I felt the sweat dripping down my forehead, as I feverishly stirred chocolate and inwardly groaned as it splattered on my yellow shirt. The students around me stood in small clusters, impishly slapping their sticky peanut butter and chocolate-smeared hands together and shrieking with laughter as it dripped all over their shoes and the floor.
Our service project–making no-bake cookies in our student center for their friends and teachers–sat limply in the center of the room, melting by the second.
The smell of burnt chocolate chips and smoke wafting through the already blazing room snapped a hard truth into focus:
This was a mistake.
Attempting to make no-bake, chocolate-covered cookies with ten and eleven year olds in a room with a malfunctioning air conditioner, without wearing an apron?
It was one of my biggest “oopsies” of the year.
Every so often, I like to remind myself of some of my biggest failures or mistakes in ministry, just to realize how many things I’ve learned in my years working with youth. Usually, they’ve been great lessons–and only sometimes have they resulted in painful repercussions. Maybe this stems from the fact that I’m the type of person who likes to make others feel better by relating to their hurt by an even more humiliating story of my own–for instance, one of my kids tripped and spilled something at church, and I recounted the story of the time I tipped over an entire table full of food in a food court at an airport.
Sometimes I think we just need a good old laugh at the misfortunes of our ministries to make us feel better.
Take, for instance, the time I thought it was a perfectly acceptable idea to have two middle school boys concoct smoothies for each other, using a variety of ingredients we had access to in our youth building. I watched the two teens mix up caramel sauce, ketchup, cayenne pepper, tuna fish, hot pepper sauce, whipped cream, and more into a creamy froth. I had a reputation for “playing it safe” at youth events, never pushing to make kids do something that they didn’t want to do. In one moment of wild abandon, I decided to egg the boys on to race to drink their smoothies.
It wasn’t until I watched one of the kids plugging his nose, bent over a trashcan trying desperately to gobble down the chunky mixture with the hotness of the pepper sauce causing tears to form in his eyes, shouting, “I think I’m going to die!” that I realized it was probably a bad idea to allow something so gross to happen.
Another one of my “oopsies” was once forgetting to review our student check-in lists we made for transporting over 120 people to our annual confirmation retreat. I had spent weeks planning every detail of transporting this massive group to our campsite, yet forgot the most important one: making sure every student actually showed up and got in the cars they were supposed to be in.
Since I was already on the road when this dawned on me, I ended up forcing the poor students in my car to compare lists and rattle off names to me by flashlight. Luckily, everything was in order–but not before I had a mild panic attack, thinking we had left kids behind.
Of course, there was that fateful time that I chucked a marshmallow at a group of kids who stopped by my apartment. Two empty bags of marshmallows later, my dogs actually gave up gobbling down the fluffy gut bombs and instead concentrated on not throwing up puffy white goo all over our carpet.
Early on in my ministry, when I was brand-new to the area, I took a group of kids out to a laser tag center. The directions I printed off were vague, so I instead trusted the claims of a seventh grade student who insisted he knew where he was going. It wasn’t until we were rolling through miles of cornfields that I realized we were utterly lost. Oops.
I can’t overlook the fact that I sometimes have been too careless with my words. For some reason, I’ve occasionally used outlandishly sarcastic threats when dealing with middle schoolers. I’ll never live down the fact that I was once busy preparing for a big class, and a few sixth graders were pestering me mercilessly. I finally said, “Leave me alone, or I’ll stab you with a pencil,” and then proceeded to scan the table and say, “You’re lucky today, there are only pens here right now.” They scampered away, but have repeated that story nearly every time they’ve seen me since–and to many people.
The same carelessness with words has apparently rubbed off on some of the students who have hung around me. This summer, in the midst of our Vacation Bible School, the children’s ministry program director came over to my office to talk about a little “issue” with one of the middle school students who was helping out with the younger kids. Apparently, this student was saying things like, “You need to sit down, or I’m going to chop your foot off,” and the young kids were actually believing him–and becoming paralyzed with fear.
The program director was concerned, and asked me where this boy could’ve been hearing these things. I gulped, and had to admit that it was likely from me.
However, despite the many “oopsies” I’ve made, the Holy Spirit still works. For every cranky, worn out, stressed, overwhelmed, angry and overly sarcastic mistake I make, the Holy Spirit whispers to students’ hearts, convicts and converts with the Word, and embeds itself in the lives of my students.
I strive to do my best, but I often fall short. It’s comforting for me to know that God’s Word is efficacious, that the Holy Spirit works even despite my failings, and that Jesus died for my sins and screw-ups, too.
As Ephesians 2:10 reminds me, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Even in my biggest moments of mistake, I am still God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus, doing the things that God has prepared for me to do.
Just take my advice and stay away from melted chocolate, marshmallows, homemade smoothies and pencils.