I'm talking about failing, not falling. Now in recent years, various business books and blogs, plus a number of TED talks (click here for TED talks) have attempted to reframe failure. They inform us that all good innovators and entrepreneurs have failures in their track record. They tell us that fear of failure will limit our willingness to take a risk, and leave us mired in mediocrity.
But we are not buying this, are we? If there are lessons to be learned by failing, we would prefer to audit that class, and learn from the mistakes of others. No, we are about success! Everything should trend up and to the right! “Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing!” Our American culture seems almost comically obsessed with accomplishment, achievement, and competing to be the best.
One group constantly grappling with failure is pastors. In his book Fail (click here to read all about it) on this exact topic, J.R. Briggs shares a number of statistics, including:
- 1,500 pastors leave the ministry for good each month due to burnout or contention in their churches
- for every 20 pastors who go into ministry only 1 will retire from it
- 50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way to make a living
This recent meme making the rounds seems to illustrate it pretty well….
This is an interesting conundrum, because as J.R. puts it, “ministry is fertile ground for failure, and failure is fertile ground for ministry.” Indeed, the pages of scripture are filled with characters who made mistakes and failed, only to see their brokenness redeemed, their identity become truly rooted in God instead of their own strengths and accomplishments, and more effective ministry happen after failure than before.
Pursuing failure does not seem to be a great shortcut to personal growth, due to the collateral damage – other people often get hurt by the failure of another, particularly in the case of a surgeon, pilot, or pastor… However, there were two main themes that stood out to me from J.R.'s book.
First is the recognition that many pastors are set up to fail by faulty expectations of what success looks like. This may come internally as they compare themselves to pastors on pedestals, or externally from misguided church leadership (and followership) who desire a rock star pastor, with unlimited capacity for visionary leadership, compassionate counseling, brilliant teaching and preaching, and authoring a book or three while growing the church at an unprecedented rate. (And still visit me in the hospital when I get sick!)
Because unrealistic expectations are a common culprit for pastoral failure, I am pleased that J.R. Briggs will be taking a day to talk more on that topic here at Sandy Cove, and I would love to have you join us! Click here for full details.
The second big theme of the book is the understanding that failure is not a dead end street or the end of the story, because we serve a redemptive God. However, our response to failure tends to determine the long term outcomes in our lives. J.R. cites research showing that pastors who addressed failure head on, and did the hard work of processing through it (“Hugging the cactus,” to borrow a phrase from Robert Downey Jr.) were better for it in the long run. Conversely, those who do not thoroughly work through the situation - either by trying to just get “back on the horse” too soon or refusing to address it at all and trying to just go on with life - become stuck, unable to flourish personally, professionally, or spiritually.
J.R. finishes the book by offering a practical guide to working through failure – a process he observes taking 7 to 14 months typically – which is hard, but hopeful.
So even though failure is something we seek to avoid, God is not caught by surprise when we fail, and He is able to use it as a tool for our benefit and His glory if we allow Him.