Failure is not an option

This week we asked our bloggers to describe a failure or difficulty encountered in ministry.

Ever since I was a little girl I have been driven by the words, “failure is not an option.” From schoolwork and art projects to sports and relationships, I have always been a perfectionist. I had to get straight A’s (and it was a crisis if I didn’t), I had to excel in my extracurricular activities (and I dropped them if I couldn’t achieve the level of perfection that I expected of myself) and I had to be the best friend ever – to everyone.

I lived by this philosophy for so long that when – in one of my best seminary classes, (Toward a Theology of Church Leadership), our professor Stacey Johnson told us that having a healthy theology of failure was key to our success as leaders, I nearly toppled out of my seat in shock. You mean to tell me that I should not only expect to fail, but understand failure as integral to the process of leadership? You mean to tell me that I would be less effective as a pastor if I tried to avoid failure altogether rather than embrace it? No! That couldn’t be right! Could it?

But I was a perfectionist, so I did the assignment. I crafted my own theology of failure. Based on Christ’s death and resurrection I wrote, with smug satisfaction, that sometimes it is through those events that appear to be our biggest failures that the biggest leaps towards new life occur for us as individuals and for us as the church. It was a good paper. I got a good grade. My smug satisfaction was well founded. But while I cognitively agreed with what I wrote, I hadn’t really learned anything.

Fast-forward about a year and a half. About eight months into my first call, a group of volunteers and I committed to partnering with our local Baltimore City public elementary/middle school. The principal told us that what he needed most was an after school program for his middle school girls. “Great!” we said, “We can do that!” After all, every single one of us loved kids and every single one of us was convinced that we were more than capable of forming meaningful relationships with these girls. It would be a huge success!

Ha! Pride goeth before the fall for sure. That year with those girls was a nightmare. We came from two completely different worlds, and those young women didn’t trust us. They didn’t believe that we truly cared for them so they tested us at every turn. They complained, they didn’t listen, they got mad at each other and at us, and they even had a couple of physical altercations. Some of the volunteers quit. Every single one of us dreaded Tuesday afternoons. The program was an epic failure. In my pre-seminary days, that would have been it. I would have dropped the idea all together to avoid another failure.

But when we came together at the end of the year, every single one of the volunteers who remained said the same thing, “We have to go back. We have to keep doing this work. We just have to do it differently.” We talked about what our goal had been – to form relationships with middle school students. We talked about the challenges and the things that had gone well. And we realized that if we really wanted to make a difference to middle schoolers, we’d have to start forming relationships with them before they got to 5th grade. We’d have to start much younger.

This past September saw us back at the school working with 1st and 2nd graders, with the middle school girls invited back as mentors. We’ll follow those kids through 8th grade if they stay at our school. And so far, it’s been a success. The things is: we wouldn’t have gotten here if we hadn’t failed so fantastically last year, and then had a conversation about that failure.

It turns out that Dr. Johnson was right! Failure is integral to the process of leadership, and learning how to fail well is probably one of the most important skills any leader can possess. As for me, I’m still learning – but I’m certainly glad that someone made me sit down and reflect on a theology of failure before I got here, even if it took me a while to take it seriously!

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Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.