Let me just say, this is hard as Americans. We love success. We’re taught from a young age to dream it, pursue it, seize it. We value success stories; we want to have a greater impact, to change the world, to maximize results. If we can achieve this in our faith and ministry, even better, right?
Well, maybe. This might be the message written into the American narrative, but it’s not necessarily the Gospel. Our assumptions start sounding odd alongside the Beatitudes Jesus gave his followers, and his promise to the disciples foretelling persecution and rejection (Mt 10:16-23).
Moreover, St. Paul claimed to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (2 Cor 12:10), and even instructed the Thessalonians, “to aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands” (1 Thess 4:11). St. Paul’s suggestions are not exactly the keynote themes we have come to expect at most high-energy church conferences these days.
Not surprisingly, we are simultaneously inclined to relish the failure of others. As much as we love the success of a celebrity, we equally revel when the mighty fall. When this happens to church leaders, we assume they are fakes, phonies, or just not very gifted.
What doesn’t easily capture our imagination is the struggle that happens in between — the daily living and dying to self that occupies the majority of time and energy in pastoral ministry. Resolving petty conflicts, preparing talks for kids who probably don’t care, assisting the odd homeless woman who keeps knocking at the door — if only we could eliminate these distractions and move on to the real work of the Gospel! Meanwhile, we eat up sensationalized stories of success and failure in an escape from what is real, and ultimately, redemptive.
Success and failure actually have less to do with the size or location of a church than what values and expectations shape the content of our discipleship. When we inadvertently conflate American pragmatic principles for Gospel virtues, we risk making disciples who measure their faithfulness by a standard of fruitfulness foreign to the Gospel, thus creating a ministry model unhealthy for our souls and our churches.
Failure is not fun or romantic. It’s not something to rejoice, or even proof of our faithfulness. But it prepares the ground for fruitfulness. Fruitful soil is rich with dead and decaying stuff — our failures — that ultimately make us ready to plant the seed of the Kingdom of God. Recovering a “theology of failure,” as Pope Francis and others have spoken of, may be an important step for renewing our Catholic imaginations and acquiring the heart of Jesus.
In order to “ready this soil” there are a couple of things we can do to change the way we think about and approach our daily ministries.
Ministry is a Process, not a Product
When we measure a ministry’s effectiveness, we often desire quantifiable results steadily increasing along a straight line on a graph. There’s definitely a place for this kind of analysis in running a church or ministry. But doing God’s work often follows a slow progression passing through unanticipated hills and valleys. We look at a person’s life and say, “Here’s where Jenny lost her job and had to cut back time and money at church, but here’s where her small group members provided babysitting and cooked meals.” The Church and her members rise and fall by the logic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not by the laws of the stock market.
Seek Balance, not Efficiency
When we elevate efficiency above balance, disciple making resembles an assembly line that aims to produce predictable outcomes in the shortest amount of time. One corrective measure we can take is to remember to keep holy the Sabbath. Is our ministry bringing us peace of soul, or are we burned out and burdened with too much stuff at church? It’s possible we need to pursue more effective systems or strategies, but maybe what we really need is to recover rest in God’s redeeming love.
Share Stories of Redemption
In the gospels, the opposite of failure isn’t success, but redemption. Pay more attention to stories of redemption than stories of outward success. I love the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a 20th century monk and martyr who lived amongst the Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert, sharing in their daily joys and struggles while representing the love of Jesus. His story and spirituality inspired others, but only years after his death (see his Prayer of Abandonment).
As part of our task for the New Evangelization, I suggest we revisit what we call success and failure and begin pursuing ends not so focused on winning in a religious market, but embodying the example set by our savior, Jesus Christ. In some way, I think we come closest to understanding our ministry in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, i.e., when we are in the valleys our world labels “failure.” In these valleys, we throw ourselves upon the power of the Resurrection, knowing we cannot rise again on our own.