I recently led a seminar with a Zoom room full of ministry leaders.
I tried to inject some energy into the online atmosphere by asking everyone to “share an idea that has worked recently.” I hoped this would stimulate an upbeat conversation. I had my pen ready to write down all of the fruitful initiatives people shared.
I stared at the computer screen hoping someone would “unmute” and share the success of some novel idea that had worked. I waited, but nobody spoke up. Under crushing awkwardness, I waited some more. Finally, one lonely message popped up in the chat room. It simply read, “I can give you a lot of ideas that haven’t worked!”
In that moment, I commiserated with whomever was brave enough to admit it. They were more familiar with ideas that had tanked than had succeeded. Indeed, my idea of electrifying the relational atmosphere within the Zoom room had tanked, as well. As creative as I had envisioned the idea in my mind, it turned out to be a failure. What I intended as an “energy-infuser” just dragged more gloom into the room. I remember thinking, Well, Wes, that was a lame idea!
Have you ever thought that? Have you ever excitedly run your flag up the flagpole of ideas, only to have nobody salute? It’s not a pleasant experience. Sadly, many of us respond by going into protective mode. We vow to leave the practice of proposing creative ideas to the experts . . . those blessed people whose ideas always seem to work.
Failure Is Not Wasted Effort
As a pastor and clinical psychologist, I am aware that many people become adverse to ideas because their previous inspired efforts failed. They resort to living a safer life. Oh, they still come up with ideas, but they keep them to themselves. They resist putting their idea on the launchpad, fearing it will explode into another humiliating failure. I get it. I don’t blame them. There can be a lot of pain attached to failed initiatives. I’ve had my fair share of humiliation. But truthfully, failed initiatives can be highly valuable.
Look at the Old Testament record of redemption plans. None of the initiatives worked. Noah’s ark was unable to reconcile mankind with God. As a salvation initiative, the Ten Commandments fell short. All they did was further expose our sin. All of the “prior-to-Calvary” redemption plans failed . . . but they were not a waste of effort. They set the stage for the ultimate redemption work of Christ on the cross. The victory of Christ’s atonement is more glorious because previous redemption plans could not provide lasting salvation.
Failure Might Be Great Research
For a long time in my life, I dreaded the possibility of my ideas failing. So I played it safe and over-deliberated to the point of being afraid to take a risk.
However, when I began my doctoral dissertation research, I learned to change my view of “idea failure.” I discovered, with dismay, that my research did not support my hypothesis. I thought my research was a bust until my professor told me, “Research that proves your hypothesis wrong is far from a failed experiment, it is great research. You can benefit from and build on your findings.” Idea-failure was actually a positive. It pushed me toward a better outcome because I built on the knowledge gained from failure.
In my counseling practice, my goal is to get to the bottom of what is troubling whomever I am counseling. Often, I don’t know where to start. So, I just grab a shovel and start digging around a person’s thoughts. Sometimes I start digging in the wrong spot. But my efforts are not in vain. I say to myself, “Well, the problem is not here, let me dig over there!” Eventually, I find where the problem lies. In the clinical world, we call that discovery by “rule-outs.” We arrive at a remedy by ruling out remedies that don’t work.
As leaders, we are heading into another season of uncertainty.
We will discover, yet again, that many of our leadership ideas will fall flat. But let’s reframe those “lame ideas” as good research that will eventually lead us to ideas that will work—ideas that bring healing. The Ten Commandments were not a bad idea. They just didn’t work for redemption purposes. God intended for the idea not to work because he wanted us to esteem the unmerited salvation through Christ over a man-centered meritorious salvation.
Some of our ideas will fail. Some will succeed. We won’t know which is which until we attempt to execute them. But if an idea tanks, don’t shrink back. Instead, call it good research. If we build on lame ideas, they can lead to healing ideas.
“But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (Hebrews 10:39).