Richard Rohr often states that we learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes, a claim that he applies to our personal journey in life and with Jesus. But it also has bearing upon leading the church on mission. Christian leaders often enter into ministry with a theological worldview that is shaped by a theology of triumph. The common assumption is that the goal of the missional leader is to lead people from one triumph to the next. As a result, leaders pursue success, action and control. They set vision, analyze current realities, and then establish strategies. This is a model of leadership shaped by the Enlightenment paradigm of scientific predictability. In this paradigm, there is no room for suffering, no room for failure, only triumph.
Mission can be, and is often led from a theology of triumph. Leaders know the mission of God. Leaders strategize the mission. Then leaders implement the mission. And as a result, mission is done as if God does not exist. Again the Enlightenment paradigm shapes how we think and act.
One church leader told me that her pastor caught a vision for missional life. He bought a few books, passed them out to his key leader and they set out a strategy to make this vision work. He attacked it like he had done all of the other previous church strategies in the past. And he assumed that he could succeed in like manner. All he did was add a ton of stress to his leaders.
In contrast, we must ask an alternative question: Is it possible that the way one discovers the mission of God is through what the “modern” control paradigm would label as failure? Whether through the struggles of unjustified attacks by parishoner, transitions that come as we engage people from different cultures, or the fact that our preaching is no longer connecting with people, we are faced with realities that we cannot control. And as a result, we cannot avoid failure. Instead of moving from one success to the next, we discover the reality of the mission of God in our context and in the current time through failure. Because failures train us to ask different questions, as opposed to relying upon all that we have found successful in the past.
Failure and suffering paves the way for leaders to enter into the life of God. “God is love,” and love is defined by the suffering of Christ. Self-sacrificial love is the way of God. That which the Enlightenment paradigm would call failure is how God’s character is manifest.
This is not to glorify suffering or failure for its own sake. Nor is it a rejection of success. It’s simply a redefinition of success, as it recognizes that the resurrection comes on the other side of the cross and applies that principle to leadership. We discover the mission of God, and thereby enter into one’s local context in this specific time with the appropriate action. While not predetermined or planned action from a boardroom within the church, this action is discovered along the way, as the people of God engage their local context, embracing the suffering that comes as a result. We fail their way into mission.
Failure and suffering creates within leaders a sense of urgency because failure paves the way to die to what we think we can do in mission. Entering into an experience of death generates a hunger for something new, and in this place leaders discover new ways to engage and generative ways of leading others to engage.
Photo Credit: Psalm 73:26 Christian Photo Files Free | Free Photo Files