Free to Fail

To be imaginative and original in ministry, we have to continually cross the barrier of failure. The church is blessed with a wealth of ideas and resources. Yet it is often the fear of failure that keeps us from trying something completely new. I’m not talking here about moral failure or a failure involving sin–there is a clear an biblical manner to deal with that. I’m talking about having a good idea, praying through it, implementing it, and seeing it crash and burn.

Failure is something we’ve been taught to avoid. We tend to look only at visible result of failure and judge it as a waste of time, energy and resources. But failure is often a necessary and beneficial step on the way to success. Through failure, we learn. And we learn more than just “one way that didn’t work.” We can improve our processes, open new lines of communication among our team members, and discover unexpected results that can be useful additions to ministry.

The great inventors of the industrial age were acquainted with failure. Thomas Edison failed over 2,500 times before his laboratory finally found a combination of elements that made a working light bulb. The 2,500 failed light bulbs were simply steps toward eventual success.

Determine realistic expectations. Evaluating any ministry event or project begins with the expectations. Often we dream or plan ahead of God, and then ask Him to bless it later. Expectations must begin, then, with what we believe, after aligning with God’s Word, that God wants us to do through a particular plan, ministry, event or whatever. Beyond this there are practical considerations. What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to participation, budgeting, curriculum, long-term involvement or other goals?

As you seek God’s will for a ministry endeavor, also seek His expectations and goals–what is God calling you to accomplish through a particular ministry. Write these thoughts down prior to beginning the project. Failure often comes when we are chasing our own expectations versus acting in obedience with God’s mandates or commands.

Don’t deny failure. When evaluating a project, failure often takes the form of the “R” issues: resources, relationships and results. That is, a project was over budget, people didn’t get along, or the result was nothing like what was expected. I have seen ministry leaders often enter a “spin zone” of explanations. We need to treat failures honestly and openly, taking responsibility where needed, and learning from our mistakes.

This is where most of us react poorly in a failed experiment or project. We point to a positive result, and gloss over a real problem within the project. This is especially true in relationship issues–if coworkers or volunteers did not get along, did not react and act in a biblical fashion and reflected poorly on the church and Christ, we must handle these issues as failures and work to improve.

Is there ever spiritual failure? I don’t believe there is any such thing as spiritual failure when it comes to a ministry or program event if we are acting in obedience to God’s Word. Sometimes we may see lack of acceptance by those outside the church as a failure. The Bible warns us that people will hate us because of the Gospel–we must take these words to heart, and know that if we are obedient to God, regardless of what the world is telling us, we are not failing.

On a spiritual level, God can use any perceived failure to teach us something important or to accomplish something unexpected. We cannot disappoint God. Disappointment is when something happens that is less than what was expected. God can’t be surprised, so it stands to reason that He also can’t be disappointed. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. But He does expect us to be honest.

We can, however, fail spiritually if we act simply out of good intentions without aligning with God’s Word or His plan with respect to the church or a ministry project. Many people are well intentioned–we know from Matthew that plenty of people will come to Christ at judgement and talk about all thing incredible things they did for Him, and His response will be “Get away from me, I never knew you.” This is a stern warning to separate intention from obedience. They are not the same, and one without the other leads to the possibility of a spiritual failure.

Evaluate to improve. Evaluating failure is not about fixing the blame. It’s about fixing the problem. Bitterness or resentment is a barrier to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. If any finger pointing occurs during evaluation, make sure everyone is pointing forward. What can be improved or changed? What can be learned from the failure? Is this something we should avoid in the future or try again with adjustments? If the failure was obviously caused by one or a group of people, avoid laying the weight on their shoulders. Teamwork is about all involved taking ownership of the successes and failures. A failure is everyone’s responsibility. Instead of asking what someone else could have done better, first ask how you and others could have improved performance.

Encourage risk taking. Failure is often the result of risk taking. If you are seldom experiencing failure, you are probably not risking very much. Risk is not something to be avoided. Risk is part of life and should be encouaged. Only through risk–putting ourselves out there and pushing things to the limit–can we gain certain kinds of experience and success. The Gospel, and obedience to God’s Word, is going to require risk. It is going to put us in places where failure may occur. It is going to require us to have a thick skin, to remain true to the Bible and to put our faith in something beyond what we can see in front of us. Remember…

“A ship in the harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for.”


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.