The following is a summary of a workshop I presented in Leeds for the Church Urban Fund entitled “How to fail well”. I wanted to share it as it raises important issues about failure, the roots of failure and ways to cope with it. One participant suggested that what we need is a “theology of failure” – any offers?
I would be glad of your thoughts and reactions…
How to fail well… I’m not sure how honored I am to take this workshop! But I am eminently qualified! I admire Adrian Plass very much. He generally starts his presentations by introducing himself as a failed Christian. I used to think that this was his humility and then we became good friends and I know it is the truth!! I’m a failed Christian too!! Anyone else?
Failure is intensely personal and I hope you won’t mind me starting on a personal note. I want to share something very personal about failure before looking at it in a broader sense. I am aware this could trigger things for you so please do chat with me after if you feel you need to – but please don’t struggle on your own.
It is a tad counter culture to be honest about failure. My own recent experience of failing in my marriage has left me with both a profound sense of forgiveness from God alongside a deep sense of judgment from some Christians and most of Christendom!
I have discovered huge issue about private and public failure…. Or sinfulness as some would label it. I feel that I have walked naked through Christendom over my marriage ending and I have discovered both:
- Empathetic understanding and narrow condemnation
- A sense of empathetic shared pain and righteous hypocrisy
- Loving openness and hostile alienation.
My recent actions have led me to act out of a desperate need to seek to retain a degree of perceived personal integrity and honesty based on public failure. Without any sense of bitterness or regret (as I have grown so much seeking to embrace truth) I am worried about how many of us are coping with our private, locked up failure and brokenness.
Just one example of a private sense of failure is the struggle with pornography for pastors and church staff members. In 2001, LEADERSHIP journal surveyed pastors and found that four in 10 struggled with it. This is USA based research but I suspect it is as high in UK.
Honesty and disclosure about my failed private life has led to deep and redemptive conversations – for me and others. With those who have been vulnerable with me, I (and they) have known a measure of meaningful healing. But I am left wondering why we cling to the veneer of success when Jesus promised that truth would set us free… unless perhaps with have mistaken truth for public image?
Perhaps a neat ending about personal honesty for this more intimate input comes from Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘Going Home’…
Going home, Without my sorrow, Going home, Sometime tomorrow, Going home, To where it’s better, Than before, Going home, Without my burden, Going home, Behind the curtain, Going home, Without the costume, That I wore…
In this workshop I offered thinking on:
- Reflections on the roots of the dominant ‘success narrative’ in a faith based life – in order to name and question them
- Strategies to cope with failure
Reflections on the roots of the dominant ‘success narrative’ in faith based youth and community work
In the workshop I suggested that a dominant ‘success narrative’ is shaped by: Ecclesial and personal theology, notions of sustainability, The routinization of charisma, misuse of power, the personal conversion obsession and overuse of empirical measuring systems…
I wonder what you might add? What else ‘seduces to success’?
I then offered some thoughts about strategies to cope with failure, the strategies included;
- Ensuring we are working as part of a “community” – there is no I in Jesus but there is an us!
- Seeing our role in communities as engagement not mission (a Quaker perspective). This implies reciprocity and mutuality. We become receivers as well as givers.
- Never do something for someone that they can do for themselves – joining in not parachuting in our solutions. Collective failure is perhaps easier to cope with and offers the hope of learning, growth and development
- Remember that the Christian responsibility is not building a church but participating in the development of a Kingdom
- Acknowledge when you get it wrong! There is a chapter in my book called ‘Sins and Blunders’ instead of Signs and Wonders!
- Remember “BPGHFY” theology – Be Patient God Hasn’t Finished Yet – Good Friday is a global tragedy and failure until 3 days later!
What other strategies to cope with failure can you suggest?