There’s a fear that’s crippling our call to discipleship today: The fear of failure.
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.
In today’s first reading, we hear about God’s work in our lives and how it is by His grace that we overcome our faults and our failures. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul lays his own life out before us, yet again, as an example of how we must become apostles of Christ, spread His Gospel, and renew ourselves in Him.
Last of all, as to one born abnormally,
he appeared to me.
For I am the least of the Apostles,
not fit to be called an Apostle,
because I persecuted the Church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.
Therefore, whether it be I or they,
so we preach and so you believed.
(1 Corinthians 15:8-11)
St. Paul persecuted Christians until he heard God’s voice calling him to open his eyes and recognize Christ. He was like us—sinners in a constant battle between temptation and living out the Gospel message. And yet, St. Paul was knocked off of his horse and raised to new life in Christ. He does not attribute his new life and his faith in Christ to his own willpower, but rather recognizes that it is through the grace of God that he is able to enter into the Body of Christ. It is through the grace of God that he is able to preach the life of Christ. As he says so poignantly: “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
These are important words to live by. We are often caught up in the traditions, stereotypes, struggles, and joys of our earthly lives. What truly grounds us in our humanity and in our faith in Christ is that, by the grace God, we are who we are. God gives us the grace to go out into the world and evangelize, to spread the Gospel, to live as Jesus taught us. However, by nature of our humanity and by the gift of free will, we have the choice to live as we want to live, to sin, to grow in faith, to make war, to make peace. We, guided by the Gospel and the Church, are called to ask God for the grace to evangelize, the grace to resist temptation, and the grace to live as Christ lived.
We are first opened up to the grace of God through our baptism, a topic discussed in Tuesday’s blog post. We enter the waters of baptism and die to sin, arising to new life in Jesus Christ. In this sacrament we are called to live out Christ’s Gospel message. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Receiving the grace of God is not a one-time thing, we must continue to seek it every day and renew ourselves in Him. It is not a one-time thing and it is not easy, but we have the beautiful example of Mary the Mother of God and all the angels and saints and we must rely on their strength and their intercession in asking for God’s grace.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said , “Mary was not full of grace because she was beautiful; she was beautiful because she was full of grace.” Who better to ask for help than a woman so blessed with the grace of God that she carried His son in her womb for nine months, watched him grow in his ministry, and sat at his feet as he suffered and died for us? The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, tells us that “…in suffering with Him as He died on the cross, [Mary] cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls. As a result she is our Mother in the order of grace.” It is important to examine our consciences and call to mind our sins, asking Mary to intercede for us. We pray that we might be given God’s grace to live our lives as Christ did, to go out and preach the Gospel in the example of St. Paul, and to lead others to Christ.
Nicholas Shields is a young professional from Washington, D.C.