Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Too Safe to Fail

Written by: on March 7, 2019

“I just witnessed a teacher getting excited about a mistake. Why? She saw it as a teachable moment!  And she ran with it!  This fired me up! There are teachable moments all around us . . . if we just take the time to notice them . . . and capitalize on them.”[i]

Much has been written about how difficult it is for a modern student to fail.[ii]  Failure in the online age means leaving a digital history that is very difficult to overcome, or one that certainly takes much time and energy to move on from.[iii] But failure is exactly the activity Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston suggest leaders undertake in their riveting text Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders.

The primary focus of their text is to encourage leaders to think about the complex issues they face with new vision.  If leaders reorient their thinking along these three primary guidelines, clarity and better understanding for all should ensue.  Leaders should:


Ask different questions – what are the stories people are sharing or not sharing about an issue?

Take multiple perspectives – what voices aren’t being listened to and why?

See systems[iv] – what are the forces at play that stall an issue?


While these three core components of the text are profound, the idea the authors raise of a “safe to fail” experiment has really stuck with me.  In describing these experiments as a process for an organization to learn more about itself to move toward a common future, Berger and Johnston write, “a core distinction that makes an experiment safe to fail in a complex time is that the leader thoughtfully constructs safety guardrails around the zone of play.”[v] Later the text continues that the leader “allows failure (because if you’re not failing, you’re not actually being particularly experimental.)[vi]  In the life of a faith community I am doing my best to ascertain what these moments of ‘allowed failure’ can be.

I wonder what these moments of failure look like for each of us in our own ministry and leadership contexts.  I know that as a pastor I often over compensate to put people into positions where they succeed (provide a liturgist with the readings and proper pronunciations well in advance of a worship service, walk a Sunday School teacher through a lesson prior to teaching it, provide the stewardship team with a draft script for their follow up phone calls) however these are programmatic, life of the church type tasks.  We certainly don’t want to experience failure in the realms of finances, spiritual care, or in the safety and wellbeing of anyone.

Here are some of my thoughts on the opportunities in the church I serve where it may be “safe to fail.” I would love to hear yours!

  • Share ministry opportunities with other organizations
  • The creation of a new ministry program – intentionally designed to do no harm if it ends up failing
  • Fellowship activities, some are destined to be more of a draw than others
  • Hiring new staff – with the knowledge that there is a window for this to become sustainable; if it fails, we have all learned from the experience


[i] Danny Steele (@SteeleThoughts) Prophetic educational experience from Danny Steele, Tweet, March 6, 2019, https://twitter.com/SteeleThoughts/status/1103327717985005569

[ii] Serena Pariser, “Let Students Make Mistakes Without Feeling Like Failures,” University of San Diego Education, last modified March 7, 2019, https://onlinedegrees.sandiego.edu/let-students-make-mistakes/

[iii] Adam Dachis, “What are the worst mistakes you can make online?,” Lifehacker, last modified March 7, 2019, https://lifehacker.com/what-are-the-worst-mistakes-you-can-make-online-5879722

[iv] Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 13.

[v] Berger and Johnston, Simple Habits, 198.

[vi] Berger and Johnston, Simple Habits, 199.

About the Author

Rev Jacob Bolton

4 responses to “Too Safe to Fail”

  1. Tammy Dunahoo says:


    I believe you are asking the right question. With the statistics of decline in the church in America we must ask big questions about sacred cows. We must take risks in safe to fail areas that truly make us faithful in presence as we learned last week with Hunter. Maybe our questions should be to the community rather than ourselves about what “faithful presence” would look like. I bet they would give us some “risk-required” answers.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jacob, I appreciate your thoughts and perspectives, especially as a local pastor striving to see what this looks like in your congregational context. Your post reminds me of a classic view of discipleship, “watch me, let’s do it together, I’ll watch you, and now you go do it.” I think somewhat unfortunately, we have somehow restricted discipleship or disciple-making to spiritual practices or disciplines. Is this not the classic “safe to fail” approach? What if we did this in all the practices of the local church? I think “safe to fail” is inclined towards making mistakes as one moves forward in practice and experience. Perhaps in our contemporary setting this lends itself to “interns”. I think with some careful thought, even in the areas of finances and spiritual (or perhaps pastoral) care, there are tasks that could be accomplished communally, as “safe to fail” (i.e., make mistakes) environments for both less and more experienced developing leaders working together. If you care to comment, what are your thoughts about local church “internship” approaches?

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    I love your heart on this Jacob! One of the ways I approach this, is not asking how to make sure people do something a lot like I would do it, but how do create space for them to find their authentic voice in it, thus taking more ownership. For this to happen, the other question I’m askin of myself, is what do I have to be teaching and modeling for my community in order to create a culture where it is safe to fail? I preached my first sermon when I was 16, essentially on a dare by my friend’s dad who was on the board with me. Nobody helped me prepare or even suggest they preread my sermon. The organist called to ask me which hymns I would like, and I just picked my favourites. I remember people kindly pointing me to the right spot to stand after the service to shake everyone’s hands. Truthfully my mom was the only one who gave me critical feedback (apparently I put my hands in the pockets of my 90’s style flower dress.) It wasn’t until my confidence was built up that people started giving me critical feedback. I’ve learned that there are key things that can help create what I’d prefer to call ‘a safe environment to grow’. Get your best sound person on when kids are involved. Remind people our job is to listen for the Holy Spirit when people are preaching/sharing/teaching for the first time. When I’m trying to empower people who have broken English (and a congregation who struggles to understand it) I sometimes opt to have them speak on video, and while I dont edit it, I do subtitle it. I keep asking ‘how can I better prepare our crew to receive peoples offering better?’ And ‘how can I make this person feel as secure as possible as they attempt what they are stepping out to attempt?’ What were the guardrails around you as you began in ministry? In an egalitarian/non-hierarchical church, whose job is it to create those guardrails?

  4. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Jacob. I appreciated your post and especially the part of your post sharing about the safe to fail experimentation. You shared that the text stated the leader must allow failure, because if you’re not failing, you’re not actually being particularly experimental. Then you provided an enlightening synopsis of areas where it might be safe to practice the ‘safe to fail’ philosophy. Great insight, Jacob. Thank you for sharing, my fellow ‘formerly K’zoo’ friend!

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