Saturday, January 7, 2012

Living with a #FAIL in You and in Congregations

Congregations in decline live in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fear failure. They fear failure in their ministry, then fail to act on the opportunities in their midst. The ministry often takes a slow and painful descent into the abyss. This descent is mined with blame, doubt and despair. The descent is accelerated by a fear of failure.

Failure is magnified these days. With continual exponential expansion of communication opportunities, someone is ready to pounce on a failure for individuals, organizations and congregations. Tracking failures is a cottage industry--even big business (think tabloids), and a hobby. For Twitter, you only have to search for #FAIL and you have a quick view of the failures of the day. No one enjoys having their failures exposed in public, let alone among their family and friends.

There's nothing particularly church-related about the fear of failure that exists in any organization, although I think congregations have particular traits in their relationship with failure. I think there's different theological and emotional ammunition wrapped in a congregational ministry as we ponder the fear of failure. I believe the thinking develops like this--ministry is closer to God, then it must last forever, because God does not change (which is a loaded statement).

Seth Godin's post on being wrong highlights a tipping point. All of us are going to be wrong. You will make mistakes. I will fail. The tipping point is whether we are able to claim the failure proactively as fuel to learn, grow and seek the next opportunity to embrace. Godin ignites an excellent point that may shed light on the collective disappointment and anger with the U.S. Congress. No one is ever wrong, and all actions are subject to spin. No wonder Congress can't get any traction.

The Christian practice of confession and forgiveness can be informative for congregations, individuals or anyone else confronting their fear to act. Rooted in the ultimate failure in the cross (what a colossal failure of a chosen leader to be executed before he even had a chance to lead for a long time), Jesus resurrection from death frees us to confess our sin, failures and brokenness without fear of being abandoned by God. In confession and forgiveness we are reminded of God's faithfulness. We are free. If you are free, why worry about failure? It's going to happen. So if failure is going to happen, what are you going to do with it?


  1. Nice piece, as usual, Joe.

    I do wonder about the "...ministry is closer to God; then it must last forever;..." dynamic. Specifically, what I wonder is whether the dynamic as you've identified it is really what folks (everyday Christian leadership, pastors, whomever) are thinking. Rather, I suspect a level of thinking/acting that is considerably less sophisticated than what you've identified. At least, I should confess that on my own part.

    For example, from my particular context, my seminary training was just old enough to be more molded in the shape of the passing models for ministry that assumed "if you build it, they will come" instead of a more vibrant, fluid way of being missional. And, of course, those old ways continue to crumble, no matter how hard I work them.

    Similarly, significant chunks of the everyday leadership in the congregation I serve LONG for the "Golden Age" here (50's - 70's), and if those days ever roll around again, we're poised for "success," measured, of course, primarily in #s of kids in the various kids' choirs, men's golf league, etc. etc. etc. (And, of course, those kids are now the adults with kids about whom the elders wonder, "Where'd everybody go?")

    But we're so deathly afraid of letting go of what has worked in the past in favor of the unknown of what may or may not work today and tomorrow. We're more comfortable, it seems, with past "success" than the risk of the future, either success or failure. I think it's more reptilian than theological.

    What's ironic about all of this, of course, and you've nailed it in your last paragraph, is that the God we worship reveals God's ultimate "success" (to keep working language here) PRECISELY through the "failure" of God's annointed. If we could just acknowledge, evaluate, and let "fail" (die) that which is no longer "successful," with the hopeful anticipation of what will be raised up in its place...

    Thanks for keeping me thinking.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mike. You're pushing my thoughts farther. While serving in interim ministry in S. Dakota, I spent time with the Women of the ELCA groups on several occasions. WELCA was a microcosm of congregational life, success and failure in ministry. They were always willing to talk. They never explicitly stated their ministry was closer to God. But their talk and actions reflected it. They were filled with grace in many things, but unbelievably rigid and profoundly disappointed in others, with theological, cultural and historical rationale.

    My understanding from Keifert was that, especially among Lutherans, the church/congregational life was a place where things didn't change amid the turbulence of immigrant life. It's in the DNA. I also think the understanding of an unchanging God (something I hear from time to time) weaves its way into that DNA as well.

    The precise reason I am at the church I serve today is that they were willing to let something huge go, letting something die (they went under synod administration and no longer have a council) in order to move forward. St. John's almost closed its doors. They have a renewed embrace of their life of faith. I don't know if this new life will be sustained. But it's been a lesson to me about death and resurrection.

    What always interested me about life in the Dakotas was that a Lutheran congregation can get by doing what it's always doing because the culture supports some of what is done in congregational life. It was the same thing in Sioux Falls as it was in the smallest towns. It's not a bad thing or a good thing, but I do think the pressure to adapt is lessened.

    BTW--enjoying the Flood of Love stuff from your synod...peace.