In the ministry setting, summer is often the time when we get to experience fresh leadership training as we prepare for a new year with new leaders. It’s a time to focus on what we want to pour into our students’ lives.
One of the main aspects of leadership I share with new leaders is the need to fail. I know, that sounds harsh and unkind, right? But honestly, when they know I desire for them to fail, they are free to try anything. Maybe they try a new program element, create a new small group, design a mission trip, or simply become more creative in evangelism. When a leader knows he or she can fail graciously and still be loved and restored, the risk-level becomes more attractive. The result is that students see the value in risk, and, hopefully, they will see that failure is not the end of the road but simply a bend in the road.
For failure to be an acceptable part of a ministry’s culture, a few things must be present. Leader understanding, accountability as failure arises, and a path to restoration are all key. We need to have a plan in place so leaders understand that we’ve anticipated failure and are prepared to walk with them through the uncomfortable moments.
Here are three things to consider when celebrating failure in ministry.
Cast a vision for accepted failure within the ministry. Casting the vision can simply be explaining that failure is expected, having an activity that puts failure in a positive light, or sharing previous failures and how they were handled. The key here is explaining how you define failure. For instance, failure could be not ordering the nuggets for “Chick-fil-A and Chick-Flicks,” but it could also be not communicating about a contract, disregarding rules and regulations, or having an issue with integrity. Each of these failures varies in severity and in how they should be handled, yet each of them is a failure. We must let leaders know that it is okay to fail, but we must also define failure for our ministry context and culture.
Be willing to have difficult conversations where a leader is called out on their failure. Sometimes, these conversations will happen before a major issue arises, but typically, they come after the fact. The easy thing is to assume leaders will learn from their mistakes, and we just let it go. However, having a private conversation will help the leader see the problem, own the issues, and work toward a resolution. These conversations aren’t easy, but they are helpful for the leader’s development and the health of the ministry.
Have a means of restoration that allows the leader to know that you will value them no matter what happens. The beauty of the gospel is that the Lord restores and redeems everything. We get the amazing opportunity to invest in the lives of young leaders and see them restored after a failure. Having a path to restoration may mean that leaders hear stories of those who went before them, failed, and were restored, or it could be a contract that spells out expectations and consequences.
As I write this, I am reminded of the leader who showed up at my door asking me to buy the pregnancy test, the student who decided to live a lifestyle that didn’t match the ministry’s identity, the student who made bad decisions on social media, the flyer for an event that was posted with an obscenity, but the leader never realized it, and so many more. Early in ministry, I just let it go, but now, I see these as teaching moments and times to point leaders to Jesus.
What’s your ministry’s context for failure? Do leaders see and understand the need for risk-taking? Do they know you are for them and want them to succeed? Do they know you love them enough to call them out? Do they know you always point them to Jesus, even when you are hurt or disappointed in them? What if we intentionally created these atmospheres and made failure something to be celebrated?
Dr. Beth Masters works with college students at Mississippi College where she is the Director of Christian Life and Ministries. She also serves as a ministry-based faculty member at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the area of Collegiate Ministry. Beth loves young adults, baking, and coffee.