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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Failure Avoidance
November 13, 2014

Last night I did something I have been doing for as long as I can remember – I played board games with my parents for a few hours. We did that a lot when I was a youngster, and often revisit the tradition when we get together. There can be only one winner, but the fact that we are more likely to lose than to win does not stop us from going at it yet again. We know that what we gain by enjoying each other’s company will far surpass what we lose by failing to win the game.

The church could stand to learn some wisdom from the world of game-playing. Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Future, suggests that game playing develops in us the resilience necessary to meet the real world’s biggest challenges and thrive. I recommend watching her presentation on Ted Talks as twenty minutes well spent. Three weeks ago she was keynote speaker at the launch of San Francisco Theological Seminary’s new Center for Innovation in Ministry, where she applied to Christian ministry her thesis that we gain far more by trying and failing and trying again, than by failure avoidance.

In my experience in the life of the church, suggestions to try something new will often elicit two dismissive rejoinders that inevitably lead to decline rather than to vitality: 1. “We’ve never done it that way before.” 2. “We tried that once; it didn’t work then and won’t work now,” or its common variant, “Been there, done that.” Let us briefly reflect on the second of these two rejoinders.

It was only after about a thousand unsuccessful attempts that Edison finally produced the light bulb. A reporter later asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” He didn’t try 1,000 wildly different things, but kept moving in the same direction with 1,000 course corrections.

Our resistance to trying something new is often an attempt to avoid the pain of loss. What if the new thing doesn’t work? Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam has the narrator famously concluding, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Do we really believe that?

Worse still, what if the new thing does work? If it succeeds, those who are invested in the old way will lose something, and those losses can be even more painful than failing at something new.

The apostle Paul kept trying new ways to fulfill his mission to proclaim the Gospel. He knew that as he did so some would misunderstand him, resist him, or even disown him, but he was willing to make whatever adjustments he could in order to maximize his effectiveness in ministry. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Back to game-playing – I am not suggesting that proclaiming the Good News is a game. Rather, I am holding up the tenacity of game-players in going back at it again even after they lose repeatedly. Every time they try again and lose again, they learn something that helps them do better next time.

One of the essential marks of God’s work in Scripture is that God is always doing something new. “I am doing a new thing” is God’s word to God’s people time and again, from the patriarchs to the prophets to the apostles to the eschaton. When God’s Spirit is at work among us, “doing a new thing” should be as natural to us as breathing itself.

Jane Rogers Vann, in her fine book Gathered Before God,recounts what she found when she began researching the common denominators in thriving congregations. Most of her findings are unsurprising – they experience transcendence in worship, they invest heavily in education, they are deeply engaged in mission, they are warm and welcoming to strangers, and so on. But one finding is unexpected: Members and leaders of thriving churches are significantly dissatisfied with their church’s current state of affairs. They love their church, but are convinced that their church can and should do better still – better in reaching out to others, better in making Christian disciples, better in worship excellence. They are always ready to try something new in their quest to be better. They fail often, but don’t stop trying new things on that account.

People who try new things together find that those quests create strong bonds between them. Game players grow closer to one another by virtue of playing together. They form clubs and societies devoted to nurturing their love for and proficiency at their game. Imagine a congregation that keeps seeking new ways to reach their community more effectively with the Good News. Imagine a presbytery eager to explore new ways of nurturing ministry together, rather than simply following old scripts. Imagine how their joy in stretching together for the sake of the Gospel could multiply. Just imagine!

Your playing partner,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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