When Leaders Make Mistakes


Ajith Fernando


In my many years as a leader I have made many mistakes, and sometimes others on our staff have suffered because of those. I desperately pray that those mistakes will not have a permanent negative affect on the staff. Our belief in God’s sovereignty tells us that they should not suffer permanently because he can work all things for good in their lives. God is greater than my mistakes and others should not be permanently damaged because of them. But who am I to tell them that? Well, recently I have reflecting on a story that has given me hope and joy.


One of our senior staff Subendran was a theological student in India in 1993 when there was a serious problem in our ministry in his hometown, Mannar. He had completed about 80% of his studies at the time, but we asked him to come down to help with the situation. I was not happy with this decision, but I did not veto it. As the leader of YFC I had to take the responsibility for it. We were not able to make arrangements for Subendran to complete his degree, even though we tried several avenues. I believe Subendran is the most theologically oriented member of our staff, so I felt really bad about it.


After different attempts at solving this problem, we finally found a way out. The Association for Theological Education by Extension (TAFTEE) in India was willing to give him credit for what he had done 19 years before and to enrol him in their Bachelor of Theological Studies degree programme. He needed to complete seven courses in the TAFTEE programme and this would qualify him for his degree. Theological Education by Extension does not tax the tutor too much as it adopts a programmed approach to education. I agreed to serve as tutor for six of the courses and we found another friend to tutor the seventh course for which I felt I was not qualified. We are now in the middle of my sixth and final course.


I did this as part of taking responsibility for a mistake made. But I am finding myself greatly enriched by preparing for and tutoring these classes with Subendran. I have not had the opportunity of “continuing education” after I finished my theological studies in 1976. My continuing education these days is primarily through preparing for messages and studies I give and through reading books to write Forewords and endorsements. While this is helpful, I realised from teaching Subendran that I was going back to Seminary myself. I was learning a lot of new things and also reviewing things I had learned in Seminary so long ago. I am greatly enriched by this. To me one of the most thrilling things in life is discovering facets of truth I had not been previously aware of. So this experience has been thrilling for me. Life becomes bright with joy when God gives us such occasional experiences of thrill.


I have learned several lessons from this story. First, when we leaders make mistakes we must do all we can to rectify them and pay the price for that, even though many may think it is not necessary for us to do this. Sometimes leaders have no external or legal compulsion to pay the price of serving their junior staff in this way. But they have a moral and spiritual obligation to do so. A significant aspect of the primary call of Christian leaders is to care for those they lead. Unlike the hired hands who abandon the sheep when they are in trouble, biblical leaders are to be like the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep (John 10:11-13).


I have heard too many horror stories of people who have been mistreated and then abandoned by their leaders. A friend of mine did some research on the relationship between senior pastors in our part of the world and those working under them. He found that often at the time young workers join the staff team the senior pastor is their hero. But soon the leader becomes a villain in their eyes because they feel they have been exploited and hurt by the leader. If churches or organisation grow while our workers remain disgruntled, the leaders must take it as a huge failure on their part. The fault may not be the leaders’; but because key players in the church’s life are hurt the nett effect in terms of fruit for the kingdom has a huge failure segment to it.


Second, if costly reparation is the will of God for the leader, it will not be ultimately harmful to the leader. In fact, it will do him a lot of good—which is what I learned from teaching Subendran. We must not hold back doing good things for those we lead because that seems to be too costly for us. For one thing it is wrong for us not to care for our people. But that is not all; doing this will ultimately benefit us greatly and not doing it will harm us for we have not done the will of God.


Third, for good to come out all round, the person who suffers from the leader’s mistake should also forgive the leader and move on without resentment. Though I am very close to Subendran, I have never heard a word of anger from him over our decision to pull him out of seminary. In fact, I have been the one who has been pushing him to somehow finish his degree. No leader is greater than God. If we have handed over our lives to God, and if what the Bible tells about God is true, in all things, even in the mistakes of leaders, God works for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). So we have no reason to be bitter. And we can miss that good if we refuse to forgive and continue harbouring anger in our hearts.


How sad it is then to find so many Christians who are angry about bad things that have been done to them! They are living denials of the doctrine of God’s loving sovereignty. They must battle till God heals them of their wounds. Otherwise, not only will their testimony be damaged, they will also end up hurting others. Angry people erupt angrily when their wounds are touched. Even though they may have been the righteous party in the issue that caused their hurt, in their anger they will hurt other people. They become unkind people—bad Christians.


I believe that what I have said above applies to people who are working in so-called secular organisations too. Both in church and society, leaders are not greater than God! Don’t let the mistakes of imperfect leaders take away the beautiful plan that the perfect God has for you! And if you are a leader, don’t let the cost of making reparation for error prevent you from doing so; God will do something good to you through that.