The Failure-Tolerant Leader

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In tennis, players usually give their maximum effort on the first serve, knowing that if they fault on that one, they will have another opportunity. On the second serve, players usually take a more conservative approach to avoid getting a double fault. Imagine a tennis player who determines never to double fault on the serve. He or she will serve so carefully that the opponent gains all the advantages. Fear of making the mistake will cause the player to lob easy serves that can be returned with overwhelming power. Playing too conservatively and too predictably never succeeds.

Growing congregations experience failure with more frequency than do declining congregations for the simple reason that they try more ideas.

In a similar way, the fear of failure causes pastors and leaders to err on the side of safety, predictability, and restraint. Fear of failure debilitates leaders. Fear blocks imagination. Permission-giving leaders have to overcome these fears to cultivate a culture of innovation and imagination. They must learn how to fail successfully.

Today congregations must take more risks in order to see fruitful results than congregations did in the past. Churches 50 years ago could remain strong, and even see growth, by offering one Sunday morning worship service with one style of music, good pastoral care, a youth ministry, and a solid administrative structure. The culture pushed people toward churches, and a passive stance worked. To be successful, churches just had to do what other churches were doing. For churches to experience above-average results today means taking risks that average congregations, which are mostly growing older and getting smaller, are unwilling to take. Leaders have to dare to be different. They have to dare to be wrong.

Fruitful congregations thrive with an abundance of ministries, open the doors to new ideas, and take initiative to start ministries. Yet, fruitful congregations can list dozens of programs and initiatives that didn’t work, failed to take root, lasted for a little while and faded away, or never bore the fruit that was hoped for. Growing congregations experience failure with more frequency than do declining congregations for the simple reason that they try more ideas than declining congregations. Even with all their failures, they never become failure averse in a way that keeps them from trying again. They remain resilient. They learn from their mistakes. They move on.

All congregations encounter obstacles, setbacks, and challenges. Perhaps a youth ministry declines precipitously. Maybe a staff member becomes ineffective or instills conflict. Some congregations avoid, deny, and ignore the challenge. They let it go unaddressed. Programs end. Ministry is diminished. People leave. The church’s capacity to reach people decreases. Worry wins. The ministry of Christ loses. The congregation fails to learn what it needs to learn, shrinks a little more, withdraws back into itself, and becomes a little smaller.

Other congregations face the same challenge, but they do so with a sense of resilience and purpose. The pastor consults other pastors who face a similar setback. Leaders visit with leaders from other churches. They invite the help of a consultant. They read and attend workshops on the topic. They learn about the roots of the challenge, and then they learn approaches to take. They make decisions and take action. They try. And they come out on the other side of the challenge as a stronger church, a learning church, a more confident church that is clearer about its mission and more committed to its future. The church grows. They fail successfully.

Jesus tells the story of the master who entrusts his servants with various quantities of talents while he is away. The servant who receives ten talents returns ten talents more to his master upon his return, and the servant who receives five returns five more than he’d been given. However, the servant who received one talent dug a hole and hid it for fear of losing it, and for this he faced his master’s disappointment. His fear numbed him into inaction.

Pastors and leaders have been entrusted with enormous responsibilities and with a mission given us in Christ. Leading requires humility and courage. Leading requires the humility to get out of the way, to relinquish control, to trust others, and to trust how God works through others. Leading also requires the audacity, boldness, resilience, and fearlessness to try and try again, even when faced with failure, setback, and resistance. There is always a next step, no matter how difficult the challenge or how intransigent the system, and the most important decision is always the next one.


This article is excerpted from Robert’s book,Just Say Yes: Unleashing People for Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2015), and used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury or Amazon.

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About Author

Robert Schnase became Bishop of the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning September 1, 2016, after serving as Bishop of the Missouri Conference. He has written many books, most recently, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Revised and Updated (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.


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