Eileen Campbell-Reed explains how failure is an essential step on the path to mastering the art of ministry leadership. New leaders need to give themselves permission to fail and find spaces where they will be supported as they master the complex skill of wise pastoral practice.
Failure. It is one of those words that is big and scary, and we don’t really want to think about it too much. Yet if you’re going to do something complicated and challenging, like learning the practice of ministry, then you won’t get it right all the time. Whether you call these shortcomings “flops, folds, wipeouts, or hiccups,” as author and art curator Sarah Lewis calls them, failing is definitely part of the process. There’s no getting around it — so how can we think about failing more creatively?
This is crucial for the learning of ministry in all cases because learning something as complex as ministry can’t be done simply by trying it once. You have to be able to try again and again and even fail along the way. Failure doesn’t have to be a sense of the end but a sense of on the way.
Failure is an essential component of mastery.
One of my favorite books of the last few years is The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by art critic and curator Sarah Lewis. She explores how failure is an essential way station on the path to discovery, invention, and mastery. She is especially interested in how failure is essential to mastery when it comes to sports, art, and other advanced skill-based practices.
In The Rise, Lewis tells stories about archers mastering the shot, Edison failing ten thousand times before inventing the lightbulb, and musicians and authors such as Duke Ellington and Tennessee Williams pushing past failure to create lasting works of art and literature. In these stories, as in ministry, failure is an essential component of mastery.
Mastery requires constant pursuit.
What exactly is mastery from Lewis’ perspective? Mastery is neither perfectionism nor success. Perfectionism, says Lewis, is “an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us.” Success, on the other hand, is “an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time,” she says. Going beyond a single or even regular achievement, “mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.” This is her understanding of the rise. Thus “the pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” In other words, mastery is like a curved line that keeps reaching for a kind of expertise, keeps striving, keeps learning, and never truly “arrives.”
Lewis is reluctant to overuse the word failure because as soon as we use it, it slips away into becoming something else: “A learning experience, a trial, a reinvention.” Thus, like learning the complex practice of ministry, time and experience are required for mastery.
Lewis sees the learning intertwined with the way we interpret what is happening: “There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible.… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.”
Mastering pastoral practice
From our research in the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, we find that mastery as Lewis is exploring it comes close to phronesis, or practical situated wisdom. We call this pastoral imagination, which integrates skill, knowledge, and know-how about situations and rituals of ministry, which become habits and postures of wise pastoral practice.
This is where failure is absolutely unavoidable in the process of mastery. We cannot reach the far edges of knowing how to act, what knowledge is needed, or what new path is being created without tripping up along the way, without missing the point occasionally, and without honing our knowing in action. In this kind of learning, failure is not a one-time event but a way of taking continuous risk and responsibility for leading.
Creative failing is a matter of humility.
In ministry, the idea of failing creatively is also a matter of humility. We can never know all, see all, or master all. We must remain willing to ask, “How could I be wrong?” and “Is there another way?” Thus, even a willingness to fail is crucial to the posture of leading with wisdom and imagination.
Early on, this kind of posture feels intuitively wrong. We are trying to learn something new, and we want to achieve mastery faster than is possible. Beginning ministers can be quick to identify failures in a learning process as personal flaws or feel a sense of humiliation. This is why a ministry setting that supports learning through trying, patience, and support through missteps is crucial for new ministers.
As you’re on your way to discovering what ministry is like, you need to give yourself permission to fail and find spaces where you can do that and be supported as you learn the complex practice of ministry.
This material is excerpted and condensed from Pastoral Imagination: Bringing the Practice of Ministry to Life (Fortress Press, 2021) by Eileen R. Campbell-Reed. Used by permission. The book is available at fortresspress.com.
A companion Pastoral Imagination Journal is available as a print and e-book only at the Three Minute Ministry Mentor website. The full color 8″ x 10″ journal includes questions from all 50 chapters of the book and space to write reflections.