One of the most frustrating things I experience as a pastor is the way we as the church deal with failure. Unlike business, we cannot seem to let go of things when they aren’t working. If you do something once, it becomes a tradition, and God help us if we change or end it! This unwillingness to end an outreach comes from a place of love – we start programs and ministries to help people where we think they need our help, and when they work, we feel great. When the fail, however…we just continue doing that thing no matter how unnecessary it becomes.
I think there are few things that business models can teach us, but one aspect of business that we should embrace is the ability and willingness to let something end. It could be a product or a process – in the business world, if something is a failure, they admit it and move on. We in the church do not do that very easily. For us, if an outreach helps just one person, we consider it to be valuable – and for that one person, it is! The problem is that our resources are limited, and we need to be good stewards of what we have.
Jesus told a story about a man who had a fig tree that wasn’t producing, so he told the gardener to get rid of it. The gardener replied that he would do so if the tree didn’t respond to proper care that would be given over a specific period of time. Our ministries need to produce good fruits – we need tangible results. If that doesn’t happen, we need to cut our losses and put our money and energy into other work that is needed. This is really hard to do, so we often ignore our failures and keep on keepin’ on.
When I first came to the congregation I presently serve, I started – with the help of the local Conference of Churches – a ministry called “The Breakfast Club”. After about a year, we had four locations, serving about 150 kids. We would meet in a local church that was really close to the four middle schools in the district, make a hot breakfast, and do half an hour of Christian education. This worked really well for about 8 years – and then it didn’t. The school district started feeding all the children, and the lure of a hot meal no longer worked. So, we ended the program.
The response was interesting. “Our church is dying!” “We failed!” – among other comments – and panic set in among some members of our church and other participating congregations. No – we didn’t fail. We served hundreds of children and did a great job teaching them about God. We ended the program when it was no longer needed and turned our attention to other needs. Which is fine.
Real failure is when we aren’t loving or compassionate or welcoming. Real failure is when we cover up terrible crimes that damage people’s lives. We should focus on those kinds of issues and fix them – they are what define us as the church. Our ministries are temporary, and we should focus on what people need now. Do for others what they need now, and always keep in mind that the church is obligated to do good and stay away from doing harm. That is the definition of success. Peace.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary United Church of Christ in Reading, PA, since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).