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Failure as Christ-Shaped Leadership

It is stunning that books that present Jesus as a model for a CEO, lead pastor or community organizer ever leave the shelves. After all, Jesus was killed. Moreover, his best workers abandoned Him in His hour of need, left the project incomplete and ran for the hills. What CEO wants that?

In the previous reflection on Christ-shaped leadership, we saw that the most startling thing about Jesus’ ministry is that it ended in failure. Moreover, this failure is not the kind that we can forget or relegate to the past. It is intrinsic to Christian faith and forms an indispensable part of the distinctive Christian logic of death-resurrection, which itself is embedded in core Christian practices.

Failure is at the heart of what Christian leaders have to offer the world.

Leaders who want, therefore, to cultivate a Christ-shaped background must build or develop practices that teach us how to fail. Of course, in an important sense, the tradition of “confessing our sins” in worship is the practice of failure par excellence: we learn from regular confession that the rhythm of human life entails repeated, ineradicable failure before God and neighbor. We do not confess once and for all but repeatedly ‒ week after week after week.

Yet we need to do considerably more than rely on worship settings or confessionals alone. We must think about inscribing the reality of unavoidable failure into the DNA of our institutions.

Consider from the medical world, for example, the practice of weekly M&M ‒ “morbidity and mortality” ‒ conferences at academic hospitals around the U.S. In these gatherings, physicians candidly discuss their failures. There are no reporters and no lawyers involved. The speech is frank talk about the fallibility of the past week ‒ surgical mistakes, trauma care misfires, basic errors of judgment and the like.

Such fallibility is not treated informally, as if the surgeons were gathered for a cup of coffee, but is instead processed corporately and with professional accountability. Cases are presented, questions are asked, responsibility is assumed, and efforts to eliminate the cause of error are made.

Of course, there are those who question the overall effectiveness of these meetings. But as Atul Gawande observes in his book Complications, “The very existence of the M&M, its place on the weekly schedule, amounts to an acknowledgment that mistakes are an inevitable part of medicine.”

The M&M conferences, that is, institutionalize the recognition of failure as something that is intrinsic to medical work. Doctors are not simply left on their own to develop a sense of their individual successes and mistakes; they are actively taught that their profession is one that regularly fails.

Christ-shaped leadership should recognize the necessity of practices, such as the M&M conferences, that routinely acknowledge the reality of failure. Yet unlike the M&M conferences, which address failure in only one significant area of life, Christian practices that teach us how to fail will need to reach much further.

This is so not only because we must address the reality of nonculpable failure ‒ we frequently fail not because of moral or avoidable technical error but because things out of our control just “go wrong.” It is also because Christianity is a total way of life, whereas medicine is not. Christians therefore need to think of failure as intrinsic to life, not simply to this or that sphere of action.

Precisely because failure covers the whole range of life, it is hard to name particular practices that we should develop to teach us about failure. But three essential practices must be in place for us to learn about failure.

The first is forgiveness. It may seem strange to say that forgiveness precedes failure, but it is the truth. In a very deep sense, the degree to which we admit failure depends upon the degree to which we already know we will be forgiven.

As sociologist Charles Bosk says in his book Forgive and Remember, on the way medical culture deals with error: “It is undeniable that a ‘name, blame, and shame culture’ discourages an open discussion of error.”

Indeed, the absence of forgiveness can create a debilitating sense of the need to cover up failure or reduce its effects. Why? Because without forgiveness, we are afraid of what will happen when we tell the truth about failure. Failure without forgiveness frightens us, and in our fear we learn to lie.

The second practice necessary to teach us about failure depends upon the first. It is the practice of truth telling. Seeing failure requires knowing the truth about things. Until we know the truth, we cannot see failure for what it is.

Think only of the way our politicians learn and then teach ‒ both by example and by coaching ‒ how to avoid political repercussions by avoiding the truth. Or how ministers learn to tell the story of their dying congregations in terms of cultural loss rather than facing the truth of their ineffectiveness. Or how leaders of faith-based organizations can discuss pressing stewardship issues with language that avoids the word “money.”

Knowing forgiveness as a way of life frees us to tell the truth about failure and, in turn, teaches us how to see it.

The third practice involves developing means of repair.

Forgiveness enables us to see failure and to tell the truth about it, but we still need to heal, to learn how to do better next time and, where possible, to work toward eliminating the causes of error. Moreover, developing means of repair increases our experience of the power of forgiveness and therefore our willingness to tell the truth.

The regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous are an example of a type of repair. Not only do the alcoholics who attend come to a place of healing; they also learn there how to practice telling the truth in light of the deep understanding of forgiveness that grounds the entire movement.

The ritual that surrounds each instance of speaking in the meeting, for example, involves an anticipated group welcome that allows both newcomers and regulars to introduce themselves as the help-needing people they are.

“Hi, I’m John and I’m an alcoholic” opens each person’s intention to speak. “Hi, John!” comes the communal response. Imagine how “Hi, I’m an alcoholic” would be welcomed in virtually any other context and it’s easy to see how the power of the anticipated response frees the speaker to name his problem.

The Lord’s Prayer closes each meeting: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is part of the basic language that teaches AA members what they need to know to forgive and be forgiven, to tell the truth about their failure and to enjoy repair.

St. Paul did not know of AA, though he would doubtless have lauded its work.

He did know, however, the truth about human failure and that repair involves recognizing that God’s forgiveness precedes our admission of deep damage and error.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul spends 14 chapters of detailed instruction focused on the remarkable juxtaposition between God’s action and our failure: “While we were still weak, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. … God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:6-8).

By the time Paul gets to his central admonition to the Roman congregation in 15:7, the readers of Romans have learned that they are forgiven sinners and have received “reconciliation” (5:11). Their failure, that is, is cast in terms of God’s response.

Consequently, when Paul tells them the truth about their community strife ‒ it runs directly counter to Christian life together ‒ they are prepared to hear it inside the welcome of forgiveness. By means of concentrating their attention on God’s remarkable grace, Paul has created the space for them to tell the truth about their failure. So begins the way of repair: “Receive one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).

Christ-shaped leaders must learn and teach others how to fail if for no other reason than failure will happen. It will happen because it is who we are.

But the good news is that by educating and being educated in failure, we can learn that we are already forgiven and that we can tell the truth ‒ and we can therefore begin repair.

The world hungers for and desperately needs institutions that practice forgiveness well enough to train us in failure, that tell the truth and that teach ways of repair. Without such institutions, it is, quite simply, difficult even to breathe.

This was first published in “Faith & Leadership.” Content from Faith & Leadership may not be altered or adapted, with the exception of minor edits required to make articles or multimedia content fit the formats of other publications. Changes that substantively alter the meaning of the original are not permitted.

C. Kavin Rowe
C. Kavin Rowe
C. Kavin Rowe is professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. His most recent book is "One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions" (Yale University Press, 2016). He is the author of two other books: "World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age" (Oxford University Press, 2009, paperback 2010), and "Early Narrative Christology" (de Gruyter, 2006, repr. Baker Academic, 2009). He has published multiple scholarly articles and co-edited "The Word Leaps the Gap" (Eerdmans, 2008) and "Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts" (University of South Carolina Press, 2010). He is on the editorial board of several international peer-review journals. Rowe has been a Fulbright Scholar, Regional Scholar for the Society of Biblical Literature, chair of the Society’s Southeastern Region New Testament section, president of the Society's Southeastern Region, and was elected to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas. He was awarded a Lilly Faculty Fellowship, a Christian Faith and Life Grant from the Louisville Institute, the John Templeton Prize for Theological Promise, the Paul J. Achtemeier Award, and a Distinguished Scholars grant from the McDonald Agape Foundation.

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