I know this isn’t a very cheery blog. I promise something more fun next week.
Last week I had a blog post about how I have had two significant ministry failures in a row. A few people, wanting to make me feel better, told me that I hadn’t failed. In fact, anytime I talk about failure there are people who, not wanting to reinforce my negative perspective, are quick to tell me I haven’t failed. Sometimes people will tell me all the ways I did a good job, all the reasons I can be proud of the things I’ve achieved. I appreciate this, I’m glad people don’t want me to feel bad and I’m thankful that in my times of failure it hasn’t all been a loss. However, despite people often feeling uncomfortable with the word, I was very deliberate in choosing to use failure to describe the outcomes of my endeavours. It makes me uncomfortable to say it, but still, I choose failure.
Why? Because when you don’t achieve what you set out to achieve you fail. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, failure often has moral connotations to it. In a culture that loves success, and shares the stories of great achievers, failure has a sense of shame attached to it. However, not all failure is shameful.
There are two types of failure, moral failure and amoral failure. If I was fired from my job in Melbourne because I was caught selling firearms and drugs for the Russian mafia, that would very clearly be a moral failure. The pastor who sleeps with a member of their congregation (who they aren’t married to) – that is moral failure. The employee who is caught stealing – that is moral failure. But most of the failure we encounter in the world is amoral. People just don’t achieve the things they set out to achieve. When I only lasted 2 years in the job I planned to be in for 6 years, that was failure. When I didn’t transform the youth ministry that I had big plans for, when I didn’t make any long-term structural changes, that I was sure needed to happen, that was failure. When the church that I set out to plant never got off the ground, despite years of work, that was failure. That doesn’t mean that I was sinful, or I should be ashamed, merely that I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve. Failure is not about fault, it’s about outcome.
The failing of the church plant was the best and most loving church disintegration I have ever heard of. We cared for each other, supported each other, and everyone was still friends at the end of it. The plant might have failed but we did it faithfully. You can’t complain about that.
Of course it’s worth pointing out that if faithfulness is the higher goal, then when you’ve been faithful, you have succeeded. And that’s true. Faithfulness is success. Obviously I don’t always succeed at faithfulness either. But the point is, I choose to speak about failure because it helps to have alternative stories in the world – to tell the stories in which you didn’t succeed because it gives others permission to fail too.
I choose to speak about failure because I don’t want success always to be the definition of a job done well. Like I said last week, faithfulness is more important than success. In fact, sometimes faithfulness will demand failure. Sometimes God calls people to failure. Jeremiah was called by God to speak, be ignored, and have a terrible time while doing it. It can be in the best interests of the kingdom that you don’t achieve your goals, that you don’t achieve greatness.
I choose to speak about failure because the big story of the Bible is that God sees our failure, our abject, moral failure, and he loves us anyway. Jesus goes to the cross because of our failure, so that he might win us forgiveness. Our failure leads to God’s glory.
I choose to speak about failure because the Bible is full of stories of God using failed people. Complete moral failures. Noah the drunk, Abraham the liar, Moses the murderer, Rahab the prostitute, all the judges, David the murdering adulterer, Jonah the runaway, Peter the denier, Thomas who once doubted, and Paul the Christian killer, to name just the highlights. This is the tradition that we Christians serve in. God is glorified when he works through failed people. I choose to speak about failure because these people who failed are part of the great cloud of witnesses who cheer me on as I run the race marked out for me with my eyes fixed on Jesus.
I choose failure because I’m not defined by my success but by my saviour. I choose failure because Jesus is my success.
If you’re looking for more good stuff on failure I’ve been enjoying my second read through “Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure”. If you’ll read it you’ll see where I got all my ideas about failure and faithfulness from – I rarely have original thoughts.”