“Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
Charles F. Kettering, American inventor
When I was in my teens and early twenties, if you’d asked me what my biggest fear was, I’d have told you it was failure. And I meant it. I think I even recall telling a prospective employer this once in an interview. But growing older, and the kind of experiences that come with being a soldier, I’ve learned that there are many more things to fear in life than failure!
I’m now even convinced that failure is good, essential even. I’ve learned to be comfortable with it. To embrace that word. To happily admit, “Yup, that was rubbish. Totally failed there.”
It’s all part of the learning experience. Nothing is lost.
“You might be wondering about this big new scar on my forehead. I got it ice-skating. Many people said to me after, ‘You need to find another hobby’. My response was to say, ‘Not at all, I have merely learnt that skating on my face doesn’t work- oh and that I should get a helmet’.
Revd Tom Brazier, Greenside Parish.
Why am I blogging about failure though? Couldn’t I have found something a bit more cheery to write about? Well certainly, and I may even include a picture of a kitten in my next post, but I think it’s really important we talk about failure because I want to encourage you to write candid accounts of your Missional Leadership for Growth projects, warts and all. Because the feedback our team has received tells us that churches across the diocese want to hear what other churches are up to.
Hearing these stories really helps to encourage, inspire and reassure. Many of us feel our little corner of Christendom is unique and we face challenges that are distinctive and exclusive to us. It can be a lonely feeling, and a bit daunting at times.
What’s important to remember is that your Missional Leadership for Growth projects won’t be immune from failure. In fact I know of at least one church that has said up front “We’re only committing to trying this thing for three months. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” They’ve built failure into their planning. They’re OK with the fact that their best ideas just might not connect with the age group they’re trying to engage with. After a review, they may scrap it and start over.
The point I’m making is that it’s really important to not just include the highs, but also the lows when we’re reflecting on our mission projects. Of course we’ll celebrate and rejoice in what’s going well, but most of us live in a different world to that of immediate, sustainable and exponential growth. There are bumps along the way. Most of us experience… failure.
Ouch. That’s a strong word. But I’m going to continue to use it as it’s much quicker to type than “things-we-tried/might try-that-didn’t/might-not-really-work-out”. You may well disagree, but I think the word failure is a helpful word to get comfortable with. I think it might be healthy if we can cultivate a culture of being open about failure in our church, especially when we reflect on our mission activities past, present, and future.
Compelling Reason Number One: Freeing up resources (what a relief!)
If we can’t say “That thing we’ve been doing for ages just isn’t reaching people as we thought it would. It may have once worked but it’s now failing,” we end up running an activity that lost its life and relevance in the late 90s. We end up valiantly and bravely but exhaustedly carrying on with something that costs a great deal of time and effort and, possibly, money too, all of which could be better used elsewhere.
So, what would happen if we were OK with saying to ourselves “It isn’t working any more. Let’s stop it.”? I think plenty of people might sigh with relief, and feel a weight has been lifted. Those marvellous, hardworking and generous souls who’ve kept that [insert missional activity] limping along all those years can now be released to do something that lights up their eyes.
Compelling Reason Number 2: Parishioners can explore their gifts
Bringing to an end something that’s failing/has failed can free us to start something afresh that uses our gifts and wisdom and experience and creativity. Something which gives us life. Something we find truly enjoyable, not burdensome. Something which gives us energy, not takes it away. What if our missional activities were things that we and our leaders felt made for, called to, and gifted in? What if they allowed us to explore our vocation?
It might sound a bit grand and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people come alive when given the chance to leap around a church hall leading 8-year-olds in action songs. Growing God’s kingdom should feel good, shouldn’t it? If the thing we’re doing doesn’t, maybe it’s worth exploring why. It might be time to stop doing it. And if we stopped doing it, there’d be space. There’d be space (and energy) to renew, refresh, regenerate, reimagine and take risks. But maybe have a breather and a cup of tea after ending one thing and before starting a new thing. Rest is important too!
Compelling Reason Number 3: Taking risks
When we’re afraid of failure, we become stationary. We daren’t take risks. We stick with the way we know, even if it’s not helping us grow and is sapping the energy of our last few parishioners. Risk taking is essential in proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, helping the blind see and setting the oppressed free (Isaiah 61.1 and Luke 4.18). That’s all risky business. Sharing the Good News and being Jesus’ hands and feet, loving and serving our communities naturally involves taking risks. So I think it’s really important we’re comfortable with past failure and potential future failure if we’re to feel free to take these risks and imagine new possibilities.
“If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure”
Elon Musk, the multi-billionaire entrepreneur
So is it OK if stuff doesn’t work out?
I reckon so. What I think isn’t OK is when we continue doing something even though everyone sees it’s had its day, sucking out people’s energy and time and money, at the expense of trying new things, just because we’re not comfortable with accepting failure. Failure’s fine. It helps us learn. It’s worth it. Failure never deterred Elon Musk from trying to successfully land his SpaceX rocket despite failing so many times (video compilation of those attempts here). He had to go back to the drawing board and make changes every single time. Eventually he got it right. When it comes to seeing God’s Kingdom Come, will we keep adapting, changing and trying new ways too?
Here’s a prayer about failure.
Lord God, help us to be forward-moving people who look ahead, up, and out. Give us courage to be risk takers. Give us wisdom to accept and learn from our failures. Show us how these experiences can guide our next move in growing your Kingdom. Help us to remember that nothing is lost. Be with us when we make tough decisions, and may your Holy Spirit guide us in what is right, not what is easy. We pray you will be front and centre in all our mission endeavours and that you will bless all we do. In Jesus’ name, Amen.