Confessions are never good ways to begin blog posts. But I have a confession to make.
I confess to being envious of colleagues in ministry who seem to have a magical ability to avoid mistakes. You know the ones: they never get blindsided at committee meetings, the ministries they lead never flop, and they manage to avoid being offensive, even when preaching on the most sensitive topics. These ministers are successful in every conceivable way and I am jealous.
And it’s no different with congregations. How is it that some successful churches (always served by these same successful pastors) manage to avoid mistakes? With their pristine marquees, typo-less bulletins, and updated websites, these congregations tell the world about well-planned ministries and creative programs, always attended by many dozens of smiling children. Again, I’m jealous.
In the real-life congregation I serve, both the church and its pastors make mistakes. And we sometimes fall into the trap of trying to emulate “successful” congregations by studiously minimizing missteps. The problem is that the easiest way to avoid mistakes is to not do anything new. The shortest path to perfection involves repeating the ministries of prior years and ignoring changing needs or emerging opportunities. In the pursuit of “success” we evaluate ministries in terms of mistakes avoided rather than lives changed. We make “success” into an idol.
In a personal backlash against my own jealousy there is an ornery part of me that wishes we made more mistakes rather than less.
In our congregations, I wish we failed more. Not the tired, old failings of dying programs, but the exciting, dynamic failures of new ideas. Failing ministries begin exactly the same way thriving ministries do—through acts of human boldness.
Starting a program that doesn’t meet expectations is hard. Launching a class where just few people show up can be painful. But the best companies and organizations launch lots of products and programs that don’t work and, in doing so, they also launch the ones that change people’s lives. I wish we would do more of that in the church.
I wish we spent too much time in worship engaging and teaching and listening to children. I wish the time with the children went too long every week because we were so eager to make our youngest disciples feel like an important part of worship. I wish we invested too much energy in teaching children that church is a place for them to share and grow and be loved.
I also wish we alienated more people by expecting too much of them rather than too little. I wish that more people left the church because they felt like being a follower of Jesus required more than they were willing to give. I wish we did a better job of saying to people, “We think that the decision to be a disciple of Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make, and we take it very seriously. Being a member of a church means giving of yourself in every way—time and energy and money—and if you’re not ready to do that, that’s okay. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.” I wish no one ever left the church because they were bored into inaction by our low expectations.
These are just a few of the many mistakes worth making as we strive together to follow Jesus. And they’re not easy mistakes to make. It’s not easy to change our focus from avoiding old mistakes to making new ones. But in this rapidly changing world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the old mistakes are no longer good enough. We need to fail better. Let’s get to work.
Scott Hauseris Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Clarion, PA.