Yes, you read correctly. It’s time for congregations to start celebrating failure! We don’t celebrate failure in most businesses and certainly not in churches, but we should. Why? Because to feel safe taking risks and innovating in our ministries – essential elements in our post-pandemic world – people and congregations must know that it’s okay to fail.
The idea of celebrating failure is foreign to most of us. Far more often, we hear some variation of “Failure is not an option,” the declaration attributed to NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13. We never plan to fail, of course, but the fear of failure can paralyze us and hold us back from taking the first step in a new direction.
Sometimes we fail because we have become willing to settle where we are. In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Josh Foer writes about the OK Plateau, where we no longer risk failure because we are okay where we are. When we hit this plateau, new ideas are often met with, “But we’ve never done it that way before.” What if leaders in the early church had decided they were OK with Christianity remaining a movement inside Judaism? What if Martin Luther had decided he was OK with the problems in the Catholic Church? What if Rosa Parks had decided she was OK sitting in the back of the bus, or if Martin Luther King Jr had never dared to dream? All of these heroes took huge risk, and experienced their share of failures along the way.
How do we move ourselves and our congregations off the OK plateau? One secular start-up company models the way. Employees can easily become disheartened in this organization, where many projects never get out of the research and development stage. When it becomes clear that a project will fail, the team is called on stage at a company meeting, where they are all given a bonus and a standing ovation. Their creativity, innovation, and hard work are rewarded, even though their project failed. This time of affirmation encourages them to try again…and again… and again. What might it look like in our churches to reward those who dare to try something new and fail? How might it empower our pastors and staff if they could take risks without fear of being fired? How might it empower key lay leaders, youth, and children to stay engaged in new ministries if they didn’t fear reprisal from the status quo?
In addition to celebrating failure, there are other things we can do to help raise our risk tolerance. We can ask the congregation to try something new for a set period before making the change permanent. This trial period can help ease anxiety and allow for adjustments along the way. We can ask the four defining questions of a new idea: What is the best thing to happen if we do this? What is the worst thing that can happen if we do this? What is the best thing to happen if we don’t do this? What is the worst thing that can happen if we don’t do this? Finally, we can remind ourselves and others, when we celebrate our failures, that FAIL stands for First Attempt At Learning. I’m working on moving on from the OK plateau. Won’t you join me?