“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.