“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 youâ€™d asked me what my biggest fear was, Iâ€™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, Iâ€™ve learned that there are many more things to fear in life than failure!
Iâ€™m now even convinced that failure is good, essential even. Iâ€™ve learned to be comfortable with it. To embrace that word. To happily admit, â€œYup, that was rubbish. Totally failed there.â€
Itâ€™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 doesnâ€™t work- oh and that I should get a helmet’.
Revd Tom Brazier, Greenside Parish.
Why am I blogging about failure though? Couldnâ€™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 itâ€™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.
Whatâ€™s important to remember is that your Missional Leadership for Growth projects wonâ€™t be immune from failure. In fact I know of at least one church that has said up front â€œWeâ€™re only committing to trying this thing for three months. If it doesnâ€™t work, weâ€™ll try something else.â€ Theyâ€™ve built failure into their planning. Theyâ€™re OK with the fact that their best ideas just might not connect with the age group theyâ€™re trying to engage with. After a review, they may scrap it and start over.
The point Iâ€™m making is that itâ€™s really important to not just include the highs, but also the lows when weâ€™re reflecting on our mission projects. Of course weâ€™ll celebrate and rejoice in whatâ€™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 experienceâ€¦ failure.
Ouch. Thatâ€™s a strong word. But Iâ€™m going to continue to use it as itâ€™s much quicker to type than â€œthings-we-tried/might try-that-didnâ€™t/might-not-really-work-outâ€. 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 canâ€™t say â€œThat thing weâ€™ve been doing for ages just isnâ€™t reaching people as we thought it would. It may have once worked but itâ€™s now failing,â€ 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 â€œIt isnâ€™t working any more. Letâ€™s stop it.â€? I think plenty of people might sigh with relief, and feel a weight has been lifted. Those marvellous, hardworking and generous souls whoâ€™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 thatâ€™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 Iâ€™ve seen it.Â Iâ€™ve seen people come alive when given the chance to leap around a church hall leading 8-year-olds in action songs. Growing Godâ€™s kingdom should feel good, shouldnâ€™t it? If the thing weâ€™re doing doesnâ€™t, maybe itâ€™s worth exploring why. It might be time to stop doing it. And if we stopped doing it, thereâ€™d be space. Thereâ€™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 weâ€™re afraid of failure, we become stationary. We darenâ€™t take risks. We stick with the way we know, even if itâ€™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). Thatâ€™s all risky business. Sharing the Good News and being Jesusâ€™ hands and feet, loving and serving our communities naturally involves taking risks. So I think itâ€™s really important weâ€™re comfortable with past failure and potential future failure if weâ€™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 doesnâ€™t work out?
I reckon so. What I think isnâ€™t OK is when we continue doing something even though everyone sees itâ€™s had its day, sucking out peopleâ€™s energy and time and money, at the expense of trying new things, just because weâ€™re not comfortable with accepting failure.Â Failureâ€™s fine. It helps us learn. Itâ€™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?
Hereâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ name, Amen.