Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Values for Young Church Leaders (Part 3): Fail Well

My 27th birthday is quickly approaching in September. That's puts me squarely in my late-20s, and one step closer to being 30. I know, I know, that's not very old at all. Which is my point. There are hundreds of leaders in the church between the ages of 18 and 30 still figuring out how to lead well. I was thrust into my first full-time ministry role at the ripe old age of 21, which forced me to learn a ton.

I certainly haven't arrived, but I've got enough scars and calluses along the way to share some values young church leaders need to embrace. This next week, I'll unpack 5 of these values.

Value #3: Fail well

Take risks and make mistakes. Often young leaders fall into one of two extremes: 1) They make naively ambitious risks that result in tons of mistakes and burned bridges, or, 2) They are so cautious of failing that they never risk anything at all. I'd encourage young leaders to take a third route--to take calculated risks and learn from the mistakes that will inevitably be made along the way, to view the entire process as a journey of learning. "Take risks" doesn't mean "go sky-diving" (though it could, if that's your sort of thing). It means have the tough conversation with that person you're having conflict with; lead the event you've never led before; ask that guy/girl out for coffee; move overseas for a semester or a summer; go serve in the homeless shelter; join the small group.

Live a great story. Taking a cue from Donald Miller, a person's life could be considered a story. The best stories are filled with both failures and conflict, where the protagonist has to endure in painful circumstances and trials. The bad stories are the ones with no conflicts, or the protagonist succumbs to their own failures and gives up. This value is one of my personal values in lifeChoose difficult paths intentionally; take the harder-but-better path. Seek obstacles to overcome. Reject any activity or practice that won’t lead to a better story.

Fail when the consequences are small. I first heard this phrase from a college professor. The idea is that failing and learning from the failure early in life is better than when the consequences are larger. For instance, it's better to learn the consequences of lying to others when you're 16 and it involves your high school teacher than when you're 46 and it involves your spouse. It's one thing to make a budgeting mistake in planning an event when you're a volunteer or an intern; it's something very different when you're the executive pastor. Make mistakes when you're young so that you can be wiser when you're older. This is a great youth ministry principle too--allow students to fail now and learn from those mistakes so they won't make the same ones when they're older and the consequences are more significant.

Own failures and take responsibility. Hearing really lame excuses from young leaders does not add to their credibility. I heard a story once about an intern who would continually be late to meetings and events, or simply not show up at all. His girlfriend defended him to the pastor, saying that he just wasn't good at keeping calendars or following up on details, that the pastor shouldn't be so hard on him. Having your girlfriend rationalize your mistakes isn't a sign of building character. When you screw up, own it. Apologize. Take responsibility. Do everything you can to make it right. Learn from it. And don't send your girlfriend to fix your problems for you.

What mistakes have you made recently? How have you grown from that experience?

This is part 3 of a week-long series on young leaders in the church. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here.


  1. Really enjoying all these post on young leadership, particularly this one about failures. Something this post got me thinking me about is the importance for a young leader to have someone walk alonside them both when they fail and succeed.

    Although it is rough when we fail, I found it a lot easier to learn from those mistakes or failures when someone who has been through the trenches as well, helps point out things that we can learn from those failures.

    As a young guy trying to learn to be a better leader I am very thankful for the older leaders I have in my life to walk alongside me and mentor me through my failures and the things I succeed in.

  2. @Gus, awesome insight and definitely a great thing to have mentors with young leaders. (Spoiler: mentoring has to do with Value #5!). Also, I love ya. There, it's on the internet, for the world to see.