By Eddie Pipkin
It was shortly after my blog from last week landed in my own inbox when I noticed that – in a blog in which I repeatedly mentioned the importance of always having a way for ministry partners to provide perspective and feedback – there was no way for you, dear reader, to provide perspective or feedback. Somewhere, somehow, as collateral damage from some technical upgrade in the past few months, we had inadvertently turned off the “comments” section of the blog. Oops. I had noticed the unusual quiet out there, but I had just assumed you all had a lot going on ministry-wise. The truth, however, was that we had fouled up: even as I was calling for transparency, interaction, and idea sharing, we were providing you lovely people with no pathway for doing those things. Mea culpa. Hypocrisy noted! It got me to thinking about the importance of fessing up to one’s mistakes with candor, as well as the great opportunity provided by the dog days of summer for all practitioners of ministry do a good communications house cleaning.
We will make mistakes. It is inevitable if we are attempting to do anything worthwhile. We have a lot of irons in the fire, and we make a lot of promises to a lot of people. The inherent chaos of ministry means that things fall through the cracks. Fear of mistakes – of missing things or messing up – can and does lead to paralysis. I had a good friend in children’s ministry who never thanked people by name whenever a big, successful children’s event had been completed.
“You should thank people by name,” I suggested. “That’s a big deal for people to hear that kind of public acknowledgement.”
“No, I don’t like to do that,” she replied. “I know I’ll forget somebody. Somebody will get left out, and then they’ll feel bad or be mad me at me, so I just don’t mention people by name.”
That seemed a shame to me. Fear had led her to disregard a healthy, ministry-strengthening habit. (This ministry friend made – or avoided – many decisions based on fear. One of her other favorite rules was that she “didn’t want to put too much pressure on volunteers,” so she actively avoided communicating clear expectations. She wondered why she was consistently having trouble filling volunteer positions – in fact, she insisted expectations were still too high and were driving people away – and she rolled her eyes at my conviction that volunteers are empowered by high expectations.)
Rather than being ruled by the fear of getting something wrong, the better strategy is to set up processes to avoid mistakes and miscalculations, while accepting the reality that mistakes and miscalculations are going to occasionally happen despite our best efforts.
When they do, we should own them.
We should not equivocate, explain, distract, deny, blame, backpedal, obfuscate, or avoid.
We should say, “Yep, we messed up. Here’s how we’re going to make it right, and here’s how we’re going to do our best to keep that from happening again.” We should publicize the apology. We should be humble and transparent about addressing the error.
Upon such principles is trust built. And trust is the foundation for partnerships in ministry.
Examples abound. Some of you will have inadvertently found yourselves caught up in this summer’s controversy surrounding Group Publishing’s “Roar” curriculum (read about it here if you aren’t familiar). The Group creative team made some choices for their Africa-set activities that were called into question by church leaders and parents as being racially and culturally insensitive. Group’s initial response was interpreted by many as defensive and tone deaf. They regrouped (pun intended) by making changes and issuing a full and heartfelt apology.
It’s tough to apologize. It’s tough to confront mistakes. But it’s biblical and the best way to move forward. While it feels traumatic to own up to one’s mistake, it is rarely as difficult as it seems like it’s going to be, and most of the time it is far less painful than doubling down on our perceived perfection. Plus, people value humble leadership that demonstrates integrity. This is one of those “building a culture” things: We either have established a culture within our ministry of acknowledging and correcting mistakes, or we have established a culture of self-delusion (commonly referred to as an environment in which “appearances are more important than reality”). One of the primary ways that such a culture is subtly nurtured is if we are thin-skinned as leaders, routinely shutting down legitimate critiques from ministry partners.
The process for dealing with public mistakes is best thought through before they ever happen. This applies to epic failures or mundane miscommunications. Large corporations have professional staff and consultants who coach them on the best public relations approaches to dealing with unfortunate gaffes. Of course, those strategies are geared to minimize damage and protect profits. It’s not exactly a model built on humility and righteousness. As ministry leaders, we should avoid apologies based exclusively on managing appearances.
Journalism offers some insights. As enterprises which rely on trust, most media outlets have a clear policy for “corrections and clarifications” that is specific and transparent. If they get something wrong, they have a plan for how they will communicate the mistake, and they have a predetermined directive for how they will correct it. It’s forthright. As much as it can be, it’s objective. Any ministry that has thought through a similar policy will find itself in a calmer and more cohesive position when mistake-created chaos erupts.
That’s a good segue to part two of this week’s blog: the part I mentioned about the dog days of summer.
For many ministries, summer is a time when things slow down before they ramp back up for the full-court press that is frequently the tempo of fall. It’s a good time to catch one’s breath and relax into a slower pace, but it’s also a great time to take on some thoughtful projects for which there aren’t time during the more frenzied parts of the church calendar year. It’s good to sit (outside in the shade, floating in the pool, or enjoying later afternoon at the beach) and make a list of what such projects might be – things you’ve been postponing.
And don’t let the items on that list intimidate you once you’ve made it. If they look complex or controversial, don’t let the fear of not getting them perfect hold you back. Repeat Voltaire’s mantra to not make “the perfect the enemy of the good.” That advice never goes out of style. In fact, here’s a great, fresh take on it from The New York Times’ “Smarter Living” section: an article called, “It’s Never Going to Be Perfect, So Just Get It Done.” Summer is a great time to grab a random project by the horns, but we too often chicken out because the project synopsis seems too daunting. Author Tim Herrera, citing his own obsessive dissatisfaction with his own writing, describes the roadblock:
By agonizing over tiny improvements in our work — if they even are improvements — we prevent ourselves from achieving the actual goal of, you know, doing the work. “ At some point, we must remind ourselves, any changes we make to a creation no longer make it better but just different (and sometimes worse),” Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today on the topic of just getting things done. “Recognizing that inflection point — the point at which our continuing to rework our work reaches a law of diminishing returns — is one of the hardest skills to learn, but also one of the most necessary.”
Herrera offers some great practical tips on getting things accomplished, rather than just spinning in circles (including his use of the “mostly fine decision” strategy):
The M.F.D. is the minimum outcome you’re willing to accept as a consequence of a decision. It’s what you’d be perfectly fine with, rather than the outcome that would be perfect. The root of the M.F.D. lies in the difference between maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers relentlessly research all possible options in a scenario for fear of missing the “best” one, while satisficers make quick decisions based on less research.
But here’s the key: Somewhat paradoxically, research has shown that satisficers are more satisfied with their decisions than maximizers are.
In other words, just getting it done — whether that’s a decision you have to make or work you have to do — will leave you more satisfied than if you had agonized over the task in the pursuit of perfection. Even better, you’ll actually finish.
So, go for it! Write that first chapter of your ministry memoir, crank out a presentation about your community-changing ministry vision, or maybe even whip up a policy about mistake management to present to your crew when they get back from vacation.
Give me a shout-out in the “comments” section. What pent-up comments have you been forced to suppress as you have read the blog posts of this spring and summer? What have your experiences been with having to own up to mistakes? What advice would you give to others? And beyond the “comments” section, feel free to email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, suggestions, or corrections. I’d love to hear from you.
** BONUS CONTENT: When writing the above sentence about the dog days of summer, I inadvertently transposed the letters and typed “the god days of summer,” which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite jokes, which I will now, in the spirit of summer, share here:
Did you hear about the dyslexic, agnostic insomniac?
He stayed up all night wondering if there really is a dog.
See: mistakes can lead to creative connections. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. . . .”