This time last year I was struggling. I alternated daily between periods of overwhelming sadness, intense anger, utter confusion, and demoralizing loneliness.
See, for three years I had poured my heart and soul into starting a new church, and suddenly, I was faced with the reality that it was over. The church would be no more.
I felt like a complete failure.
A year later, I am still recovering. I still feel the sting of failure, I still battle moments of sadness, and I still ask the “What if” questions on a regular basis.
Just last week one of my dearest friends (and faithful partner with Sandra and I in the new church experiment) asked, “Where did we go wrong? It’s a mystery that I won’t fully be able to shake off.”
I won’t be able to shake it off either. And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to come up with an answer to her question. I don’t know where we went wrong.
But then I wonder if maybe I'm not supposed to know. Maybe I'm just supposed to learn something.
When we live our lives as if failure is not an option, we will inevitably wind up very, very disappointed. Failure is always an option. In fact, it is a guarantee. We will all fail at some point in our lives, some may fall harder than others, but we will all experience the sting of failure.
In the forward to JR Briggs excellent book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, Eugene Peterson says that “the work of being a pastor is, by its very nature, fertile ground for the weeds of failure. But there is also a corollary: failure can serve as compost for enriching the pastoral vocation so that it brings forth thirtyfold and maybe even a hundredfold.”
I find those words to be encouraging.
I also think they are important for everyone; not just pastors.
A few days ago I started reading Rachel Held-Evans’ new memoir Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. I was particularly moved by her story of The Mission, a new church that she and some friends tried to start; a church that eventually failed. Her words following the closure of her beloved faith community encourage me as well:
It’s been three years since the Mission’s last Sunday and I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong. Was it our youth? Our lack of denominational backing? Our empty bank account? (All of the above?) I confess that when I play it all back in my mind, the whole undertaking reminds me of the old, jumpy film footage of man’s failed attempts at flight, where someone’s attached wings to a bicycle and peddled off a cliff. Any objective observer could have predicted our inevitable demise, and yet we barreled on, full of trust and hope and good intentions. I was as invested in a church as I’d ever been, and it failed. Epically.
And yet even our unsuccessful church plant managed to produce some fruit of the Spirit along the way. We baptized, broke bread, preached the Word, and confessed our sins. We created a sanctuary where people told the truth without fear. We fed the hungry and filled out paperwork with the sick. We worked through our differences with care and grace. And we learned, perhaps the hard way that church isn’t static. It’s not a building, or a denomination, or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Church is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.
Briggs also reminded me that there is a big difference between failing and identifying myself as a failure.
I may have failed, but I am not a failure.
The Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians have also been helpful to me over the course of this past year:
God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. … So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal. – II Corinthians 4. 6-9, 16-18
I cling to these promises.
In the end, I have to remind myself that despite the fact that the church failed, there is still much to celebrate: God was glorified in the work that we did. Lives were impacted for the kingdom. Light invaded some dark spaces. Genuine community occurred. Lifelong friendships were created. Miracles happened.
In the afterglow of Easter, I am reminded once again of Peter’s failure; his denial of Jesus during his greatest hour of need. But, I am also mindful of the way in which the resurrected Christ restored Peter.
Peter learned from his failure, and he became a better person and leader because of it.
May I do the same.
May we all do the same.