By Bill Wilson
Failure. Just saying the word in the same sentence as our name makes us nervous.
Far too often, failure and ministry go together. Frequently, failure is the last word for ministers and churches. Many ministers’ inner life is marked by a sense of failure. Some eventually walk away from the ministry feeling like a failure. Scores of laity walk away from a local congregation with a cloud of failure and disappointment hanging over them. Life in a congregation becomes a series of disappointments and frustrations. What is it about life in the local church that seems so prone to failure?
For some, failure is the result of unrealistic expectations. We think we are better than we are, or we think that our church is better than it is. Sometimes, our failures are the results of our poor choices. We sell our soul for a bowl of temporal pleasure and reap the consequences. Others have too small a God and constantly underachieve as a result of not aiming high enough. Failure comes to us in a myriad of ways. Sadly, the church of the 21st century often shoots its wounded and treats failure as the unpardonable sin.
Healthy churches and healthy clergy must cultivate a theology of failure. Many years ago I heard Stephen Shoemaker use that phrase to describe a biblical truth that many of us overlook. Biblical and church history is clear: God is in the business of redeeming failure and using it to accomplish the work of the kingdom. From character studies of nearly everyone in the Bible who does something noteworthy to innumerable saints across the ages who disappointed God and themselves, our gospel story makes clear that God specializes in taking people and groups that are broken and making them whole again. In that spirit, we must consciously choose to transform failure, or else there will be no place for any of us. Could it be that we are all wounded healers who can find in our failures and wounds the genesis of our most valuable gifts?
To be sure, our failures have consequences. Clergy who betray the trust of their calling, their ordination and their congregation may no longer be fit to serve in that role. Others who fail may need to find a new way to use their gifts for the kingdom. However, before we cast aside all those who are less than perfect, we would be wise to heed the biblical story and teachings about failure.
The drama of the last weekend of Jesus’ life is bracketed by two stories of profound failure. The first is Judas. Preferring an earthly revolution, he attempts to force Jesus’ hand and conspires to maneuver him into the role of revolutionary. His failure to comprehend the deeper nature of the revolution that Jesus brings produces profound sorrow and eventually leads to his self-destruction. The second notable failure of Passion Week is Peter. Confronted with his friendship with Jesus, he denies knowing the Galilean, and renounces the one to whom he had only hours earlier promised loyalty. Such a monumental failure could have easily led Peter to the same fate as Judas. Instead, his failure becomes the catalyst for his greatest achievements for the risen savior. One disciple allows his failure to define him; the other disciple allows his failure to transform him.
Which will it be for you? The question is not whether you or your congregation will experience failure. All of us are deeply flawed and imperfect vessels. As a pastor, I regularly reminded my congregations that if I had not disappointed them yet, they should be patient, for I would do so soon. Failure is inevitable. The question will be what you allow your failure to mean for you. Will it be the last word, or will it be the beginning of a new and deeper season in your life or the life of your congregation?
What if we committed to building a church culture that anticipated and allowed for failure? What if we emulated Jesus and forgave those who disappointed us and extended grace to those who failed to meet our expectations? What if we treated others with the same generosity we would hope for should our roles be reversed?
When such a thing happens, the Bible shows that amazing stories of redemption and new life are possible. Healthy churches and ministers are well acquainted with failure, and learn to lean into it and emerge more like the person or the congregation God intends them to be. I hope you are part of creating that kind of Christian community. We need you and your witness more than ever.