Embracing Failure: A Reflection by Derek Penwell

This reflection is reposted here with the permission of the author. It originally appeared on the Dmergent blog.

Wrestling with our fear of failing and learning to fail graciously is essential to the concept of Slow Church that we are exploring here, and we are honored to repost this excellent piece.

My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my students will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it–corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional–when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures–which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”

No.

“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”

No.

“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline–but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying no at its heart a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure–death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Emo Rock service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves–you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option–one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackily. As a congregation of Jesus followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?)*Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Madonna.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity … from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)

The gospel is first about failure and death–because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success–even God did.

——-

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and can be found on Twitter at @reseudaimon.

  • Susan Adams

    “Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.”

    LOL! Now I am going to have THIS image in my mind anytime we are wrestling with a decision at Englewood. Thanks for that, Derek!

    Seriously, this posting is incredibly encouraging and helpful. I think we should take it up some Sunday evening at Englewood.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ChrisSmithIndy Chris Smith

      Susan,
      I would like to see us discuss this on a Sunday night sometime. I seem to recall Jim saying something along these lines from time to time… Chris

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1156605415 Derek Penwell

      Thanks, Susan.


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