The power of BLOGGING is the power of thinking in a moment, somewhere between a formal essay and an email chat. This space gives a chance to think out loud through what comes to mind in a given week. This New Years' week I actually find myself thinking about failure--about the ways I fail as a pastor and the ways the church fails as a church. Blame it on the holiday.
I remember the rabbi in Mitch Albom's memoir, Have a Little Faith (Hyperion, 2011). He was Albert Lewis. After visiting with Rabbi Lewis over several years in answer to the rabbi asking him if he'd deliver the eulogy at his funeral someday, Mitch found himself present for the teacher's final sermon. During that sermon, this rabbi who served his congregation for many years asked his people's forgiveness. He asked forgiveness for all he couldn't do. For the marriages that weren’t reconciled. For the sick who fell through the cracks. For questions answered poorly. And for more. This beloved leader, cherished by many, was asking the very people he served to forgive his failures.
Yet when I was being taught to be a pastor in seminary, and then again during the years I served on a divinity school faculty teaching others how to be pastors, I heard a lot of talk about success. We sought and rewarded excellence and discussed "cutting edge" ideas and techniques in ministry. It was professional education, meant to cultivate and form successful professional ministers. The teaching wasn't all bad. But it lacked the cultivation of failure, or at least any really good talk about it. There was some, but very little. And so I was taught, and taught others, that we should succeed in ministry--and that we can succeed in ministry if we just have the right techniques.
It doesn't stop in seminaries. Just as an exercise, a while back I took a year and saved every piece of correspondence I received in my office promising to give me the latest techniques for success in my ministry and create a successful church in tow. I collected a drawer full of brochures, postcards, letters, advertisements. It was a big pile. And not a single one of those things I saved promised to teach me how to fail well, or help my church faithfully understand that it is broken, incomplete, and only a small sliver of what it says it is called to be as Christ's church.
Yet in all my years of ministry I've known as much or more failure as I have of whatever might be counted success. And most of the good pastors I know would say the same thing. Even in the midst of ministry, there have been people who needed something that I either didn't understand they needed or lacked the time, resources, or courage give. There have been times when spiritual hunger has gone unmet, psychological pain untended, challenges held back, gospel not preached, chances to encourage someone to follow Christ missed, hospital beds not visited, prayers not powerful. There have been moments when I knew, and surely many I didn't know, when I didn't communicate God's truth in the most effective or faithful way. Things get forgotten or are done too quickly. Only so much gets done.
Our churches too, as they are more broken than they are whole, with conflict that confuses some and offends other, with timidity that frustrates some and satisfies others. Many priorities and desires collide in the same space and clamor for attention, and we often lack agreement about what it is we're really doing as a church. We all fail, pastor and people together--even in the midst of our successes.
Yet isn't this inevitable given our high hopes, the huge promises we make, and various ideals we each have for what the church and its pastors should be?
Success and skilled ministry is good. I'm not discounting that. But our rituals of confession, grace, and forgiveness must give us freedom to keep doing our ministry through both success and lack of success. Our patience with each other must give us time and respect enough to think about our differences and keep our ideals in tension with what's real. And most of all, we can accept our vulnerability and weakness as an opportunity to be more open to Christ, when we can be. For Christ alone is our victor, our success, and our teacher. His own ministry brought resurrection in what looked like failure. His own ministry was more favorable to the humble than the proud.
I ask forgiveness for my failures, knowing that there will surely be more failure to come. And I ask patience with my successes, knowing that there is always more to learn and do. And I ask the same for the church. This side of heaven we never will meet the ideals we hold dear, but that doesn't mean we will give up on the ideals. We can entrust our ideals to God, accept what is and continue to dream of what we are becoming. We can forgive, even as we continue to expect great and even miraculous things of God and each other.