Rethinking Failure

In Part One I expressed a conviction that we are in serious danger of losing balance in our approach to leadership within the church. In this second part I’d like to explore a point touched on as a requirement for effective leadership, namely that of failure.

Success and Motivation

I recall my own “call” to full time ministry and my enthusiasm to build a large successful youth ministry full of young people passionate about Jesus. After a year as an intern I went to a large central city church as youth pastor and in the five years that followed we saw quite remarkable growth both numerically and spiritually. Here was the “success” I craved. In my early thirties I reflected on the fact that life had never been so fulfilling than at that time.

My “success” saw me invited to speak for a morning at a retreat for youth pastors and I decided to stay for the afternoon session in which an older pastor was giving input on leadership. I don’t recall what he said but at one point God spoke to me as clearly as He ever has and said “I want you to give it up.”

Immediately my instinctive response was “No!”, and I realised I had a problem.

I came to see that God did not want me to resign. He wanted to make me aware that my motivation was not as pure as He needed it to be. Yes I wanted “success” but to what extent did I want it for ME!?

The following five years of ministry were tougher. Much tougher. I felt the sting of criticism and failure and through that God began to purify me of much of my own selfish ambition. The flesh wanted to resign. The Spirit knew that this was a time of testing and refining and that I must stay.

While it is perhaps not possible to be completely pure in motivation, as leaders we must strive to be continually at that point where we hold lightly to ministry and are willing at any time to walk away if God directs us so. Our motivation is not personal success or glory, but simply to serve Him, even if that service should lead to “failure” by the world’s standards.
Success and Self Worth

As important as the link between motivation and success is, there is an even deeper dynamic at work which we must be mindful of and strive to control. It is the desire for success due to a poor sense of self worth. If we were to look into the dark recesses of our heart and ask the question, “What is it God approves of in me?” is our answer one that speaks of what we do or who we are? In other words, does our sense of self worth as a believer come from our accomplishments in ministry or from the fact that we are a child of God, created in His image? When our youth ministries and churches are not growing are we discouraged and down on ourselves, feeling as though it’s because we are not praying enough, trying hard enough, or simply not good enough? When things are going well, do we feel closer to God, more full of faith and more “spiritual”? If so, then we tread on dangerously thin ice.

All of us have our “issues” and God’s commitment to us in leadership is not so much to give us great youth ministries as it is to make us great youth ministers. In other words, He would rather see us “fail” in leadership than see us fail as leaders.
The Place of Failure

History is littered with stories of people who pressed on through failure in order to achieve success. We love these stories of those who overcame numerous knock backs to make it to the top, simply because those stories give us hope amidst our own struggles as we press onwards to the pinnacle of success.

But is success the pinnacle? We are taught to believe success is the goal to strive after but what if there was a higher goal – not one we set for ourselves, but one God has for us? How many stories are written and told about people who pressed on through success in order to embrace failure?

Our problem is that we measure success and failure in human terms. We equate success with better programmes, greater numbers and wider recognition. What if success was defined as greater humility, greater faith and greater brokenness? Will humility be accomplished through God giving us bigger youth groups? Will our faith grow when we are popular and are not facing struggles? Will brokenness come when the ministries we lead are going from strength to strength and we are making a name for ourselves?

Possibly. But it is not God’s normal way of operating.
Success, Failure and Jesus

To further illustrate these points let’s reflect on the example of Jesus Himself. Here was a man who tasted “success”. Adoring crowds and devoted followers who listened to His words and marvelled at His deeds. Yet Jesus shunned the accolades of success knowing that human measures of success were not His mission. He knew the transitory nature of success and the fickleness of fans. When He died it was as an apparent failure. His followers had gone into hiding and He had been betrayed and denied. Yet we know now that failure was not the end.

Nor is it for us.

If few reach failure because they cling to success, fewer still reach what lies beyond failure simply because they give up. If we will press on through a sense of failure, all the while remaining faithful then we will come to that place called resurrection.
Resurrection and Leadership

Resurrection is that destination God takes us to where human measures of success and failure (numbers, growth, popularity) seem trivial compared to the fruit that God is causing to blossom within us. It is at the place of resurrection our motives finally approach purity and our self worth is set firmly in our identity in Christ and not in title or position. It is a place of contentment and security. Human success brings with it anxiety and worries such as: How do we maintain our success? How do we stop from stagnating or worse still, declining? But resurrection is a place of peace and contentment. As we survey the ministry we are called to we are not consumed with attendance figures and offerings and able to willingly give it away at any time, not because we don’t care for our people, but because all we truly want and need to feel “successful” and content is Him.

I wonder if our emphasis on success in many churches today is not only crushing the lifeblood out of some of our leaders, but is robbing them of seeing the blessings that come with failure. A good theology of failure is an indispensable requirement for today’s Christian leader. Amidst fulfilment and joy, ministry contains numerous frustrations and disappointments. By embracing the place of failure as the pathway to resurrection then not only will we be growing healthier leaders but perhaps in the process we may eventually see healthier churches.