Oops! I made a wrong turn. What do I do now?
What happens when we take a wrong turn in the journey of serving his kingdom? It's not a rhetorical question, or a trick one either. In considering it, we're not going to yuk it up about faulty GPS systems or the number of unidentified streets on the map. It's serious business, the matter of turns along the way. In fact, it may be the most over-looked aspect of the slippery slope the church is on right now.
All humans take wrong turns. So do pastors. teachers, professors, church staff, and even many of the great leaders in biblical history. Social media has publicized many of them, the fodder of scandal and marketing devices of yellow journalists and curious busy- bodies. For the sake of my own interests and passion I'm going to direct this traffic down a narrow one-way street, confining my thoughts to the wrong turns made by pastors and others called to career kingdom service. Once again, as the self-appointed department of transportation for this little vehicle I will define wrong turns in the following ways:
1. Exit ramp: a wrong turn that takes me out of the flow of traffic.
An example would be a sin or moral failure that takes me out of ministry.
2. Premature turn: a maneuver where I turn too soon.
An example would be when I fail to wait on God for instructions.
3. Missed turn: I took a short cut and missed my turn.
An example would be when I distinctly hear him but have a better way myself.
4. Detour: a momentary departure from the destination path.
An example would be when other priorities shift me in another direction.
5. Diversion: I took a wrong turn and am lost in the city.
An example would be when the wrong turn got me lost in an unknown place.
My primary focal points will be 2. The Premature Turn and 3. The Missed Turn. These are, once again, in my small world, the most numerous occasions of wrong turns in the lives of pastors and spiritual leaders. In thirty-five years of pastoral ministry and three as Director of Pastoral Ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, servants who had experienced premature or missed turns were in the most danger of the eventually taking the exit ramps out of ministry. The others will be referenced. However, the premature turn and missed turn will be priorities.
The premature turn is when spiritual leaders move before God has given them firm direction. Patience may not be the most common fruit on pastoral or ministerial trees and so there's a tendency to make important decisions based on expediencies rather than his clear guidance. Leaders can also be tempted to over-spiritualize circumstances and read them as the hand of God pointing us in a certain direction, creating activity before the path ahead is clear.
The most dangerous premature turn is when ministers make placement decisions without his clear confirmation. Ministry is hard and many colleagues are in very difficult ministry settings. Sometimes these brothers jump from the frying pan into the fire by making a premature move, an escape for the sake of their family or their own sanity. Having an accountability partner or someone to coach through these decisions is one way to guard against this kind of premature turn.
Solomon counseled, "Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure" (Proverbs 4:26). Earlier he had given assurance about our life paths when he wrote, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:5-6). How many times have we given that text as wise counsel to others but failed to make note of it ourselves. And, of course, the straight path is the right path, often missed by a premature turn.
Pause with me here for something controversial. Some pastor friends are serving in the wrong place because they have made premature turns. You can argue that there are no wrong places in ministry and I will agree that he can redeem and bless even our greatest navigation errors. Just the same, premature turns have placed a good many servants in a ministry setting where their conviction, calling, vision, gifts, strengths, background, and previous experience cannot be optimized. Correcting this wrong turn is usually a complicated process of waiting and serving faithfully, growing where you're planted.
When our son Brian was tragically murdered in 2011, we were devastated. Grief overcame our family like never before. The day after his death I read a Tweet by Florida Pastor Ken Whitten that shifted my heart during those hard days. In my own paraphrase it said, "In trouble we ask, 'How do I get out of this?', and we should ask, 'What do I get out of this?'" That's a good thought for when we've taken a premature turn. Think of what he can teach us as we wait for corrective action, as we ponder the way back.
No leader made more wrong turns that King David. Yet, his prayerful spirit and contrite heart always give us inspiration from when we've taken a wrong turn of any kind. In Psalm 25:4 is this prayer---"Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths".
When we trust him, those paths are straight and true.