My Biggest Regret as a Pastor

Erik Cooper —  September 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

It’s been two years since I stepped away from full-time church ministry and into my new leadership role with a missions-based non-profit here in Indianapolis. Time almost always yields perspective, and as the months have quietly ticked by, I’ve been able to look back on my dozen-year pastoral journey with a clear sense of joy, pride (the good kind), and appreciation. Those were incredibly fruitful years I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But there’s one giant regret that I just can’t seem to shake. Something I think young pastors and leaders might want to take time to ponder. Let me explain.


Like most young leaders, my sincere zeal to launch the church into the 21st century focused my energies squarely on all the things that were wrong, broken, or ridiculous about the way we did ministry. (And let’s be honest, there are some large targets to aim at).

Empty tradition was my main enemy. And so began the long, arduous task of unraveling all the “religious” irrelevancy that was most certainly reducing christianity’s impact in today’s progressive culture. Everything “Church” was parsed, questioned, and unwound until most conversations took on the forlorn overtones of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
–Ecclesiastes 1:2

(In my opinion, this is a classic sign of over-analysis).

So I cast off, threw out, and abandoned the “absurd ways” of my predecessors. After all, we’d progressed. I knew better. I could see it all so much clearer. Yet after all the unwinding was complete, it started to feel like there wasn’t much of anything left.

Many of you are probably quietly arguing that this kind of critique is a vital part of a healthy rebirthing process. And you (might) be right. I don’t regret challenging the status quo. But if I had it to do all over again…

…I would be less consumed with tearing down rote tradition, and more obsessed with restoring rich meaning.

Focusing on the restoration of meaning will ultimately neutralize many rote traditions, but fixating on the destruction of tradition won’t get you meaning. (It may get you some things you didn’t want). There’s a not-so-subtle difference between meticulously restoring the beauty of an historic house, and zealously disassembling it and tearing it to the ground.

The generation behind me craves meaning. They want substance. Something bigger than themselves. Something rich with foundation and significance. The Church has been around for two-thousand years. Some of the best answers to “institutional irrelevancy” might actually be found by looking backward. (And I’m not talking about back to the 1950s).

Maybe I’m just getting old and losing my edge. Or maybe there’s something worthwhile here to ponder. I’ll let you decide.

13 responses to My Biggest Regret as a Pastor

  1. Glad to hear you say this now. It’s something I think many of us learn as we mature, and usually at the expense of some of those who’ve already been there – done that and gotten the T-shirt for proof. It’s all a process of maturing and developing the gifts within us. Because I’m on the precipice of being in that older generation that “doesn’t know anything relevant,” I now realize how my older generation felt as I was expressing my youthful disdain of their reality. It’s good to shake things up a bit, but we can’t throw everything out, especially when we don’t fully comprehend it’s true value. The older you get, you will also recognize that “old” isn’t as old as you thought! 🙂 A timeless lesson we all learn eventually… I hope!

    • You’re right that much of this is likely a result of age (you said “maturing”). Perspective has to be gained through time and graying hair. 🙂

      I do want to be clear, though, that I’m by no means sticking up for tradition (for tradition’s sake). When we hold onto preferred expressions we end up with some wacky results. I am, however, questioning how we go about tackling the issue of rote tradition. I believe seeking to restore meaning, not just tearing down and throwing out, is the answer. At least it’s the one a more “mature Erik” is seeking to embrace.

  2. Yes, I got that thought and agree very much and, unlike many, recognize that you’re not just talking about music. God set up some of the original traditions so, to me, that means traditions are important. However, when they get too humanized, those traditions get twisted out of shape and lose their meaning. To put meaning back into traditions, going back to the origin may be key to the search (i.e. “RE-store”). My comment above was aimed more to respecting the fact that to our elders, traditions have very deep meaning and significance. They may have become rote to many, but not to all. Youth is no respecter of heritage.

    • Indeed Peri. And isn’t it funny how it takes age to appreciate that? Sigh. 🙂 I do find that many younger christians today are going back to tradition, but not 1950s tradition, 2nd century church tradition! There is richness in this thing we all love called the Church! Appreciate your input.

  3. As a pastor who has just entered his 6th decade of life, my biggest struggle is while appreciating the past and all that may have been accomplished up to now, that I somehow remain relevant to the culture at hand without compromising basic biblical core values. One thing I have learned is that the PURPOSE of ministry is never changing, while the PLANS of ministry are ever changing. If we don’t separate the two I’m learning is a big mistake.

    Unless I’ve missed something, Christ was despised by the religious elite because His ministry model was so different after they had worked so hard at making the strategies or PLANS of ministry just as sacred as the PURPOSE of ministry. With that said I’m reminded that to His credit, even though it went unappreciated by the religious crowd, He still retained some of their beloved ways of doing things since they were rooted in scriptural expectations. Worship & prayer in the temple, the receiving of tithes & offerings, continuing the observance of biblical feast days just to name a few.

    I believe Christ somehow struck a balance between honoring the successes of the past while at the same time finding ways, even if they were deemed a bit different and unorthodox, to connect with the current culture on their turf so to speak.

    • This is great Jim. Jesus always did seem to embody a “3rd way,” didn’t He? We always put things in a pendulum and then start swinging. It’s traditional or contemporary, historic or cutting edge. Even in the case of salvation, it always seems to be a fight between grace and truth. Jesus showed us that it’s BOTH – Law AND Gospel. I think the same applies here.

  4. Erik,
    This is great perspective. Thanks! While many of your readers, like me, are not in vocational ministry or on church staffs, we do hold leadership roles in either churches or faith-based organizations. We are certainly affected by the decisions of church leadership. And those in my generation are balancing between the traditional generations and the critical generations. Regardless, the growing number of strong young church leaders and their older mentors need to understand this concept.

    Meaning is the target – not merely NEW. Some traditions are present because of the significance of what they mean (or meant). Do we toss out baptism or communion because they are tradition?

    Look closely and evaluate or measure the importance of that activity, ministry, event or song. Let’s not do away with it because it’s old. There is possibly important meaning and new life in that old tradition. Make sure there is no worthwhile life in that old bathwater before you throw it out. At the same time, don’t just keep using that same old water because Grandpa used it and it worked well for him. 🙂

    Thanks for this message. It was perfectly timed for issues about which I am praying.

    • The truth is usually in the tension Roc. We love to swing pendulums, but Jesus really brought us a whole new way. Thankful for guys like you who lead when you’re not getting paid to!

  5. It remnds me of Jesus teaching about leaven in the meal, tares in the wheat field, junk fish in the fishnets. Not only is it futile to try to separate them it, it’s more or less forbidden “lest we uproot some of the good along with the bad.”
    Nevertheless it is hard to be patient with empty forms that tacitly communicate a false religion and a bogus Christ.
    Here in Romania I am absolutely powerless vis a via the religious status quo. Here I don’t feel like I share the blame for it, nor the imperative to reverse it. In this place, “ministry” is simply calling people into the life of God through the original red-lettered teachings of Jesus. It is refreshing, and it isinstructive to me about how to navigate the maze of frustrations and controversies back at home.

    • I hear you Joe, and know you’re having a major impact there in Romania. I think your reference to “empty forms” is what really sticks out. I think we’ve thrown out all “forms” instead of asking why they’re all so “empty.” I don’t think they always were, and I think it’s worth looking back to when the were not (which is way further back than 1954 and the Bill Gaither hymnal). Keep up the good and MEANINGFUL work there in Romania my friend.

  6. At the end of the day, I was taught to do two vital things-: make disciples and release ministers. that’s the entire book of acts.

    Don’t beat yourself up over the past, but push toward the future. Your right about the generation coming after us, and it’s our job to build the platforms for them to stand on.

    That’s the who deal. That’s the most rewarding ministery I have done, and all I’ll exhort until……he’s done with me here, I guess. Lol

    • Thanks for the input Jonathan. No beating ourselves up here, but desiring to learn as we mature and grow. Sounds like you’re building something worthwhile for the next generation to put their roots down into. Keep making disciples!

  7. Extremely well said, Peri. I was going to try to put something into words like that, but you’ve said it so well, I don’t have to! 🙂

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