Few things harm a church more than the belief everything they do must be successful, or be made successful—rather than to admit that it isn’t working, and move on. If every staff hire, every new ministry, and yes, even the church’s own existence must be successful it becomes difficult to try anything new. Such a mentality will also lead to languishing for months or years on end at great cost. It is better to be able to admit to oneself, “it ain’t working.” Then, we can assess whether a few tweaks might solve its “ain’t workingness.”
We might realize the execution of the idea was poor, or there was no desire for such a program in the church. That’s helpful information…not failure. Failure looks much more like sustaining a floundering ministry over a long period of time because we are too proud to say, “it ain’t working.”
We Americans hate failure and hate admitting it even more. Not everything is abject failure. Sometime things just don’t work. Sometimes a project, ministry, or hire fails because of circumstances beyond or control. Sometimes it was well within our control, but we mishandled it. Sometimes a risk was taken, and it didn’t pan out. Whatever the reason, we are usually better to let it go and use what we’ve learned in the process to grow wiser.
Last summer at NVC, we had an idea for an event we thought would go really well. It didn’t. It flopped miserably. Rather than pretend it worked, excuse why it didn’t work, or repeat it over and over again until it worked–we let it go. We may try something like it again…we may not. But what we won’t do is pull the church off target by focusing on the success of something that ancillary or be held captive by a fear of failure.
We’re blessed with a church that would prefer we try some things—even if it doesn’t work every now and then—than to get stuck because we are afraid of failure. Most churches are that way. Don’t underestimate your people, and work to create a culture where exploration and innovation is encouraged rather discouraged by fear of failure. One way to do this is to use words like “trial basis” or “beta test” when you start something new. Another is to let your leaders know you appreciate their efforts when something is tried, doesn’t work, and they have the courage to let it go.
Kenny Rogers said it (and anything he says must be true)—you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Sometimes, we just need to let it go, stop doing it, and stop letting it bother us that it didn’t work. Many churches have ministries that have been in hospice for years because of a fear of failure or the pain they will endure at the hands of those who clutch to the ministry. These ministries are likely sapping your strength and reinforcing a fear of failure across the church.
For some churches there will come a time when they must admit their very existence as a Body has run its course. It doesn’t mean they’ve failed. God has undoubtedly done great things in their midst over the years. It’s not failure to admit the church’s life cycle may have run its course. Failing more closely resembles tying up resources, time and energy better used for the Kingdom in other ways because of the fear of “failure.” It takes humility to admit something doesn’t work, and it takes wisdom to decide what is best to do when something isn’t working. It takes little more than pride to bang the church’s head against the wall for months, years, or even a generation.
If it isn’t working, admit it. Decide whether it is fixable or worth fixing. If it isn’t, let it go.
Question: How much time, energy, and resources would be freed up if the ministries that need to be let go were in fact let go?