Last year, the Golf Channel started a new series called “School of Golf.” For each of the first 12 weeks they interviewed some of the most famous golfers such as Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Norman, etc. Each week, the host asked each professional the same question, “What is the best advice you ever got as a player?” The answers ranged from technique to strategy to philosophy and even character formation. It was very insightful.
Over the years, I have learned a lot from other clergy leaders. This blog starts a series on “The Best Advice I Have Been Given” as a clergy leader. My hope is that each of these blogs will help you in your ministry, and I also hope that they will provoke some reflection on your own leadership. Let me make this clear. This is not my wisdom. None of this is original with me. This is the wisdom and advice passed on to me by both mentors and fellow clergy. They are not presented in any particular order, but I want to start with this one.
“As a leader, eliminate the word ‘failure’ from your vocabulary.”
I have heard and read this expressed in several different ways, but the most helpful came from Pastor Bruce Larson when he was Senior Pastor of University Presbyterian in Seattle and I served St. Luke’s Parish there. Here is the story he told me that lead up to this advice.
When he was called to become the Pastor of this large and prestigious congregation, he was intimidated by the call. He was known as an author and teacher for his work in pioneering the small group movement. However, he had never served as pastor of a large church and worried that he just was not up to the challenge. One morning at breakfast, he was continuing to discuss this call with his wife and his reluctance to receive it when his teenage daughter looked up from her breakfast and surprised him with a question. “Dad,” she asked, “What are you afraid of?”
He asked what she meant, and she went on to ask him what he thought was worst thing that could happen if he took the call. After thinking about it for a while, he responded with how he could mess up badly, fail, and be asked to leave. “So, then what would you do?” She went on.
He thought for a while and then said that probably he would find something else to do and life would go on. Then she finished the surprising comments by observing that “Then you would write a book about what you learned so you wouldn’t really be a failure after all would you?”
He told me that she started off to school leaving him pondering the wisdom of what had just come from his daughter. “I have since learned to eliminate failure from my vocabulary as a leader. Leadership is about being effective and the best way to become more effective is to see your work not about success or failure, but about effectiveness. If I see all my experiences as an opportunity to learn, then no matter what I face, or what happens, if I learn from it, I will grow as God’s intended leader.”
I took his words to heart. This does not mean that I haven’t had my share of failures in life both professionally and personally. I am, after all, a sinner in need of God’s grace. But as a leader, I have learned that whatever God puts before me is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Of course, we often learn most from our failures, but I think this an overstated principle. I know plenty of clergy leaders who seem to have learned nothing from moments of failure but to think badly about themselves. The problem is that this does nothing to enhance one’s effectiveness, and low self-esteem undermines the essentials of good leadership. I do know this, being a leader who is willing to learn from whatever comes my way has given me freedom and moments of grace.
When something doesn’t seem to work, when the challenges seem overwhelming, when I hit another wall, or when my best and most creative ideas seem to go nowhere, I try to stop and ask myself, “Well, what did I learn from this?” Take my advice, stop seeing your calling and vocation as a matter of success or failure, and you will grow more effective as a leader! Besides, in a community whose leader ended his ministry on a cross, success may not be the goal.