by Eddie Pipkin

I’m in Colorado this week, and some buddies and I are going to attempt to check off one of my bucket list items: hiking to the top of a 14,000 foot peak.  It’s a thing in Colorado to see just how many 14ers you can hike (“fourteeners” in local speak).  The state has an unfathomable 53 such summits – I will be happy with just one, thank you very much.  We’ve done about as much as we can do to plan and prepare.  The hike itself is only 7 ½ miles, but it’s 2,500 feet of strenuous uphill at an altitude that means 43% less oxygen than at sea level.  There’s a one-in-three chance that one of us develops symptoms of altitude sickness and has to abandon this project.  There’s a one-in-five chance the weather is a no-go.  There are plenty of things that could thwart this adventure.  So, while we are anticipating success, we are also planning for the possibility of failure.  That’s the way ministry should work, too.  

It has been my experience that ministry leaders (be they professional careerists, clergy folk, or volunteers) can get caught up in the enthusiasm and energy of a vision and become so convinced of its sacred inspiration that they leave no space for the possibility of nonsuccess.  This is tricky emotional, psychological, and theological territory, and I’ve written about it before.  If God gives us a vision, surely it is ordained to succeed.  Therefore, spending time considering that it might not and expending effort planning for less than successful outcomes feels like a lack of faith.  But from a theological perspective, we are not always called to win — failure has its purposes, too (and there are plenty of biblical examples of this truth):

  • We learn many valuable things from the process of the attempt.  [In the case of my 14er adventure, whether or not we completed the ascent, I learned a great deal about navigating Colorado than I knew before, and I laid the groundwork for many future adventures.]
  • The work that is done in the process (whether the outcome meets our original goal) is valuable in and of itself.  [In the case of my 14er attempt, I am now in great physical condition (for me) as summer comes to a close, because I did not want to be embarrassed by the younger guys joining me in the mountains.]
  • Sometimes the outcome is unexpected and even better than the original vision in ways we didn’t expect.  [In the case of my 14er attempt, I forged some unexpectedly deeper relationships which will undoubtedly bring me joy and support in the years ahead.]

Of course, I don’t mean to sugarcoat the reality that we have all experienced that sometimes things just don’t work out.  Human nature means that the best-laid plans get undercut by human failings.  Mistakes are inevitably made.  Things crash and burn.  There are important lessons to be learned even in the midst of the crashing and burning if we are attentive to them and properly humble and self-reflective, but the damage done can be greatly reduced if we are invested in preparing for the possibility of failure.

In the case of the 14er adventure, we were very, very clear in laying out the goal and inherent dangers.  We had clear checkpoints in the preparation process on which we were agreed and accountable that an individual would back out if there was a safety issue – this process revolved largely around acclimation to altitude, because altitude sickness can have severe consequences if the symptoms are ignored.  We were agreed that when symptoms appeared for any individual, we would respond immediately to secure the safety of the symptomatic team member (no excuses or compromises, no stigma attached).  Only after the safety issue was addressed would the other team members proceed (and we were agreed that the other team members would proceed – no sacrificing the enterprise because of one person’s issues).

Churches can benefit from parallel processes: 

  • Having clearly articulated plans for proceeding on a project and agreed upon procedures for what to do at critical junctures if things are not going according to plan.
  • Agreeing that no stigma or judgment will be attached if things don’t go according to plan or adjustments need to be made.  (This is a big deal in local churches.  Finger pointing and recriminations are very common when plans derail – even though, in our hearts, we know such attitudes are not biblical and not related to the practice of grace.  Open discussion about the possibilities of failure is helpful in avoiding future finger-pointing and recriminations.  It is good to have considered in advance the weak points in the plan.  This is exactly the strategy that NASA uses to protect the lives of astronauts: they have whole teams of engineers whose job is to consider possible failure points and responses to those unlikely emergencies.  This is the whole story of the ultimate “success” of the Apollo 13 mission, a failure in terms of the original goal, but a resounding triumph in terms of a selfless effort by an entire team to bring those astronauts back to earth.
  • Fostering a team approach in which the success of the project does not hinge on the performance of any one person.  This is “the show must go on” thinking, and any organization is stronger (or should be stronger) than one personality’s performance.

A round of failure prep is important in any ministry project, and the bigger the project the more crucial the failure prep, but there are some definitive categories in which local churches should be especially attentive to this process.

Emergency Planning  

I’m from Florida, so local churches are attentive to hurricane planning, having experienced first-hand the trauma of powerful storms that bring everything to a screeching halt while simultaneously placing instant demands on mission and outreach ministries.  Wherever you are located in the country, there is some form of natural disaster to which you are susceptible, and I don’t even have to mention a certain unprecedented global epidemic that forced us all to come to terms with how sudden and dramatic a crisis can be.

All local churches should have detailed emergency plans for dealing with an interruption to worship, damage to facilities, failures of equipment, actions from bad actors, or other imaginable crises (including problems with personnel).  That planning extends to having a clearly designated spokesperson when crisis strikes and a clearly designated leadership process for figuring out next steps in responding to calamity.  It should also include our finances.  Just as individuals and families are directed to maintain an “emergency fund” for large, unexpected expenses or loss of income, responsible churches should also retain such a financial cushion.  (Again, that’s just good stewardship.)

Backup Plans

I’m referring here to backup plans for events primarily.  Whatever you have scheduled, from concerts to mission trips, should always have a backup plan.  I am astonished how many local churches schedule outdoor events without a distinct “rain plan” (under the assumption that God will grant them good weather, having favored them with the event – and the answer to “But what if it rains?” is “We’ll figure that out if it happens.”)  That is not good stewardship, people.

Even in considering standard Sunday morning worship, a basic thought experiment is “What do we do if the power goes out?”  That inevitability should not result in a mad scramble, but in a cool-headed response, since your team has thoughtfully brainstormed that very possibility.

Loss of Leadership

As mentioned earlier, ministry should never be dependent on the performance of any one person.  There are plenty of reasons why a critical team member (up to and including the lead pastor) may be out of play in a given moment.  This should not mean the cancellation or collapse of an event or ministry.  Just as there are backup plans for logistics, there should be backup plans for leadership – this is, in fact, the backbone of “next leader up” thinking – the training and preparation of future leaders means that they are also ready to serve now in an emergency situation.

What if the preacher is indisposed and can’t preach on a Sunday morning.  That should not be a crisis.  Every church should have a plan in place for that eventuality and hopefully even a “break in case of emergency” sermon or video behind a glass case standing by for that very moment.

In all of these cases, failure planning is not busy work.  It not only positions us to limit damage down the road, but the thoughtful consideration of potential glitches and possible catastrophic scenarios makes us thoughtful about the way we are doing ministry, the weak points we need to make stronger, and how our opportunities to improve the flow of information and clarify our goals and management processes.  We gain valuable insights and, just by visualizing them, we are able to avoid future calamities.  There is a sense of peace that comes with such careful preparation.

When my kids were learning to drive, I made sure they knew how to change a tire.  A flat tire is an inevitable outcome of driving a car, and even though I had roadside assistance for their vehicles and they could call for help if needed, the backup to the backup was giving them the skills to take care of themselves if necessary.  I stressed the importance of being sure they had a suitable spare and knew where the jack was and how it worked.  I had them practice changing a tire in the driveway, a safe and supervised space.  They had various  anxieties about driving, but getting a flat was not one of them.  That’s the peace that comes with preparation.

[By the way, I wrote the opening paragraph of this blog a week ago, and I can report that my  three friends and I successfully ascended Mt. Bierstadt with no problems.  It was a glorious day that I will cherish in the years to come, accomplished with good friends united in common purpose.  We proceeded nervously but confidently because we had frankly considered the possibility of failure – we did a rare thing, because we overcame our fear with logic and faith.  Likewise should all ministry always proceed.]

How does the ministry for which you are responsible deal with failure planning?  Do you have a frank and organized approach for considering the ways that things can unravel and derail?  Do you always have a backup plan?  Do you have team members who excel at emergency planning?  Do you cultivate a deep leadership bench that can rise to the occasion as needed?  Share your own experiences and insights in the comments section.