No one’s life is an unbroken chain of victories. We all experience setbacks, defeats, losses and failures. Consider the example of baseball—not even the greatest of players bats 1,000%. The same is true in ministry—we all make mistakes, even as we seek to serve God.
Since failure is something every one of us will, at some time, experience, one of the most important skills you can acquire is the ability to respond to it in a godly fashion. It has been my observation that successful ministers know how to turn every failure into a learning experience—creating a stepping stone for future success.
The first thing to do when you’re faced with any failure is to analyze why it happened. Although there may be a variety of reasons—many out of your control—here are five common causes of failure:
When you don’t plan ahead
As the old saying goes, “If you fail to plan, then you’re planning to fail.” Proverbs 27:12 says, “A sensible man watches for problems ahead and prepares to meet them” (LB). Moving your church toward greater growth and health requires a lot of planning. You not only need to plan how to attract new people to your church, but also what you’re going to do with them once they arrive: Are there enough seats to accommodate visitors? Is there adequate and safe childcare? How will they get plugged into a small group Bible study? Remember, Noah began building the Ark long before it started to rain!
When you think you’ve “arrived”
Remember the lesson of the whale: Just when you get to the top, and you start to blow—that’s when you get harpooned! Proverbs 18:18 says, “Pride leads to destruction and arrogance to downfall” (TEV). My friend John Maxwell once said, “When Jesus walked through New Testament times, people had trouble seeing him as God; when some pastors walk through their churches, people have trouble seeing them as human.”
When you’re afraid to take necessary risks
The fear of failure can cause failure. We worry about what others will think of us if we fail, so we don’t even try. Fran Tarkenton says, “Fear sets you up to be a loser.” We fail to take advantage of golden opportunities. “Fear of man is a dangerous trap,” according to Proverbs 29:25 (LB). One way I encourage my staff to try new things is I tell them they are allowed to make one mistake a week, as long as it’s not the same mistake over and over!
When you give up too soon
Many times, success is just around the corner. The Prophet Daniel tells of a time when he prayed for days and days, never getting an answer to his requests before God. Then one day, in a vision, he sees a mighty angel.
“Do not be afraid, Daniel,” said the angel. “Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.”
Although God heard Daniel’s prayer and dispatched an angel immediately, that angel was delayed 21 days due to a great spiritual battle: “Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come” (Daniel 10:12-14, NIV).
I’ve often thought, What would have happened if Daniel had stopped praying on the 10th day, or the 15th or the 20th?
We must always remember—the game is often won in the final seconds. If at first you don’t succeed—you’re normal! Keep on keeping on!
When you ignore God’s advice
The Bible is the owner’s manual on life. It’s filled with practical instructions and guidelines for work, home, finances, relationships and health. When we fail to follow these directions from God, we’re only asking for trouble. How many times have you run face first into failure simply because you ignored the Word of God? “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12, NIV).
If you’ve experienced failure in your ministry, here are some steps for starting over:
Accept responsibility for your own failure
If you’ve made a mistake—admit it! Welcome to the human race and don’t blame others. To blame is to “be-lame.” Losers love to blame—the economy, the boss, their spouse, their congregation, their deacons or even God for their misfortune. Taking responsibility frees you from a defensive posture and gives you the clear-headed vision necessary to determine what went wrong.
Back in 1974, the UCLA basketball team had an 88-game winning streak, and was leading Notre Dame in the 89th game by 11 points. But then they lost.
The headline on the next day read, “Coach Wooden says ‘Blame me!’”
Wooden was a winner; winners never blame others for a failure, and they never make excuses. “A man who refuses to admit his mistakes can never be successful. But if he confesses and forsakes them, he gets another chance” (Proverbs 28:13, LB).
Recognize the benefits of failure
Thomas Edison, commenting on one of his many failed experiments, said, “Don’t call it a failure. Call it an education!” At the very least, failure shows you what doesn’t work.
Failure forces you to be more creative; you look for new ways to do things.
Failure prevents arrogance and egotism. If everything you did was a stunning success, no one could live with you!
Failure causes you to re-evaluate what’s important in life. Failure is one way God gets us to reflect on the direction of our lives.
“Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways” (Prov. 20:30, GN).
Ask God for wisdom to understand the cause for your failure. Ask, “Why did I fail? Is there any reason I might have set myself up to fail?”
There are many unconscious reasons we sometimes sabotage our own efforts:
- A fear of success: Success may mean handling more responsibility than you want to carry.
- A sense of guilt: If you feel you don’t deserve to succeed, you may have set yourself up to fail.
- An attitude of resentment: Some people fail as a way to get even with those who are pressuring them to succeed.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” (James 1:5, NIV).
Forget the past and focus on the future
Your past is past! It’s water under the bridge. You can’t change it so you may as well stop worrying about it.
“Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back; I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14, GW).
We serve a God of second chances—failure is never final unless you let it be!