Failure

Tyler’s story

Tyler (not his real name), while a student in seminary, was hired as pulpit supply in June of 2013 by the elders of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. The church had been without a pastor for several years and membership steadily declined from its peak of about 500 to just thirty-two, mostly women. The average age of SSPC’s congregants was seventy. Tyler had some training in church revitalization, so the elders encouraged him to develop a renewal plan Depressed womanin addition to preaching each Sunday and visiting church members.

As Tyler’s preaching ministry developed he spent more and more time with the people of Shelby Street Church. He says that it didn’t take long before the congregation fell in love with him. “Many considered me their son or grandson. They invited my wife and me for lunch or dinner in their homes.”

Tyler grew curious about why so many people had left the church. He figured there had to be more to it than the lack of a pastor. He met with members and asked lots of questions. Soon a pattern emerged. While many of the people he spoke to wanted to see the church grow and were willing to make changes, they saw the elders as resistant to change–one elder in particular. His name was Bob.

Bob, age 85, was a founding member of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. Besides serving on the Session, Bob was also the church historian. Many church members said, “This is Bob’s church.” Everyone knew he was the man in charge, regardless of who bore the title of pastor. At the same time, Bob was extremely generous with his financial gifts to the church. He gave more than anyone else. He once told Tyler, “What matters most to me is that my name be inscribed in stone for all the good things I’ve done for this church.”

Not surprisingly, members of the church had a problem with Bob’s leadership style. He controlled the Session and often took matters into his own hands without the vote of other elders. People knew that “you don’t argue with Bob.” It had been this way for decades. Bob often vetoed new ideas that would have improved the music on Sunday and ministries to children and outsiders. A large Presbyterian church in town even offered to hire a bilingual pastor to help the church reach the area’s growing Hispanic population. But Bob opposed the idea. His temperament rubbed people the wrong way. He was rash, abrasive, and opinionated. Anyone who tried to confront Bob fought a losing battle. Gradually, thanks to Bob (and the Session’s unwillingness to deal with him), the tone of the church became harsh and unloving toward the very people they were supposed to be reaching.

At first, Tyler tried to stay positive about the future of SSPC. “I thought I could sway the rest of the elders to vote as a bloc against Bob for radical change. But they didn’t want to rock the boat.” Tyler could see that the elders were spiritually and theologically immature. Many of them didn’t know the gospel or believe their own statement of faith. One elder told Tyler he never read the Bible and doubted its inspiration.

Finally, Tyler knew he needed to confront Bob or the church would die. He recruited a few people to pray. He even told the other elders of the church what he was planning to do, and asked them to pray. Tyler and Bob met for breakfast. Tyler shared what he’d gathered from observation and his interviews with church members. He said, “Bob, a lot of things have contributed to the decline of Shelby Street Church, but one thing sticks out above everything else: YOU. I love you and respect you as someone who has done a lot for this church. But as I’ve listened to people, two themes have emerged. You have a dominating leadership style, and you have flaunted your giving to the church in order to justify your control. People have left Shelby Street Presbyterian Church over these things. You need to take this seriously.”

Bob was in no mood to take Tyler seriously. “If it weren’t for me,” he said, “nothing would get done at our church. You are right, young man. I do feel entitled to control our church. You add up all the pluses and minuses, and you’ll see the pluses outweigh the minuses. No one in all my 85 years has ever confronted me like this. This is the end of the conversation.”

Tyler didn’t stop. “Bob, this is just the beginning of the conversation. You are the reason this church is declining. If you keep avoiding the issue we’ll need to take it to the next level of Matthew 18.”

“If you do that,” said Bob, “I will show up at church and make a scene and plead my case in front of the whole church. Just you wait. This conversation is over. I’ve never in all my life been so offended. Think of all I’ve done for this church.”

And with that Bob got up and left.

Bob resigned from the Session immediately. The Session responded by calling an emergency meeting. At that meeting the elders turned against Tyler. “What were you thinking?” they asked him. “We never wanted Bob off the Session.”

The elders now defended Bob as a man with a heart of gold. “You’re a young man. What you did was wrong. Bob is an older man and you shouldn’t have talked to him that way.” One elder said to Tyler, “Growing up is a bitch, isn’t it?” Tyler left the meeting in tears. Following the meeting the elders drove over to Bob’s house and reassured him of their love. They asked him to come back on the Session.

In the ensuing weeks, Tyler got the cold shoulder from the elders and their wives. Tyler tried to call Bob to talk things over. Bob’s wife answered the phone. She berated Tyler: “My husband has done so much for this church. You’re not even a good preacher. How dare you. You’re a prideful, arrogant man and you’re going to learn your lesson. We’ll try to forgive you but you better be thankful you still have a job here.” She didn’t let Tyler speak to Bob. The Session said to leave Bob alone. “What’s done is done,” they said.

The elders voted to release Tyler from his contract early. On the Sunday he preached his final sermon, many of the elders didn’t speak to him. By contrast, church members were sad to see Tyler go. One lady even dressed in black on Tyler’s last Sunday. She told him, “I know this is a hard day for you. You have blessed me so much. I’ve grown so much under your teaching.” Other church members spoke in similar terms to him, with tears in their eyes.

Tyler says he is still grieving, months after his dismissal. He is not the same person he was prior to taking the job at Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. He feels like he’s acting like “Mr. Teflon.” A friend told him, “I feel like you still have your armor on.” For some time Tyler didn’t sleep well at night. He would rebuke elders in his sleep.

But Tyler is learning the nature of forgiveness. He’s also learning the truth expressed in words from John Piper: “Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses, then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life you have.”

On Failure

imageI’ve been reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, America’s thirtieth president, written by Amity Shlaes. I didn’t know Coolidge experienced so many setbacks in his life. Shlaes writes,

[until] his death in 1933, Calvin Coolidge did confront challenges. The acres he inherited were so poor that the men in the Midwest laughed when they recalled it, more rock and hill than dirt. When Coolidge reached high school age his family sent him to school in Ludlow, twelve miles from Plymouth, and often he walked. Death visited Coolidge constantly; he lost his mother, probably to tuberculosis, the winter he was twelve; the ground was so frozen she could not be interred for weeks. Several years later, Coolidge’s companion and only sibling, Abigail, died suddenly and of mysterious causes. Young Coolidge himself was always so sickly that both his father and he worried that he might never complete his education. He was deeply shy and found it agonizing to meet even the adults who entered his parents’ front rooms. Adulthood brought more trials. Indeed, to an improbable extent, the chapters of Coolidge’s life after childhood are chapters of near failure upon near failure. Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921. As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders. Surveying the travails of the thirtieth president, some writers have suggested that those personal defeats are the essence of the Coolidge story. They err. Coolidge’s is not a story of “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.” For at every stage, Coolidge did push forward, and so triumph. Coolidge himself identified perseverance as the key to that triumph. “If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot see any way in which I would have ever made progress.”

What are the lessons we pastors can learn from stories of failure like Coolidge’s? I can think of at least five:

  1. The most successful people don’t ordinarily get there without a long record of mistakes, losses, and failed attempts. You’ve heard those famous words of the inventor Thomas Edison? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The absence of failure is evidence that one is not really trying hard to succeed.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. Nothing’s worse than a church leader who thinks s/he is invincible and unbreakable. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
  3. When we blow it, our church members see that we are human. The distance between pastor and people is often bridged by our failures. Especially when they hear us being honest about our mistakes and running to Jesus for forgiveness.
  4. Failure strips from us those stubborn tendencies of the flesh to look for contentment in this world instead of the next, to yearn for the praise of men rather than the praise of God, and to rely on our record instead of Christ’s.
  5. Failure helps us learn to reach out for the help of others instead of trying to do everything ourselves. We often fail because we’re trying to do something we’re neither gifted for nor called to do. Maybe we should have asked for help long ago.

What lessons have you learned from stories of failure–your own or that of others?