If At First You Don’t Succeed: Fear of Failure

I read a comment on a post the other day that got me to thinking. The comment was here over at Dan Dick’s blog. In part, the commenter “Smark” wrote:

But coming into church staff employment after a career in the corporate world, I’ve got to say I have never seen fear of failure like I see in pastoral staff. Too many needed changes are postponed simply because they might cause drama in the church.

I ‘grew up’ in a high-tech environment where the worst thing possible was to be caught doing nothing… ignoring a problem and hoping it will go away, or waiting for data or another team to do something. Failure, as long as you managed the risk of it, was seen as a good thing, because you were moving forward. You launch 10 projects in a year, say: 5 fail miserably or you kill, 3 are moderately successful, and 2 are home runs.

I think there is something to this. In my dealings with the small church especially, I’ve come to feel that one of the greatest hindrances is the fear of failure. We’re so afraid of something not succeeding that we often don’t even want to bother to try. Failing yet again would just be too painful.

For the small church, part of this is due to the massive inferiority complex that many churches already have anyway. “We’re too small. We don’t have enough people, money, or resources. We don’t have the opportunities big churches or suburbanite churches have. Etc.” These are real issues, but they reflect a lack of self-esteem and a lack of confidence that undermine most of their legitimate efforts.

Large churches, however, often view things more the way “Smark” did. I grew up in a large church. Failure was just part of the culture. Of course, we’re going to fail. Nine out of ten things we start will end in failure. Glorious, abysmal failure!

But, out of those 10 things, at least one will succeed. We don’t always know why it succeeded. We don’t really know what worked. But, something did work. Something connected. It did succeed. So, we put more time, energy, and people into it and do a whole lot more of what worked.

Over the long haul, the successes tend to overshadow the failures. Most people focus on what’s growing and succeeding rather than the five ministries we just shut down as an admission of failure.

However, even with that, every failure has a success in it. We learn something from every mistake, even if only not to do that specific thing ever again. But, in most instances, we discern bits and pieces that did work, while there were other bits and pieces that for whatever reason did not.

But still, we learn something from that. There’s something in there that is perhaps worth trying again in another form or in another setting. In the next try, it may work.

And that’s the key. A resiliency to keep trying. Like the old UnderDog theme, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The more we try, the more likely we are to succeed.

Ministry is mostly a trial-and-error experiment. Like all those terrible algebraic equations we had to do in high school. What does x equal? Well, really, the only way to find out is to start plugging in numbers until one of them works. Of course, if you’re afraid to fail or too unsure to start, you’ll never find the one that works. To succeed you have to be willing to fail.

I wonder how many of our churches are stalled out because they are afraid to try to change. They have an overwhelming fear of failure. I wonder how many of us as pastors are paralyzed by that same fear. We just sit there staring at the problem not knowing quite where to start.

There is no magic key. We just have to start plugging things in. We just have to start trying things. Sure, many of them will fail. But, some of them will succeed. Are we willing to at least try? Or will we just sit there and let inertia take its toll?


2 responses to “If At First You Don’t Succeed: Fear of Failure

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