The Joy of Failure in Missions. Part II: Response

A. Failure has a strongly positive role… it can help us learn more about ourselves.

John Maxwell in Failing Forward, lists several common reasons for failure:

  1. Poor people skills. (#1 Cause) It’s about relationships.
  2. Negative attitude. Pessimistic, half empty. Can’t see opportunities… only sees problems.
  3. Bad fit. Find what you are made to do. I remember, years ago, a competition on TV where athletes from different specialties went head-to-head in certain sports or exercises. It was amazing how specialization can affect performance in areas of non-specialty. For example, the boxers were absolutely horrible in distance running. But to be fair, a gymnast would likely be horrible in boxing. The list could go on. Finding one’s proper fit is a lifelong journey with many missteps.
  4. Lack of Focus. Mental wandering. Poor planning. Not keeping eyes on the prize.
  5. Weak commitment. Quick to quit
  6. Unwillingness to change. Change is Good.
  7. Short-cut Mindset. It takes time. I had a boss who described a problem in business… the “Al Yagoda Syndrome”. The term comes from its symptom where a person likes to say “Al Yagoda do is…”. For those uncomfortable with American slang English… the problem is people who think and say “All you have to do is…” this or that. Even simple things are not simple. Maybe there are short-cuts in life… but you need to do things the hard way for a long time to learn where the real short-cuts are. There is a lot of truth to the old saying, “The devil is in the details.”
  8. Relying on talent alone. Child prodigies typically become adult mediocrities. 90% of geniuses are underachievers.
  9. Response to poor information. Douglas MacArthur noted, “Expect only 5% of an intelligence report to be accurate. The trick of a good commander is to isolate the 5%.”
  10. No Goals. If you don’t know where you are going, you can always get there. Joe Griffith says, “A goal is nothing more than a dream with a time limit.”

If we are ready to learn from problems, we will learn more about ourselves and gain a sense of direction for our own self-development.

B. The response to a failure is often more important than the failure itself.

TQM (Total Quality Management) says that one should seek to “delight the customer.” This is different from the old teaching that the goal was “customer satisfaction.” Why? Because customers EXPECT to be satisfied. If they are satisfied… so what? This is like Jesus talking about the servants who JUST do their jobs. Luke 17:10 “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Who cares? Doing their job is the baseline.

So what happens when there is a failure. I recall over 20 years ago I bought a computer system from a store (a CompuAdd 286SX… this will give some an idea of how long ago that was). I brought it home and set it up and the monitor was VERY dim. I could see things but just barely. I was shy about taking it back. I had a busy job that gave me little free time. I thought (foolishly) that if I play with the computer settings or knobs on the monitor, the monitor would magically start working. Eventually I decided to take it back. I expected to have to write a long report and try to convince them that I did not cause the problem. I took it in. They immediately took it and said, “We would be very happy to replace it. I am sorry that we don’t have an exact replacement in the store at this moment. Would it be okay if we give you this other monitor as an exchange?” That “other monitor” was a better quality, more expensive version, and they were willing to swap it at no cost. You know, I walked away a “delighted customer.” Failure is often an opportunity to delight others. Our response to failure often says more about our character to others than moments of “victory.”

In missions, I have made a lot of mistakes. Happily, my main mentor did not mind that I made mistakes (he WOULD mind if I kept making the same mistakes). Rather, he wanted to know that I had taken care of the mistake. I personally get very nervous when I talk to people who never make mistakes. Either they are making things up, or are selectively choosing what to relate. Neither one breeds confidence for partnership.

C. Good missions requires the “normalization” of failure. This sounds bad… but periodic failure is the normal, healthy outcome of taking risks. Nice poem:

     To laugh is to appear the fool

     To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

     To reach out for another is to risk involvement.

     To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.

     To place your ideas, your dreams, before the crowd is to risk their loss.

     To love is to risk not being loved in return.

     To live is to risk dying.

     To hope is to risk despair.

     To try is to risk failu

     But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothin

     The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, and is nothing

     He may avoid suffering and sorrow

     But he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love and liv

     Chained by his certitudes, he is a slave

     He has forfeited freedom

     Only a person who risks is free!

               -Anonymous, Quoted in “Family is Still a Good Idea”, H. Norman Wright

In missions, risk is needed, so accepting failure as a normal TEMPORARY outcome is good.

D. So… Risk, Fail, Correct, Learn, Grow, and Risk some more. This is should be a lifelong process.

The Joy of Failure in Missions: Part 1. Analysis

Image by ‘PixelPlacebo’ via Flickr

Key Point #1.  Failure Analysis is beneficial to us.

My father was a mechanical engineer whose expertise was in the testing and failure analysis of roller bearings. When I was younger, I was also a mechanical engineer. When I was working on my Master’s Thesis, I was testing pultruded GRP composites for creep rupture (don’t worry if the terms don’t make sense to you… it’s “engineer-speak”). When I would check my test rig, I would be so happy to find a failure. That is because that provided a data point for analysis. When it hadn’t failed, no data point could be plotted since the only conclusion was that the failure point was at a greater time than I had, thus far, tested. Discovering failure points helped me understand the material behavior better… and that better understanding should lead to better/safer use of that material.

I believe that we should find more joy in failures than we do. Not because failures are fun. Not that they should be sought. But failures should be risked. If we never fail, perhaps it is not a sign of God’s favor… but our lack of willingness to take risks. Or perhaps our lack of willingness to analyze.

Key Point #2.  Failure Analysis Takes Balance

I recall a medical mission trip to a mountainous area in Northern Philippines. After the trip we had a meal gathering and evaluation. The meeting started with “Praise God for the victory He gave us…” and “I am so thankful that…” and so forth. Since there were some definite problems in the trip, I said: “It is wonderful to hear all these great testimonies, but so that we can learn and grow from this trip, it would also be good to talk about problems and things we can do so that they don’t happen again.” This started small. A couple of mildly negative comments… and then it grew and grew into a waterfall of problems and accusations. Oops! I did not do a good job of ensuring balance. If we simply pretend everything was perfect, we will not learn. But if we only focus on problems and failures, we also won’t learn. There were great things that happened on that trip. One of the most awesome things about that trip was how successful the trip was despite the stunninging problems.  Balance is needed.

Key Point #3.  We Should NOT Be Too Quick to Label the Cause of a Failure

Failure analysis takes… analysis. Christians often don’t care to do this (does anyone like to do this?).  When a failure in Christian ministry occurs, IF it is acknowledged, it is often labeled with one of the following (this is not an exhaustive list):


  • -Doubt or lack of faith (they are not the same)
  • -Failure to persevere
  • -Lack of spiritual disciplines
  • -Sin


  • -Not God’s will
  • -Not His timing
  • -“God is testing us”        (always a fun one… great way to avoid learning)


  • -Human opposition
  • -Spiritual opposition

Most of these have examples in the Bible.  Lack of faith can be seen with Peter faltering while walking on the water. Sin can be seen in the siege of Ai. Lack of spiritual disciplines can be seen in the disciples’ attempt to heal a demoniac child.   Spiritual opposition can be seen in the messenger of God’s delay in the book of Daniel.  Most of the others have such examples.

But look at this… if all (or at least most) of these can be found in the Bible as actual causes of failure, then (at a minimum) these ARE A NUMBER OF POSSIBLE CAUSES OF FAILURE. So when a problem comes up, Christians should consider all of these.  That takes real analysis.

What happens when we don’t analyze at all?  We repeat the same mistakes.

What happens if we are too quick to label the cause without sound analysis? Well… Consider some specific risks of mislabeling:

a.  Lack of faith? If we think failure must come from lack of faith, there is the temptation to act without contingencies in our plans. Why? Because doesn’t contingencies demonstrate a lack of faith? (I don’t believe so… I believe contingencies demonstrates our lack of omniscience regarding the future and of God’s will… both quite reasonable areas of ignorance). But many think that Plan B means lack of faith in Plan A.

b.  Lack of perseverence?  (As well as “God is testing us“)  If we assume one of these stances we ultimately refuse to learn and adapt. We keep doing the same thing the same way thinking that eventually the obstacle will give way. But sometimes we should go around a mountain or wall rather than go over or through it (or change direction).

c.  Lack of Spiritual Disciplines?  This has become popular. If God doesn’t do what you want… pray harder and longer, fast, and so forth. Unfortunately, this tends towards a more magical understanding of God(s). We become like the priests of Baal who think they can impress god by being louder, moving faster, and harming themselves more. The Bible does not describe God as one interested in homeopathic magic. For example, the Bible portrays God as one who is pretty ambivalent about fasting. Fasting may have a place as a way of physically expressing sorrow, but Micah 6 and other passages show that God is more impressed by expressions of love and justice than of starving oneself.

d.  Not God’s will or God’s timing.  Being too quick to label a failure as proof that something was not God’s will, leads to a fatalistic passivity. Even if one takes the theological view that the sovereignty of God demands that He must exercise it through complete active control (I don’t), it still seems to me that one should be open to the possibility that it is God’s will to learn, adapt, and try again.

e.  Human or Spiritual Opposition.  Perhaps these are the most popular. We are rather uncomfortable blaming God… and we are often even more uncomfortable in blaming ourselves. Human (the “them” in “them or us”) and spiritual opposition are easy targets The problem here is demonizing. Opposition implies an external enemy. But, particularly with human opposition, we may learn to work with rather than attack. The Crusades ultimately failed not because of spiritual or human opposition, but because they constituted a bad plan, poorly executed, and selfishly motivated. Ultimately, the labeling of a failure as being from human or spiritual opposition, is saying “We refuse to analyze and learn because the problem is not us… we are on God’s side and must overcome this enemy.”

f.  Sin.  Labeling failure as due to sin can often lead to a “witchhunt”. One is reminded of the Salem witch trials that were motivated by failures in the community. When I was in the Navy, I had also seen how the military (at least in the US) dealt with scandal (a form of failure). The pattern was “cover up” followed by more “cover up.” If that failed, then “witchhunt” and then “more witchhunt”. In the military I believe this was more due to public relations and “spin” rather than an honest appraisal of the cause of failure. In Christian circles we often follow the model of Joshua in Ai, searching for the sin in the camp, on the presumption that that MUST be the cause..

Can these possible causes be an actual?  Absolutely. The problems listed above are what happens when proper failure analysis is not done. Proper analysis is needed to determine the actual, rather than desirable cause of failure. However,…

Key Point #4.  Failure Rarely Only has One Cause.

I love watching Air Crash Investigation (and similar shows). It is often discovered that there was a chain of seemingly unrelated events that led to failure. They understand that finding “a cause” does not mean that one has found “the entire set of causes”. We learn from finding the whole picture rather than finding one thing or person to blame.

Key Point #5.  Labeling the Failure is NOT Addressing It.

The book of James describes a person looking in the mirror and walking away forgetting what he saw. Analyzing a failure is the same thing. Just discovering the problem is useless unless it is remembered and dealt with.