kid would never go on a trip with us again, I got an earful. Some families were graceful, but most were concerned.
“Is this youth pastor going to do this with every event?”
I tried to defend myself, only to never come up with an adequate answer to the question, “Why didn’t you just call home and tell us?”
This was the day I realized that my blind spots really could affect others. I wish I could tell you I solved that problem overnight, but I’m still working on it even decades later. Every choice I made that day didn’t just affect me nor even the kids I was with – it affected countless others… be it a household who lost a paycheck that day, to parents who spent three hours thinking the worst had happened to their teens.
In all the months that followed this fiasco, everyone seemed to take it upon themselves to continue communicating to me their thoughts on all of my other blind spots. I never thought I’d outlive my error.
Can I get a witness?
I’d love to hear one of your stories of an epic fail. C’mon… you know you have one. Maybe by us sharing our blind spots we can help someone else out there discover theirs.
I’ll even do a giveaway – the winning story will get to choose between one of these two prizes:
- A meal on me, with me at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference. We’ll be hanging out with a bunch of other imperfect youth workers in the Chicago area… home to some of the greatest food on earth. We’ll catch up and swap stories.
- A free book… The Skinny on Service. If you’re not attending the conference, I’m happy to send this your way. It’s gotten some great feedback and I think it’d really serve you as you map out upcoming service opportunities in your ministry.
So share away! The contest will end randomly, so don’t waste time.
Even more importantly, though – let’s own that God loves us and is working in us even when our best falls short.
Looking forward to hearing your story. Thank you for loving students!
– Tony / @tonymyles