When you look back at your life and reflect on the successes and failures of your past I find it helpful to use both as a trajectory toward a more productive experience for the future.
By “success” I am referring to fruit borne to the glory of God that expanded Kingdom influence. By “failure” I mean anything we initiated or participated in that did not bear any immediate, noticeable fruit. Failure can also be defined as when a paradigm, strategy of life, or ministry is no longer producing the results we set out to obtain.
On January 10, 2016 I celebrated 38 years as a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. I have served in official full-time church ministry since November 1980, which is a span of over 36 years. During these years I have been through many stages and cycles of ministry and have experienced both success and failure. I have learned the hard way to embrace failure as part of the normal process of learning; the older I get, the more experience I have, and hopefully the less intense lessons of failure I need to experience in my life journey.
Since Christ is the redeemer of all failure and sin, Christianity is replete with success stories and ideology that involve utilizing failure and even evil for good. Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50 that what they meant for evil God meant for good. James 1 tells us that we should count it pure joy when we fall into diverse tests because the outworking of these tests develops our character. Jesus’ suffering resulted in His glorious resurrection.
Thus, the Bible has a theology of success that can come out of any failure we experience, if we respond to God in faith and humility. Romans 8:28 teaches us that all things work together for good for those who love God. One of the greatest discoveries I have made is that I can’t lose as a Christ-follower. Even when I fail, I can seize failure as an opportunity for further growth so I can go to another level of success! Every situation and circumstance, no matter how difficult, can be redeemed for good!
The following are some reasons why failure can empower success:
Failure causes us to rethink our current paradigm of ministry
If scientists and innovators in technology treated failure the way leaders in ministry do, then scientific and technological progress would be stifled! Those in fields of research understand that for every failed experiment they are closer to proving or disproving their hypotheses. Failure in ministry or business has the power to get us to recalibrate how we operate and make us more efficient. Even the corrections in the market economy during the past several years are part of a normal cycle of allowing what really works to come to the fore and correct some of the systemic ills regarding our cultural business habits.
Failure can bring greater humility
God has used ministry and relational failure to bring me closer to Him and to rely on Him more for my well-being, identity and success. As a younger leader I could only reach a certain point of humility on my own based on Bible reading and private devotion. God had to use the fiery trials of life experience, that come through time, to work a deeper level of humility in my soul.
Failure can bring more compassion towards others
Struggles with my own children have given me more compassion with Christian parents who have their own family challenges. I have found that I have far more authority to speak and minister to people in the areas I have been the most challenged with, especially because my heart resonates with people who are going through the same battles I have experienced.
Failure can cause us to seek God more earnestly
The longer I am in church ministry, the more I realize that I will never get the results in our local church, network or public life without seeking God earnestly! I have found that when I initiate ministry—based on my own natural gifts and abilities to lead and strategize—then it is up to me to keep it going on my own strength! God is not obligated to empower that which He never willed to exist! The older I get the more I try never to get involved in anything unless it not only fits my purpose and mission but also comes out of a strong witness of God’s leading in the Holy Spirit during prayer and contemplation.
Failure can make us more interdependent with other key leaders
As a young leader I hoped God was going to use me to bring great revival to New York City. But several years into our young ministry I went to hell and back (figuratively) and experienced much suffering due to failures in my own key relationships and ministry. After several years of intense trauma I came out of these trials with an understanding of how much I need other leaders. This resulted in an intense desire to network key leaders and churches from around the city which gave birth to “All City Prayer” initiatives starting in 1991 in which more than 1,000 people and more than 50 churches and leaders would come together for a day of fasting and prayer for our city. That was followed by many other citywide initiatives too numerous to mention (read my book “Kingdom Awakening” for more on these initiatives). All of this was precipitated by my experiencing failure in multiple areas related to family and ministry.
Failure can make us more self-aware
One of the greatest lessons from failure is that it made me more aware of who I am and what makes me tick, when I am being driven by fleshly personal ambition and when I am being led by the Lord. Every time I experience failure I use it as an opportunity to self-reflect and learn how and why I did what I did.
Failure can become an empowering message of wisdom for other younger leaders
I spend a lot of time mentoring younger leaders. One of the most fruitful times I have in those sessions is when I am sharing with them areas of my failures and the reasons that led to them. Without these compelling stories I would not be equipped with the wisdom I need to encourage and exhort these younger, less experienced leaders.
Failure can force us to kick in our faith for God’s miraculous power
Zechariah 4:7 is more real to me today than ever before. Truly I have found that, when all is said and done, it is not by my power or might but it takes God’s Spirit to accomplish His will and purpose in the earth. Failure has taught me the vast limitations of depending on my natural gifts and abilities to minister in His Kingdom. When I hit a leadership wall and have no solutions, God reminds me that it is going to take faith in His ability to intervene and perform a miracle to accomplish His will!
Failure can force us to change our priorities in life
One of the greatest lessons I have learned in leadership is realizing that knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. I get numerous opportunities and invitations to minister locally, nationally, and internationally. If I took every good opportunity that comes my way (that fits my mission and purpose in life) I would lose my center of gravity and become less effective in my key relationships in family and ministry. I have learned that it is a huge mistake to equate mere activity with significance. Failure has helped shape my core priorities in life that are centered in seeking God, personal study, family relationships, and mentoring key and emerging leaders. Everything else has to take a back seat!
Failure can ground us more in reality and pragmatism
Often when we go from one successful endeavor to another we lose our sense of reality and begin to take things for granted (like doing due diligence before making important decisions and commitments to others). Failure shakes us up and brings us more to the ground level of how the world really operates. It can also be the impetus of acquiring more discernment.
Failure can cause us to construct better models for others to follow
Ultimately, every failure should become a building block for us to construct a better model of how we live and lead. It can force us to pause in this hectic world and grapple for balance and proper rhythm. It enables us to see what really works as opposed to what is an unworkable concept.
When new ministries or churches start and experience immediate success and church growth, it pains me to see the senior pastor becoming a mentor or coach before they know if their ministry model is sustainable over the long haul! For example, there are some pastors who have enormous church growth and are writing books and giving advice to a new generation of leaders, yet they lead local churches that are less than 10 years old. This is too early to tell if their model can withstand the test of time in regards to ministry burnout, leadership turnover, and multi-generational success in developing healthy families who will keep their children and perpetuate the faith. I don’t believe we can trust models and philosophies of ministry until they have experienced the fiery trials of failure and come out on the other side!
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