Finding Success in Your Failure

In every ministry, there is a plethora of pinpoints where events and people (including you) can fail.

by Cal LeMon

Many people assume clergy are just a cut below divinity.

According to the stereotype, members of the clergy have exquisite diction, photographic memories (especially for children’s names), impeccable clothes, eternally sunny dispositions, and the ability to instantaneously produce outlines for three-point sermons.

We, the clergy, know the truth. We are not a cut below divinity. We, like our parishioners, scream into the heavens in the middle of the night to hear a faint echo of God’s footsteps. We often toss and turn through the predawn hours of the new day desperately trying to unravel the Gordian knot that binds up the contradictions of a pristine personal faith and our very public failings.

Sometimes we internally cringe when, in spite of our best efforts, we survey the landscape of our ministry and stare at the parched and dying seed we planted with such pietistic passion. And it seems nothing took root.

What Part of Your Ministry Is Failing?

In every ministry, there is a plethora of pinpoints where events and people (including you) can fail.

Is attendance at the midweek Bible study dwindling? Is your community outreach effort stumbling along with no direction? Has your Sunday night worship service gone the way of the Hula-Hoop and Burma-Shave signs? Is your sermon preparation reserved for the 30 minutes prior to the worship service? Are you the only person who volunteers to clean the restrooms?

If your ministry is in teaching, do the students who sit in the front row seem to all lose consciousness after your first scintillating 10 minutes of exegesis in the Book of Numbers?

Henri J.M. Nouwen, in his small but potent book Out of Solitude said, “In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness …. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.”1

Regardless of your attendance numbers, do you encounter “surrounding darkness”? More importantly, is it of your own making?


You could blame it on the spirit of the age, bad weather, suburban creep, the Internet, the proliferation of televised worship options, the polar vortex, the price of gasoline, or a gazillion other things. Indeed, there are many reasons why a ministry option may fail on your watch. The easiest response is to pontificate on the pollution of piety by an unregenerate world.

Yet when a ministry fails, and you know you are responsible, you can choose to accept this responsibility and just confess. Confession is a biblical practice.

Consider Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is interesting that Peter, who knew how to dodge a question (Mark 14:68), was willing to lay it all out in this historic admission of faith.

There is a psychological component to confession: “giving status to the resistance.” For instance, if someone in an intimate relationship says, “I find it difficult to get your attention. When I speak, you always seem to redirect the conversation and attention to yourself.”

Most people would respond like this: “Well, I don’t know what your problem is today, but I am not an egomaniac and do not always make our conversations about me.”

But people of faith who give status to the resistance may answer: “I did not realize I was redirecting the conversation back to my agenda when we get together. Thank you for giving me this helpful feedback.”

Therefore, confession means you wrap your arms around your failure and find other people or resources to do what you cannot. You might say to a board of elders, “I have been looking at the amount of money we raised for the new educational wing. I am disappointed in my ability to motivate the congregation to give sacrificially. I suggest we identify someone in this body of believers, or find an outside consultant, who can motivate us spiritually and emotionally toward giving.”


Honesty can be the best policy — unless you are looking in a mirror.

The message of the Law (the Ten Commandments) and the message of love (the Sermon on the Mount) are firmly cemented into the Psalmist’s plea: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).

Our faith, which requires transparency with God, has a residual impact on what we are able to see and say to ourselves when looking inward. Self-awareness for the believer is an honest conversation we have with the person in our mirror. We learn to identify our innate gifts and acknowledge what we probably will never master in our lifetime.

Personally, I have given up on measuring 6’2” and having hair like Fabio’s and a voice like Charlton Heston’s.

Spiritually, I am still a work in progress. I thoroughly enjoy both the preparation and practice of preaching and teaching. I am comfortable designing and executing new ministry options. Where I have significant deficiencies is in strategic planning.

Without spiritually and emotionally beating myself up over my lack of skills and interest in strategic planning, I have to assign this to someone else who has these gifts.

Have you mastered every facet of your ministry? What are you expected to do that is not an interest or skill set you possess? More importantly, can you admit, through honest self-awareness, what is not being accomplished in your ministry and communicate that awareness to those who share leadership?


There is no value in either self-confession or self-awareness unless all this spiritual navel gazing helps correct what we know is not working in our ministry.

Andrew J. Dubrin, a noted professor at Saunders College of Business (Rochester Institute of Technology) said in his book Leadership: “[self-awareness] … is insightfully processing feedback about oneself to improve one’s effectiveness.”2

Therefore, after we look inside, there should be a noticeable change outside. I am of the opinion we all die with our dreams. On the other hand, we have the option of physically, emotionally, and spiritually living in our dreams when we take corrective action.

What expectations do people in your ministry have of you that you will never master? What unused or underused gifts do you bring to your ministry? And what dream does God have for you that you still have time in your ministry to pursue and savor?


1. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ava Maria Press, 1974).

2. Andrew J. Dubrin, Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills (Mason, Ohio: South-Western, 2007), 453.