Failing Forward

How do you create a safe place to fail?

We are not a culture that tolerates failure.

From a young age we are constantly encouraged to be the best.  Whether it be our workplace, academic setting, or sports team, we are given high, almost  unattainable expectations of success.

This even happens in our churches.  Often people are given leadership roles with unattainably high expectations with little training or support.  Then when things don’t work out, these people are nearly ostracized for not succeeding in their respective program, ministry, event, etc.  Our youth are not immune to seeing this in our churches.

This is an unfortunate commentary on the state of our culture and church.  Shouldn’t the church be the one place that people are allowed to fail?  The church should be a place where people can explore their spiritual gifts and abilities in an atmosphere of support and encouragement.

How can we implement this in our youth ministries?  Do you allow students opportunities to fail?  In my experience when students are allowed to fail, there are innumerable teachable moments that occur.  Students are not accustomed to failing and they usually handle it awkwardly.  They tend to immediately get defensive and begin to make excuses.  But what if we taught students to acknowledge their failings and teach them ways to cope and move forward.

This skill can be even more useful to parents, as they will insist on protecting their children from the possibility of failure.  This is understandable but can potentially hinder students more than help them.  Perhaps it is more beneficial to teach students (and parents) to accept and power through failure in a safe and nurturing environment.

How can you provide this type of environment in your youth ministry?

1) Provide opportunities for meaningful leadership.  I use underline italics to emphasize meaningful.  Real leadership is more than “You decide where we get the pizza tonight” or “Should we get red or yellow water balloons?”.  It is important to give students meaningful leadership opportunities that carry weight and, more importantly, consequences.  Consider allowing students to decide on and contact a list of adults for events and ministries.  Consider allowing students to decide on themes for ministries (not just design a cool tshirt) and encourage them to lead devotionals informing the theme.

2)  Allow failure to happen.  As unnatural and awkward as it can sometimes seem, allow students to experience failure.  It is important to understand how to frame failure to students.  Failure can take many different forms and intensities from something minor like forgetting to call an adult volunteer to more major moments like forgetting to call and order t-shirts for a huge outreach event.

3)  Teach to fail forward.  I’ve had many mentors throughout the years teach me the concept of failing forward.  John C. Maxwell even has a book with the same title.  The concept of failing forward emphasizes the discipline of learning from our mistakes, refusing to dwell on our failure, and resolving to move forward.  When students fail, it is important that you be sure to put on your ” youth minister” hat for this process.  If we look at these failures with our “event director” hat, we may lose sight of the overall goal of our youth ministry.  Sit down with students individually or in a small group and talk through what worked and what didn’t.  Identify the decisions that were made that led to the moment of failure and help the student to understand how their decisions affected their effectiveness.  Then talk about ways to correct these decisions in the future and resolve to move forward together in love and support.

What personal experiences have you had in your ministry of failing forward?

Have you ever counseled a student or adult through the process of failing forward?  How did you feel during the interaction?  How did they react?


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