“Give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”
How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency? Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy. We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did). That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines. Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).
Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure. And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse. We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout. We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged. And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.
So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?
We fear failing because of our own character weakness. Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything. This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.
We fear failing because we might lose support. Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission. How do we tell them we messed up? Will they stop supporting us? If fact that’s highly unlikely. Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.
We fear failing because of the impact on our faith. Why did God send us? Was God not with us? Why was our work not blessed? The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33). St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).
This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission. And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20). Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us. This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.
Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves. One of us even wrote a blog about it. So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.
Failing isn’t fatal. Not starting again, is.