A few months ago, the associate pastor search committee at my church—of which I am a member—began the process of meeting to find the new addition to the church staff; in effect, leading to the end of my interim position as college ministry director. I have been working toward my own demise as a member of the staff. All interims know that a pink slip has been filled out for them from the first day that they started, but my scenario is a little different than most. I was a member of the church and in the college ministry before I was chosen to become its interim director. I had been picked to be on the committee before I took this position, but, due to unforeseen circumstances, the committee had been stalled for more than a year. Now that the committee is up and running, I find myself in a rather peculiar situation, one that forces me to reflect on the last couple of years as an interim college minister.
I inherited a ministry that had gone through two transitions in less than a year. The original director, who began the work, had, over a three-year period, built it up to about fifteen to twenty young adults, including myself. He was offered a job at a another church and a free ride to seminary and with a family of four—with one on the way—he could not pass it up. The torch was passed on to another member of the group at the time, and he inherited about half of the original group; the other half were casualties of the ‘cult of personality.’ He was director for seven to eight months before he, too, went to seminary. At that time, I was the oldest member of the group and, though I had some hesitancy about taking over, I felt a sense of responsibility for the group and a desire to keep it going since they had become a kind of family to me. After a short interview process, I was offered the job and thus began my stint as interim.
The next year-and-a-half to two years was a comedy of errors in my mind. I admit that I had some high hopes of bringing in new people to the group and working towards rebuilding the ministry in the beginning, but, about six months to a year in, I became discouraged and developed a more cynical understanding of my role. I was largely unsuccessful in bringing more people into the group and–on the occasion I was able to–one of the other group members left or the person I brought in would not be consistent, eventually dropping off the grid. I started with maybe six to seven consistent people and, currently, there are only about three. I never felt particularly qualified to do a good portion of the job, like preaching, which I did up until this last September. I also was not able to make sufficient inroads into the local community college either. The times I would try to do so, few, if any, showed up. As much as I love the people that are still sticking around, I have struggled with general feelings of failure and inadequacy at my job. The people in the church have been supportive, but that does not always allay the internal judgments that I place on myself.
I began to view this position as being the guy who would, in the end, either keep the group on life support or, ultimately, pull the plug and see its decline and death. It sounds defeatist, I know, but it was a truthful recognition at the time. I cannot say that I have totally recovered from that position, some days are better and filled with hope and others are worse. For a guy who had succeeded academically, received his masters degree and had been satisfied with his abilities as a teaching assistant in grad school, this ministry work was looking a lot like complete failure, and there was absolutely no way for me to keep that inadequacy from being internalized.
Of course, this sort of experience is in no way limited to church work or ministry. All of us deal with failure in some way. Whether it be the blue collar worker who, no matter how hard he works, cannot stem the tide of debt and is unable to support his family or the woman who feels inadequate in the face of her husband’s philandering or the teenager who is pressured and fails to make it into their first pick for college or get that athletic scholarship. Failure is universal.
One of the inevitabilities of being on a search committee has to do with interviewing potential candidates and, as you might imagine, the questions I am responsible for asking are the college ministry ones, since that will be a significant focus for the new associate. However, asking those questions also entails giving background and an accurate depiction of what has taken place with the group from its beginning to its time under my direction. And that means I get to recall and describe and explain my failure afresh for each interview, in front of the same seven or eight witnesses. Then comes the glimpse of the slow death of self over and over and over and over. Instead of escaping those feelings of failure and inadequacy, I’m forced to relive them with every interview.
In the midst of this ongoing existential crisis the voice of Kirsten Dunst’s character, Claire Colburn, in Elizabethtown comes screaming into my brain, the scene where she is confronting Orlando Bloom’s character, Drew Baylor, about the dark shadow of his failure at becoming the wunderkind of shoe design. He is unable to let go of it and dwells on his ‘fiasco’ over and over again. At a pivotal point she offers this:
So you failed. Alright you really failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You think I care about that? I do understand…You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.
Failure, I have slowly come to understand, has a way of revealing the judgment of my own self-imposed laws, not to mention the sin which is exposed by the Law. It has a way of stripping me of what I so strongly hold tight to, what I really love and desire; all of which is misplaced. The recognition and acceptance of failure is a stroke that makes clean the innermost parts, to reword Proverbs 20:30. In failure, I have begun, slowly, to come to know a great, albeit painful, freedom. In the ruins of failure, I find hope in the death of my definition of success.
And Jesus speaks to me: “You failed. Alright you really failed…but you know what? You think I care about that? I do understand. You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. You have the freedom to fail, because I succeeded for you. I took all of the judgment, all of the punishment on myself. And I did not, and I will not, fail. In me, you will make them wonder why you are smiling. ”
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I think I’m finally beginning to understand what the Apostle Paul was talking about in that verse. While the refrain of ‘failure is not an option’ in my head may not have stopped, it has started to sound increasingly silly. Failure is a very real and inevitable option. One that, these days, is following me around constantly. It is always an option. But maybe, just maybe, failure is also the beginning of hope.