By Eddie Pipkin

Image by Christian Bodhi from Pixabay

I’m nerdy enough to have been among the excited online onlookersfor last week’s long-anticipated Starship launch.  Starship is the largest craft ever lifted from the planet’s surface by rocket engines, and it is designed to be fully reusable.  The goal last Thursday morning was to achieve orbital altitude before splashing down safely in the ocean.  This goal was not achieved.  Instead, the rocket experienced what engineers cheekily refer to as a “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.”  That is to say, the rocket exploded midair.  And yet, the folks at SpaceX celebrated.  They literally cheered.  Their focus on defining an apparent failure as a necessary step to eventual success is instructive for ministry leaders.

I’ve written in this space before about embracing failure.

It’s one of my favored recurring themes – since, as they say, “write what you know” (smiley faced emoji).  As evidence of my dedication to the topic, I offer these blogs gleaned from the last five years, all of which deal in one way or another with the usefulness of failure, if leveraged as a learning tool:

  • “Prepare to Fail”: In which we consider disaster planning and prep, dealing forthrightly with the inevitability of things going awry. Here’s a quote:

“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?”

  • “Good Thinking”: In which we consider a Navy Seal’s-eye approach to negative news, to which a Seal leader always responds, ‘Good,’ flipping the script to use the bad news as a motivational challenge. Here’s a quote:

“Commander Willink’s approach . . . works by considering what skills can be learned in the face of a challenge.  If you lose a piece of equipment, how can you still get the job done by improvising?  If plans have to change, how can the team pull together to discover new strengths among themselves to get the mission done?  Of course, a SEAL team has explicit, real-time objectives that must be accomplished. no matter the odds.  But doesn’t ministry?”

  • “How Not To Be Stupid”: In which we consider dumb decisions and how they are really a matter of contextual obliviousness rather than ignorance – and contextual obliviousness is a condition which can be mitigated with good planning processes. Here’s a quote:

“[It] starts by redefining the way we think about stupidity: It’s not ignorance.  It’s something altogether different.  Adam Robinson (author, educator, entrepreneur, and hedge fund advisor) defines it as not ‘the opposite of intelligence’ but instead ‘the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.  It’s almost inevitable,’ he adds.  The premise is not that we don’t have enough information, but that the critical detail is glaringly obvious, yet we ignore it.  Robinson explains, ‘It’s crucial information, like you better pay attention to it. It’s conspicuous, like it’s right in front of your nose and yet you either overlook it or you dismiss it.’”

  • “Wipeout”: In which I recount a specific, benign failure of leadership and use it as a test case demonstrating select strategies for preventing disconnects and disasters.

“Frequently, our response to the rising sensation that our carefully laid plan is swerving off the rails is to panic with frenetic activity.  We start immediately hurling words or spot-solutions at the problem.  It’s the metaphorical equivalent of slamming on the brakes when your car starts to slide on a wet or icy road.  But if you know anything about driver safety, you know that is exactly the wrong response.  You’re supposed to calmly steer through the skid.  And that’s good leadership advice, too: calmly steer through the skid – take a deep breath, maybe even a full, official pause, and reorient things in the direction you want them to go.”

  • “Ministry Belly Flops”: An unusually funny blog with lots of examples of good ideas gone bad and a reflection on how each disaster can be an excellent learning and growth opportunity.

“First and foremost, don’t panic. Churches should not fear failure as we approach ministry projects, because Christ calls us to make disciples, and that requires us to be innovative and to learn from our experiences. Jesus makes this clear in his parable of the talents. In that story, two of the servants had a positive approach as they sought to increase the treasure for which they had been given responsibility. But the first servant was afraid of failure, so he acted conservatively, burying his talent instead of being innovative, and thus he had no increase (Matthew 25:14-30). None of us should approach doing the Lord’s work with a fear of failure, for we serve a Savior who does not give up on us even when we feel we have failed.”

Silicon Valley for years has been famous for its mantra of “Fail fast, fail often.”  You can take that idea too far, but the general principle is that innovation requires an outsized commitment to taking risks and being unafraid to fail in the pursuit of revolutionary outcomes.  For local churches, there is more at stake than some disposable venture capital funding, so we don’t want to build a Wild West culture, but the countervailing mantra to “Fail fast, fail often” for church leadership is frequently “Fail never, and if you do fail, find a way to spin it as a success.”  That’s why our planning processes are so front-end loaded with meetings upon meetings and cumbersome, often repetitive deliberations.  It is not a nimble decision-making process.  We mistake a laborious methodology for failure insurance.

From the Forbes article linked in the previous paragraph comes this quote:

“Originating from Silicon Valley and its ocean of start-ups, the real aim of “fail fast, fail often,” is not to fail, but to be iterative. To succeed, we must be open to failure—sure—but the intention is to ensure we are learning from our mistakes as we tweak, reset, and then redo if necessary.”

Iterative, used in this sense, means keep tweak, tweak, tweaking until you get something right.  The implied starting point for such a process is that you and your team have a clear understanding of where you want to get to (which, oddly, we often do not – or we confuse a tactical goal with a strategic goal – we establish ‘starting a class’ as a goal, when what we really want to do is ‘introduce people to transformative discipleship’ – it’s easy enough to start a class, and no matter how that class turns out, it doesn’t exactly fail, since you did start it; on the other hand, helping people engage with transformative discipleship may take multiple iterations before we get it right).

One of the things that SpaceX leadership did, even as they built up the hype tied to this first epic launch of Starship, was to tamp down expectations.  Elon Musk nonchalantly acknowledged that there was a pretty good chance that the thing would blow up.  He explained that that would just be part of the learning process.  They set modest goals for getting off the launch pad (which they achieved) and dreamier goals for nailing the entire mission, complete with picturesque splashdown.  So, it wasn’t like the result was a Rapid Unplanned Dissassembly: they had plenty of plans for the eventuality that the dramatic disassembly would happen.  It was a Rapid Unscheduled Dissassembly: they were doing their best to achieve the best optimal outcome, but they were prepared to adjust their timeline to engineering realities.  Now they move forward and do better next time.  Neither investors in the company or casual space enthusiasts will judge them harshly for this hiccup.  They had been carefully warned that it’s the cost of doing business and the pathway to new exploration.

Churches can learn from that commitment to “getting better” experimentation and enthusiastic communication.  It is after all, the ultimate example of “moving on to perfection.”  It can help us try new approaches.  It can help us empower new leaders.  It can help us shift our timeworn perspectives.

There are two things I wish local churches would fundamentally change in their programming approach:

  • Making experimentation part of their DNA. We are so often so obsessed with making an idea work, that we shove square pegs into round holes and stick with initiatives long after they are clearly doomed.  Imagine a culture in which we try more things as clearly identified experiments, and we train our ministry partners to think of them that way, flexible, fast, and adaptive.  When something really works, we keep that thing.  When it doesn’t, we tweak quickly, or we move on to something else.
  • With that sense of experimentation as part of our identity, we establish more initiatives as temporary or as ‘limited time offers.’ We should try things, even big, bold things, we the understanding that they are for the short term.  Schedule changes, programming changes, room changes . . . all the changes that local churches fight about internally.  Let’s move from be-all-end-all, die-on-the-hill battles for change, to saying, “Let’s try this out for three months and see what we learned.”  This one simple trick could shake up the church conflict template.

How does your local ministry feel about failure?  Are you experimenters and visionaries who are willing to try new things, conscious that some will work out and some won’t?  Have you built a culture of ‘fail to succeed’?  Are your people tolerant of mistakes along the way or obsessed with nautical stability (not rocking the boat) and the appearance of perfection?  Do you learn from your mishaps with a positive attitude and a forward-facing outlook or do setbacks cause you to ball up in fear and anxiety?