Why You Must Make More Mistakes

September 17th, 2009

My youth group has traditionally spent the summer months focusing on discipleship and missions—inner city Los Angeles, Mexican orphanages, new church plants in Alaska and Canada, as well as a children’s outreach in Medellin, Colombia. All have been wonderful experiences and have almost always spurred tremendous growth.

But one summer a few years ago I wanted us to make a change. Although it actually would have been easier to plan an overseas trip, I took a risk:Could I motivate and generate excitement among my kids to give their summer to making a difference in our own backyards? Something simple yet revolutionary—and much less exciting on the surface? I knew some students would resist and bag on the idea. Again I wondered, “What if this thing flops?”

Our church is located in the highly affluent Montecito area of Santa Barbara, down the street from Westmont College, which sponsors an off-campus ministry called “Sidewalk Sunday School.” During the school year, every Sunday, Westmont students travel to a local elementary school in a low-income neighborhood and run an outreach ministry.

This is where my youth group comes in.

I thought about those children and what happens during the four months of summer when Westmont students are gone. I dreamed of partnering with Westmont and using our high schoolers to carry on the ministry over the summer. Brilliant idea, I told myself. Instead of challenging our students to come with us to Colombia, we were going to do the cutting-edge thing and challenge them to make a difference at home. Sure we wouldn’t be getting on a plane and flying someplace exotic and exciting, but we had an opportunity to minister just a few miles from church. And there was no cost! “The parents are going to love me!” I thought proudly.

What happened? About six students committed to “Summer Sidewalk”—not the 30 we should’ve had. Neighborhood kids were never around, and the list of children we received from Westmont was outdated. When we tried to visit these children and give them rides to Sunday school, their parents resisted because they didn’t know our group. “Summer Sidewalk” was a flop. A bust. A failure. I took a risk and the bottom fell out.

Our students were discouraged. By the end of the summer the handful of participants felt they wasted their summer, and the students who stayed away felt like our ministry was a loser. Morale was down. My “brilliant” idea created an identity crisis for our group—a bummer sidewalk. “Who said taking risks is fun and exciting?” I later wondered, depressed and scratching my head.

Mistakes Are Good

Contrary to what most people might immediately think, what happened to me and my youth group was a good thing. That’s correct! A positive circumstance—at least that’s the rule American business leaders go by.

Jim Burke, former ceo of Johnson & Johnson, actually encouraged mistakes. What Burke wanted more than anything else were workers who made decisions and took risks: “If you believe that growth comes from risk taking, that you cannot grow without it, then it is essential in leading people toward growth to get them to make decisions—and to make mistakes.” Mistakes are good, he said. No mistakes, no progress.

Here’s Burke’s own story regarding a costly personal mistake: “I once developed a new product that failed badly, and General Johnson called me in, and I was sure he was going to fire me. I had just come in late when his secretary called, and he was always in early. I can remember walking over to his office, and…Johnson said to me, ‘I understand you lost over a million dollars.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir. That is correct.’ So he stood up and held out his hand. He said, ‘I just want to congratulate you. All business is making decisions, and if you don’t make decisions, you won’t have any failures. The hardest job I have is getting people to make decisions. If you make that same decision wrong again, I’ll fire you. But I hope you’ll make a lot of others, and that you will understand that there are going to be more failures than successes.’”

Without mistakes, innovation in youth ministry is virtually impossible. Ideas become great programs and ministries because of trial and error. That’s exactly why Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, asks his staff to report each month at least one programming mistake.

Mistakes keep us on the cutting edge.

Admit Your Mistakes and Move On

You may find it strange to know that comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame has written and produced several business training films. “In organizations where mistakes are not allowed, you get two types of counterproductive behavior,” Cleese has said. “First, since mistakes are ‘bad,’ if they are committed by people at the top, the feedback arising from those mistakes has to be ignored or selectively reinterpreted—in order that those top people can pretend that no mistake has been made. So it does not get fixed. Second, if they are committed by people lower down in the organization, mistakes get concealed.” In other words, if we create a youth ministry culture where mistakes are intolerable, those mistakes will never get fixed because they’ll never be identified. We’ll end up creating a ministry absent of grace and overflowing with cover up.

As leaders, our credibility is on the line whenever we fail to admit a mistake. In fact the biggest mistake we can make is not taking responsibility for our mistakes. We do that in a variety of ways: By pointing the finger at somebody else; by making excuses; by spinning the blunder into something that’s “not a big deal.” If we habitually cover up mistakes rather than own up to them, we’ll lose credibility. And that’s when we lose our impact.

Learn from Your Mistakes (But Don’t Repeat Them)

Sam Walton, Wal-Mart’s ceo, knows that no company hits the target every time. That’s why Wal-Mart employees aren’t punished when their experiments fail. “If you learn something and you are trying something, then you probably get credit for it,” Walton said in a Business Week article. “But woe to the person who makes the same mistake twice.” In the business world, learning from one’s mistakes actually wins people over.

According to Paul Orfalea, founder and ceo of Kinko’s, not learning from our mistakes is often due to lack of reflection. “When I make a mistake, I usually mull over it at night and think about the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve stuff,” he told me during a recent conversation. “But then I move on. It’s important to reflect and analyze, but then we all have to realize that what’s done is done, so move on—tomorrow is a new day.”It’s imperative that youth workers learn from their mistakes. When we don’t, we’re bound to frustrate others, which may lead to loss of future responsibilities and opportunities. Repeating mistakes also could have long-term, negative impacts, not only on our personal reputations, but also on the reputation of the Body of Christ.

How Old Are Your Wineskins?

In the familiar Mark 2:22 passage, Jesus says, “no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.” We know that Jesus was teaching that the newness of the Christian life cannot be confined or contained in old ways and forms.

The attitude “we’ve always done it that way” is the mentality of old wineskins—and the mentality of those who’re afraid of making mistakes. Afraid of failing. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself:

• What would happen if you spent less time planning fun programs and more time discipling students?

• What would happen if you stopped trying to have one big group and instead focused your energy and resources on developing leaders for many small groups?

• What would happen if you radically changed your midweek meeting?

• What would happen if you gave volunteers and interns more opportunities to speak to and teach your kids?

• What would happen if you caught a God-sized vision and set a goal or planned an event that only God could accomplish?

• What would happen if you told your church board that there won’t be a student ministry midweek program until God raises up a team of volunteer adult leaders and disciplers?

People Pleasers

If you carried out any of the above scenarios, you’d probably ruffle at least a few feathers—if not the whole flock of ’em! But you wouldn’t even be able to approach those risks if you were a people pleaser. What characterizes people pleasers?

• They don’t like to rock the boat.

• They tend to play it safe.

• They’re more concerned with peace than with progress.

• They crumble under opposition.

• They have difficulty making decisions.

• They’re overly concerned about being liked.

• They look to others for approval of their ideas.

• They lack courage.

But when we look at Jesus, we see someone who was anything but a people pleaser: He was concerned only about pleasing God. Jesus was willing to offend religious leaders if it meant staying holy. Jesus took risks. And while he saw through the last and biggest fear of all—the fear of death—it wasn’t without his share of “what-ifs,” as his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane bears out. But we can take inspiration from the fact that Jesus indeed risked everything—putting aside his God-given power and authority and willingly dying—and it resulted in a new covenant between God and man. Definitely a worthy risk.

I believe the fear of making mistakes and the fear of failure—combined with a tendency to please people more than God—can cripple youth ministry. Or at least hold it back from greater potential. We probably like to think that youth ministry is the cutting edge of the church, yet I wonder if our pioneer spirit has been lost. Have we opted for safety and comfort first?

As we learned from the giants of corporate America, youth workers need to—for the sake of our youth ministries—put comfort aside, take risks, fall down, risk again, fall down again, and not be afraid to displease others in the process.

But the question remains: Are we willing?

Closing Thoughts

After 12 years of supporting an existing structure that I helped create (youth group mission trips abroad), I felt a need to change it. I took a risk. That risk turned out to be a big mistake. A failure.

At the end of the summer, I debriefed with my intern and some key students on what we might do differently next summer. We regrouped like a football team would after getting blown out the week before. Happily we’ve recovered from the Summer Sidewalk debacle, and we’ve learned some important lessons along the way—most notably that our mistake was a good thing.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.