This week we asked our bloggers to describe a failure or difficulty encountered in ministry.
Failure is a zeitgeisty concept right now. Trending pieces and management philosophies call us to fail big, boldly and wisely. We look to our tech geniuses, the great disrupters of our chaotic cultural moment, and their failure-to-success narratives for enlightenment. Einstein, Edison, Jobs, Gates, these nerds all failed at basic life stuff (math, school, holding a job, dressing yourself) before becoming synonymous with intelligence and awesomeness like they are today. If failure isn’t exactly a good thing, is it a necessary thing?
Of course, we don’t value failure itself. We value success. No one is going to read your book about how big or bold you fell and never got up. In the bigger picture, it doesn’t matter if you are failing big or bold when you are stuck in the middle of failing. Feeling like a failure just sucks. Failure doesn’t feel good. The moment of failure isn’t full of new perspectives. No matter how many times someone tells you otherwise, failure doesn’t feel like it is leading to bigger, bolder things. I know, because I’ve failed epically on my road to becoming a minister. I’m a success, I guess… now.
I was 22 before I ever tried anything hard enough that failure was a risk. The trapeze of my safe, suburban life was not very high and the safety net ever-present and really big. College, like it does, made me realize that my failsafe life was hardly a life at all. I asked God to do something absolutely ridiculous with my life and God did, but not after dragging me through a few deep valleys of failure to scuff up my privileged existence. I signed up to be a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer and moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a duffle bag and no idea what I was doing.
Twenty-two years of never risking failure to a year of nothing but risking failure in one long plane flight. I had no skills for the work that I was doing and I screwed up all the time. I lost every game of soccer I played in Belfast, often to children as young as 6 (and I played soccer with kids everyday as a part of my job). I found myself in charge of a weekly youth club and had to close it early all the time due to fighting. I helped host a soccer match between Protestant and Catholic youth the devolved into a riot. I overslept worship on Sundays at the church where I worked. I was a mess! I’d waited too long in my life to risk doing something worth failing at and it seemed like 22 years of pent up failure was raining down on me daily from the gray Belfast sky… but I didn’t feel like I was failing. I felt like I was trying to be a real human for the first time. I felt alive doing big, hard things for others. It was a big shock to not automatically succeed all the time, but it was a shock that I needed. Maybe I’d been failing to live for 22 years and, in finally letting myself fail at something worth doing, I’d figured out what God’s measure of success looks like.
I’ve tried to articulate how important this sense of failure is to me so many times. (Sidenote: you should have read the update letter I wrote to my extended family when I got home from Belfast and all of this was still raw. My dad said, “Just tell them you had a great time in Belfast and that you are enrolling in seminary. Don’t make so many old people worried about you.” Sage advice.) People get stuck on the seeming negativity of it all. And I see where they are coming from. We don’t love stories of failure. We love stories of triumph over failure. What about stories where failure is the triumph?
Sounds like Jesus’ ministry to me. Jesus never built a church building or a charity or a hospital. He never had a budget or balanced it. He never met anyone’s expectations of him and his followers turned on him. Jesus’ ministry is the definition of failure, but that’s not the end of the story. The story of Jesus is not important to us in spite of these failures, but because of them. Even the Son of God had a hard time being a human, failing like we do, and yet Christ tried something big and difficult. Grace became real for us in his life, death and resurrection.
I’m sure there’s a way to broaden all this out to the wider church that so many of us feel is failing. Maybe we’ve been hesitant to risk doing something worth failing at for a long time. Maybe we missed our chance to do all this decently and in order, but it is never too late to fail. There’s an ironic and comforting grace in that fact. We are a church of resurrection – not a church of doing everything right and dying happy. Let’s risk doing things worth failing at. Let’s fail at them and then let’s live with Christ to fail again tomorrow and the next day again.
ALEX WIRTH is an ordained teaching elder doing building maintenance and social justice work at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He buys vinyl albums more than mp3s, tries to ride his bike more than drive a car, make/bake things more than buy them, and generally stick to a punk rock, do-it-yourself mindset like Jesus did.