Legend has it that mapmakers used to mark unexplored territories with HC SVNT DRACONES: here be dragons. Fourteen miles feels a little like that. But for a brainy type like me, whose major sport in school was Academic Decathlon, it also feels like this:
Go find some magic this weekend, friends.
And for those of you running the MCM—you have my great admiration. Go Roy. Go Sean. And Go Shelly.
Seems like failure is everywhere these days. (And no, I’m not talking about Congress.)
Parenting blogs bemoan a culture in which kids are endlessly praised and competition and challenge are scrubbed out, and beg us to let our kids fail once in a while. Leadership journals talk about the perils of playing it safe in an organization. I’m on board with all that. The NEXT Church strategy team is meeting today in Minneapolis (I had to cancel my trip because of a pastoral emergency at Tiny), and part of the energy of that conversation is toward experimentation and risk—which opens us up to potential failures as an organization.
What’s often missing from these discussions is exactly how to do this. We need practices in our organizations, schools, churches, and families, moving us from a safe existence in which the sharp edges are sanded down to a culture that accepts failure as an inevitable and worthwhile by-product of doing new things.
Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric.
With a twist: “If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” I told every staffer, “you’ll be downgraded.”
Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.
The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things. Executive leadership has your back.
The last sentence is probably the key to the whole thing. I have a pastor friend who told me about a member of her church council, who told his colleagues, “We need to give Pastor S. permission to fail. She should be failing at least yearly; otherwise she’s not challenging herself or us nearly enough.”
I shared this at Tiny’s leadership retreat a few weeks ago, and we chuckled at the idea of having a quota (“OK, that’s your failure for the year!”)… but I hope a seed was planted, in my mind as much as anyone’s. I’m a first-born perfectionist Presbyterian, after all; my default is to see failure as just poor stewardship.
Back to the article. Seiken found it’s not enough for us to have one another’s backs:
With the team taking risks and being rewarded for doing so, we set to work institutionalizing the new culture, adding the day-to-day processes of a lean startup.
Our development team went Agile. We began formally recognizing staffers who took risks, such as the design director who landed several impressive applicants by replacing a traditional job posting with an infographic about the position.
Crucially, we redefined success. When our first foray into web-original video production, a safe, TV-type series called “The Parent Show,” launched to fairly good reviews, we resisted the temptation to declare victory. Instead, the team challenged itself to risk breaking the PBS mold by creating a truly YouTube-native show.
I’m fascinated by this agile stuff and have spoken to groups about how we might implement it in congregations. (Come to the Oasis in October!) We lean towards agile at Tiny. Rather than having committees, the session sees itself as “dispatchers” that help call people to specific ministries to get the work of the church done—whether it’s as individuals, folks working in pairs, or a task group that meets for six months and then disbands. It’s messy, and we’re still relying on the same people too much. But it’s so much better than what we had before, which was an organizational chart that listed 11 committees, many of which hadn’t met in years.
I just reviewed our church’s October newsletter, and for a church with a worship attendance that hovers around 50, I’m excited and nervous about how chock-full it is. In the next several weeks we’ve got a blessing of the animals, a congregational breakfast, a viewing of the Place at the Table hunger documentary, CROP hunger walk, a community-wide bone marrow registry drive and health fair… not to mention the groups and studies that are ongoing. It may be too much. In fact, some of these initiatives may fail. But the failures, we trust, are information that help us refine and pursue our mission. It’s encouraging to me that each activity has a different group of people at the helm. And each is excited and energized by the work they’re doing. So on we go.
This failure stuff really hits home, though, as we think about a capital campaign to upgrade our building. Our aging facility is starting to impede our ability to minister effectively among ourselves and in our community. The numbers we’re needing to raise sound doable but ambitious. It’s fine to fail on a small scale. But there is such a thing as a catastrophic failure.
I initially felt called to Tiny four years ago because I saw such potential in this little congregation. I still do. In those early days I kept saying to myself, “This place is going to take off or die trying.” And that was a theological statement as much as anything else. Yes, we have to be good stewards of our time, resources and legacy. But a church that doesn’t risk itself for the sake of the gospel isn’t much of a church at all.
I’m also very excited. Disney is supposed to be a great beginners’ marathon. The course is flat, the weather is usually mild, and it’s Disney, which means it will be well-run and entertaining. You have to finish in under 7 hours, which is very doable. My brother will run with me, and our whole family will be there for the biennial Florida sibling reunion, which will be great.
But it’s going to be hard.
It’s going to be hard physically. I did a half marathon in March and finished fine, but there’s quite a leap from 13.1 to 26.2. The half marathon was hard, but while I was doing it I never had the sense that I might not make it. By contrast, I remember seeing the course split around mile 12 and thinking, Oh heck no.
I’m also getting antsy. The training program I’m using doesn’t start until fall, so my goal for the summer is simply not to lose too much ground. But I don’t love the treadmill, and it’s hot outside. And I get headaches after I run in hot weather. (Which frankly is a potential problem on race day. It’s Florida.)
It’s going to be hard emotionally. I have many decades of self-talk to overcome about being the brainy one, not the athlete. My inner harpy tells me I’m slow and should’ve stayed with shorter distances. I remember the time I did the Turkey Trot with my mother while I was in junior high and came in last. Last.
Part of the emotional baggage is having a friend who was my age who dropped dead while on a run. I think about him often while I’m running. By all outward appearances, he was in excellent physical condition, not to mention naturally athletic (which I am not, and please don’t argue that point with me).
And there’s also Dad, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Unlike me, he did not exercise regularly, but still—I have half his genetics. (And yes, in terms of physical maladies, I’m much more likely to blow out a knee than to keel over. But hey, if you’re gonna catastrophize, do it RIGHT.)
And it’s going to be a logistical challenge. Honestly, carving out the time to train will be the biggest issue. Remember when I ran the half, my favorite sign along the course was “trust your training.” Well, you have to do the training in order to trust the training. By the time January 12 rolls around, if I follow the program, I will have run 500 miles.
Remember “factorial” in math class? It’s represented with an exclamation point and involves multiplying the number by all the other whole numbers less than it. So 5 “factorial” is:
5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120.
Well, Marathon! = 500.
That’s some intimidating math right there.
But that’s the math of life, isn’t it? Whether it’s changing careers, sticking with your marriage, raising kids, finishing grad school, relocating to a new city, the worthwhile stuff is hard. The worthwhile stuff is a grand mashup of physical endurance, emotional labor, logistics, and dumb luck… or grace if you prefer to call it that, and I do.
And of course there’s this:
So off I go.
Would love to hear your own stories of Life, factorial!
P.S. That Turkey Trot in which I came in last? I was the only one in my age group, so I got a blue ribbon. Importance of showing up? OK, universe, I get it.
Every third Sunday at Tiny Church, we have guest musicians come in and play for the service. Our accompanist plays the hymns and leads the congregational singing, but the guest musicians play music at the beginning and end of the service, plus two pieces in the middle.
This past Sunday, my fourth grader was scheduled to be the guest musician. She chose four pieces she knew well, and for a week prior, she practiced them to flawlessness.
And on Sunday… well, who can say how it happened. She’d been to three birthday parties that weekend and as an introvert was peopled out, perhaps. She was tired. She didn’t have a good breakfast. I don’t know. But she got an attack of stage fright the likes of which I’ve never seen in her. No pep talk could snap her out of it.
She is old enough to be aware of what I write here, so the details are between her and those of us in Tiny Church. Let me just say that she made it through the first piece beautifully.
Robert took her out afterward so she could compose herself, and I went right into the call to worship. It’s one of the most uncomfortable moments of ministry I’ve ever had. I wanted to be with her, but I had a job to do.
Since then she’s talked to her parents, her grandparents, and her piano teacher about what happened. We’ve laughed about the fact that no matter where people start, every last one of us concludes with the same expression: Get back on the horse.
Myself, I was flummoxed about the whole thing. What brought this on? Then I remembered playing The Baker’s Wife in a college production of Into the Woods. It was a fantastic experience, but very intense—several nights of performances, but with the same classload and homework as always. My worst performance of the entire run was when my dad was in the audience. My Dad was never one of those hyper-critical, impossible to please types. Still, I so wanted to do a good job that night. But my timing was off, my voice sounded terrible, and realizing this just made me sieze up even further.
Remember when I said intense? One of the RAs found me outside, crying uncontrollably between scenes.
So what’s a perfectionist raising a perfectionist to do?
I told her later that I wished I’d asked the congregation for a show of hands: how many of you have experienced stage fright? Or nervousness at doing something new? And let her see the sea of hands. Surely everyone would raise a hand, except people who a) are lying or b) have never challenged themselves.
It’s probably just as well that I didn’t do that, because it would’ve put her on the spot. Plus, I don’t think kids get it. They don’t get that adults had (and have) fears and phobias. Adults must seem so… competent to kids. Sure, kids see us lose our cool; they see us spill the cereal and scrape the car door against the garage. But mainly, they see us succeed. Hold down a job. Set a goal and meet it. Be where we’re supposed to be, more or less on time.
I read a lot of stuff about parenting, and of the many critiques of helicopter parenting—and there are many, and rightfully so—the most significant is that it doesn’t serve kids well. Children don’t learn resilience when we’re always smoothing things over for them. But I also wonder whether resilience gets built when children witness adults taking risks. I don’t mean stupid risks (no cooking meth in your basement). But I don’t mean cute risks either (taking a ballroom dancing class). I mean real, authentic, bowel-quivering risk.
Maybe just letting them in on the risks we do take would help. Every night at dinner, we do a modified examen with our kids—we all share our most and least grateful moments (framed as most/least favorite when they were younger). Often my least grateful moment is something in the news, or concern for someone who’s sick. It’s less often that I share about the rejection letter I received, or the withering comment that came when I stuck my neck out about something. But maybe those moments are important for children to witness.
Of course, parents should provide a sense of stability and security for their kids. We don’t want to come off as capricious. But the world our children are inheriting is a world of rapid change. The roles and rules are not spelled out. People who can conquer their own fear of the unknown, take risks, and shrug off disappointment will be much better off in life.
On Sunday I said to Caroline, “You were really scared, you tried something hard, and you didn’t die.” Let me be clear that I do not think she failed. But maybe children need to see us fail. Or more to the point, maybe they need to see us fail and not die.
I’ve got lots of blogposts percolating right now, but I’m still in re-entry mode from the conference, so those will have to wait until next week. In the meantime:
NEXT Church Blog Roundup — NEXT Church
Here is a roundup of posts about the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte. These give you an excellent taste of what that gathering was like. Presbyterians, mark your calendars for March 31-April 1, 2014 in Minneapolis.
This is a story that needs to be told more. At a recent rally in against budget cuts to family-planning services and against the proposed sonogram law in Texas:
In the shade of the Confederate Soldiers monument, a woman stopped midsentence and turned to her friend. “Did they just say he’s a minister?” Behind her someone muttered, “Why would a Christian be speaking here?”
Why was it so hard to believe? Rigby is one of the most outspoken progressive pastors in Texas, but he’s not the only one. Last fall more than 350 religious leaders, most of them Christian, signed a Texas Freedom Network (TFN) pledge supporting women’s access to contraception. Some of the same clergy, and their congregants, advocate policies supporting the poor, immigrants, and gays and lesbians; oppose the death penalty; and draw clear connections between their faith and protection for the environment.
“I think the religious Left unquestionably exists,” says TFN’s Ryan Valentine, who coordinated the pro-contraception pledge. “It’s just never been as well organized or as prominent in policy fights in Texas as the Right.”
I want to write more about this next week as it relates to the church, but in the meantime:
In fact, a series of studies by psychologists Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when people felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans with bigger potential rewards to more conservative plans, divulged more information, were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of blackjack, and were even more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.
In other words: you are likely to be even more creative than you were when you felt relatively powerless.
When you are in power, you can be more innovative because you feel more comfortable and secure, and less sensitive to, or constrained by, what other people think of you.
Some of those behaviors lead to positive outcomes, as I’ll talk about next week. But I’m also thinking about “too big to fail” and the incredible risks Wall Street took with our economy. These studies suggest these bankers were influenced by the myth of their own invincibility.