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Would Have, Could Have, Should Have: Dealing with the "If Onlys" of Ministry

by Juli Nelson

Juli serves as pastor of First Christian Church in Clever, Missouri. An ordained minister, Juli has served in a variety of ministry capacities including church organist, director of Christian education, adjunct instructor in music and biblical studies at Evangel University, and as a retreat speaker. Juli holds a bachelor's degree in music, a master of theological studies from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and a master of divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary. She and her husband Nathan are the parents of two adult children.

If only I hadn't made that slip of the tongue. If only I had reviewed that budget more carefully. If only I hadn't pushed so hard for that decision. If only I had brought someone as a witness to that meeting. If only I had visited him one more time in the hospital. If only.

The "would haves, could haves, and should haves" of ministry can eat you alive. And they sometimes do — usually between 2 and 4 a.m. That's when your conscious defenses are down and your unconscious can send up its fears and regrets full-blown.

If you are in ministry for the right reasons, then you love God and want to serve people well
in Jesus' name. So when you make mistakes, it's uncomfortable, and it can be hard to get rid of those nagging "if only" feelings. But if you think about it, what do those "would haves, should haves, could haves" really imply?

"I would have" suggests that if you would have had additional resources (time, energy, insight, money, etc.), you would have responded differently. "I could have" suggests that you had the capability of a different response, but did not use that capability. "I should have" suggests that you had a clear choice between options and you intentionally chose badly.

The "would haves, could haves, and should haves" of ministry can eat you alive. And they sometimes do — usually between 2 and 4 a.m. That's when your conscious defenses are down and your unconscious can send up its fears and regrets full-blown.

Anyone hear the whip of perfectionism here? The implication is that perfection is possible and you have chosen not to attain it. But that's not what we believe theologically, is it? What we believe is that we are responsible to open our hearts to God, who searches and purifies our motives. Then we practice serving others out of those still-being-transformed hearts, knowing we are human and will make mistakes. Will make mistakes — that's a guarantee.

Hindsight is always 20-20. So it's only in retrospect that we see how we could have managed some ministry situations better. There are certainly people in the culture (and in the church) who don't feel appropriate levels of remorse or guilt about wrongdoing. But the "would haves, should haves, could haves" have nothing to do with that. The fact that the "if onlys" are nagging is our evidence that the conscience is alive and (over)active!

So what do we do about that? Well, first, be sure to take your dose of humility every morning before going to work. It will not make you perfect, but it may keep you honest and less stressed about being imperfect. The goal is not to deny personal mistakes or cower behind unnecessary guilt about them. Rather, the goal is to acknowledge that because we're human, we're going to make mistakes. So when we do, we admit them, take responsibility for them, and practice letting go of regrets about them.

If that's how we live, we will be offering ourselves the same grace that we practice offering to those we serve. If a congregant comes to us and says, "I feel guilty," and then recounts behavior which is not sinful, but simply human, what do we say? I hope we say some version of "go in peace." The parishioner may need to apologize to someone, but receiving grace empowers him or her to do that.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says "I have come that you might have life, and might have it more abundantly" (10:10, NIV). Now Jesus knew, and we believe experienced, full humanity. Jesus was tempted at every point like us, though without sin (Hebrews 14:15). In the Gospels, we see Jesus experiencing fatigue, hunger, thirst, grief, and anger. Did He occasionally feel regret? Maybe so; it's no sin, you know.

At the very least, we believe Jesus understands that we are fully human and susceptible to such things. If Jesus' stated ideal was that we would experience life as something full and abundant, then we probably have His permission to let go of the "would haves, could haves, should haves," because they sure do rob us of joy.

The "would haves, should haves, could haves" are part of being human. But they should be a very small part: a passing acknowledgement that we could have done better, an offering of grace to ourselves, and a commitment to practice ministry in a climate of honesty and joy. Which is to say, a climate of freedom.