How Church Leaders Should Handle Failure


Adapted from Fairness is Overrated.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think a similar list could help define the stages a church leader goes through when his or her church or ministry experiences a failure.

Let me give an example from my personal experience. Before I joined the team at Vanderbloemen helping churches and organizations find staff, I served as Executive Pastor at Granger Community Church for 25 years. During the middle of a particularly difficult season at Granger, we spent time trying to get our minds and hearts around some unmet expectations. It may not have been outright failure, but it sure felt like it. What do you do when you lead a church, and not as many people are inviting their friends, not as many are tithing, not as many are reading their Bibles, not as many are attending, and not as many are being baptized?

These questions are very real when you are going through a tough season, and the following list represents some of the stages of failure I have personally experienced: 

1. Justify

Well, our numbers are down because of the weather. People aren’t reading their Bibles because we have so many seekers. The economy is in the tank so people aren’t giving.

Sometimes there are rational reasons for failure, but if you continue to explain it away, over time it begins to look like an excuse rather than a reason. You can justify a week or even an entire season, but it’s difficult to justify trends that are happening over a longer period of time.

2. Question

Perhaps the stats are wrong. Maybe we didn’t ask the question in the right way. I bet a certain category of people refused to take the survey, and so the results are skewed. 

When we don’t like the data, it is so easy to question its validity. We look deep for one anomaly. We find the one place where we can cast doubt on the data, thus casting a large shadow over all the findings. Then it’s easier to say everything is okay: “The problem isn’t my leadership or our decisions, it’s the data.”

3. Blame

It’s the fault of the congregation. They stopped giving. They stopped inviting their friends. They think they’re mature and deep, but they aren’t contributing to the cause. They are whining but not helping. We were tanked by our former youth pastor who started a church down the road.

In our frustration, we blame our people. We might even design messages with a prophetic tone to get the congregation to be better, stronger, and more committed.

Rather than lead people through difficulty, we tend to preach them through it.Tweet:

4. Redefining

Well, it’s not attendance that really matters anyway. We’d rather have a hundred mature believers than a crowd of a thousand immature believers. It doesn’t matter how many are coming in our doors, what really matters is how many we are sending out our doors.

Instead of figuring out why we keep missing the target, we just move the target to the location where our arrows are landing. Rather than adopting a both/and mentality, we say it is either/or. We are tempted to say, “Either we are growing in numbers or we are growing in our faith. It can’t be both. Either we are high volume or high quality. It can’t be both. Either we are attractional or we are missional. It can’t be both.” Really? Why not? I think it is dangerous to redefine success just because we are missing the mark.

5. Leading

Finally, at some point, we decide to lead. We stop blaming, questioning, justifying, or redefining, and we hunker down and lead through the crisis. We figure out what is wrong and begin to fix it. We face the really tough data and talk about the facts of our situation that might be embarrassing or self-condemning. We acknowledge where we are wrong, and we get risky and determine to try some stuff to get back on track.

We stick our necks out and cancel some stuff that has perceived success and add some stuff that has no historical track record. We work through the feeling of failure, the muddy conversations, and the awkward staff meetings. We don’t jump ship because the waters are suddenly rocky. No, instead we rally the troops, and we do what leaders do in times of crisis: we lead. It is vital that church leaders face failure in this way.

Sometimes, we even write an entire book about our failures so others can avoid the same (it didn’t sell many copies, but Vision: Lost and Found was a practical story of a church being stuck). Failure is no fun, but there will always be times when things are not going as well as you’d like. It’s natural to justify, question, blame, and redefine. But the more time you spend in those stages, the less time you will have to focus on the problem and lead your way out.

Unlike the stages of grief, it actually might be helpful to move past the first four stages of failure as soon as you can. There is no reason to linger. Church leaders, face your failures head on and lead.

How can you or your church navigate failure well in the future?

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