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.

Human Error: 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 thought-provoking read.

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:

Another phenomenon 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 patient's chart.

What happens when this happens in a church?

Hallinan discusses 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?

Hallinan discusses 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 cents.

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.

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 mistakes.

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.

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 future.

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 happening again.

So the "new view" looks at strategic objectives and the entire system, seeing how problems result from the entire system.

Preventing 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.

Tread Lightly

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 people.

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 this scenario?

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 and mistakes?

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.

Pay Attention 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.

Being Honest 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).

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 different.

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 every day!

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 grace.

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.