Our culture is obsessed with success and fearful of failure.

Christian ministry often carries added pressure for success. There is a popular notion that really spiritual people will always succeed in ministry. In other words,  good Christians – people who pray a lot, know the bible, and stay morally clean – do not fail.  That idea is not biblical. That idea does not match experience. That idea actually stifle leaders and hinders the work of God. It is poison.

I am not a fan of failure. Failure is not the goal that we should set for ourselves (I hope to have more success my life!).  Yet, I think that in our success oriented culture failure is underrated.

Here are a few ways that a Fail can be a Win:

1. If you failed, you actually tried to do something! You probably tried to do something that you believed needed to be done. You probably tried to do something unique. Failure is not the worst thing.  Failure is better than selling out, or conforming, or cowering in the face of adversity, or just talking.  Find pride in your failure.

2. If you failed, you have an opportunity to learn and grow. Failure gives you a grip on reality that is not shared by those who have not failed, or risked enough to fail. The biggest “failures” in my life, I would never want to repeat them, have provided me with a unique perspective on life. Find wisdom in your failure.

3. If you failed, you have the opportunity to know your true self. Failure provides you the opportunity to check where your identity is rooted. Failure can strips away the false self of image and performance.  In failure you are valuable and you are loved simply because you are. Find grace in your failure.

4. If you failed, you opened up the possibility for something wonderful. Failure creates a new reality, a new context for creativity. When you factor in the God of resurrection into our failure, what seems to be empty is often the beginning of something new and beautiful.  God will bring light into the darkness. Find hope in your failure.

For more honest and liberating discussion of failure and success in ministry, I encourage you to participate in the the upcoming Epic Fail Pastors Conference April 14-16.  If you can’t make the conference, you will find even a visit to the website to be refreshing.


It is easy to see the impact of greed on a culture when the economy falters. We forget that greed was often embraced, even encouraged during the boom days of the past.

During both our economic ups and downs the scriptures have given us consistent warnings of the high price greed. The ancient book of Amos proclaims that our love of money and stuff will destroy our core relationships.

Relationship with Others:

Amos 2:6-8

This is what the Lord says:

“The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals.

They trample helpless people in the dust

and shove the oppressed out of the way.

Both father and son sleep with the same woman,

corrupting my holy name.

At their religious festivals,

they lounge in clothing their debtors put up as security.

In the house of their god,

they drink wine bought with unjust fines.

When we love stuff, we begin reducing other people to either a means to or an obstacle to getting more stuff. We can continue de-humanizing others to the point that we begin viewing people as just stuff, good stuff and bad stuff. We see this today in everything from neglected children, to work conflict, to sex and labor slavery.

Relationship with God:

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.

I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.

I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.

Away with your noisy hymns of praise!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

an endless river of righteous living.

Our loves direct out lives. When we love stuff we pattern our lives around stuff, not around God. As a result, our religious worship is empty. God is not interested in religious pomp and circumstance if our lives are not right. I am afraid that this is at the root of much of the superficial spirituality of our modern religions culture.

Relationship with Self:

Amos 4:1-3

Listen to me, you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor

and crush the needy,

and who are always calling to your husbands,

“Bring us another drink!”

The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness:

“The time will come when you will be led away

with hooks in your noses.

Every last one of you will be dragged away

like a fish on a hook!

You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;

you will be thrown from your fortresses,”

says the Lord.

We become less than human when our lives revolve around stuff. While there will be divine judgment for greed, much of the punishment is self-imposed by living life outside of the design of the universe. We see this today in the empty eyes of teens who have every item that they want and in rampant chemical abuse found in wealthy communities.

While money and material goods are important, we must always keep them in right perspective. We can not allow the love of stuff to stifle our greatest calling to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

Should we treat the church like our favorite restaurant?
Only if you are working in the kitchen!

(Sorry! I am having trouble getting the video to show up on RSS feeds and iPhones. I will try to correct the problem, but until then you can view the 4 minute video on my blog or at vimeo.)

Thanks to Robyn Vining, Tony Templeton, Sarah DePriest, the Impact Community, and The Original Pancake House for their crucial roles in this video!
(Filmed August 2009 at The Original Pancake House in Brookfield, WI.)


In addition to living in Wisconsin, one of my favorite things about serving at Elmbrook Church is working with Scott Arbeiter.

Scott recently gave our pastoral staff a list of observations on walking with the congregation in times of transitions and conflict. I thought that there was a wealth of wisdom in his observations – and not just for pastors, but for anyone who wants to build healthy relationships.  Scott gave me permission to post this list.

Some things I have learned regarding what people in the congregation need from us:
1.) Ready access (not just begrudging acceptance)
2.) To be genuinely heard (not just listened to)
3.) To find common ground (know that we care about what they care about)
4.) To know that we understand that they are not always able to articulate their concerns well. We must “be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
5.) To know that we value them and want them to be part of the congregation
6.) To hear of our struggles to find the best path forward in the situation
7.) To understand the principles involved in our decisions
8.) To be trusted with the information discussed in private
9.) To be challenged to do the right things; even (especially)when in disagreement
10.) To hear that we were wrong and are sorry (when we are indeed wrong and sorry)
11.) To know that we hear many conflicting opinions about topics (often diametrically opposed)
12.) To know that we will decide on principle, not pressure
13.) To be well received even when we leave in disagreement
14.) The goal is not to have them feel good about us; it is to elevate truth and find unity in diversity. In doing this there should be no defensiveness; nor cowardice.
15.) Do not make false promises.
16.) Warn a divisive man once then have nothing to do with him.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

A man in a bright orange jump suit has picketed our church several times over the past two years. First, I found him mildly amusing because he was protesting government policies that, while our church does not take an official stance,  many in the congregation were against (OK, I also laughed at the grammatical errors on his signs and his outfits!). Then one spring morning his protest took a different tone. One side of his sign equated expansion of health care with the end of the nation. The other side of the sign simply said‘ “Load ‘Em.”
After getting the OK from my boss (And telling the security team!), I took a cup of coffee out to the Sign Guy. I was a little afraid, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  Sign Guy was thrilled – clearly equating the coffee with support. I did not tell him my views. I simply asked him questions. We had a long conversation, more like a monologue by him, that taught me a few things.
1. He was calling people to arms. Sign Guy really wanted people to rise up in a violent revolt, killing those who disagreed with him. He believed this was God’s calling for the “faithful” – to cleanse the land of the “sinners.” He defined those terms entirely on political positions. He was sure that our church was full of people who God wanted executed!
2. He was crazy. There was something off with Sign Guy’s grip on reality. He created outrageous conspiracy theories, such as the  communists, British banks, and Anglican church planted our church to destroy God’s real America. He believed that his insights were infallible  – coming from inside sources, his own brilliant research, and God.
3. He was influenced by toxic political rhetoric. This man was deeply influenced by public statements of politicians and commentators. He quoted them eagerly … especially the militant language. He even used voice tones and patterns of a radio talk show host.
This experience increased my conviction that much of the contemporary political tenor is too extreme and militant. I have a number of friends who listen to such politicians and commentators, and to be fair they do not react like the Sign Guy. The reality is that his mental state did not allow for him to see the nuance in the rhetoric.
At some point, people who have been given the privilege of a public voice must look beyond the power and profit that comes from working people into a frenzy and take seriously the responsibility of the public good. Words matter. Public voices must weigh the impact of their words, and images, upon the public – even the mentally unstable.
Last weekend in Tuscon we saw a person, presumably with some mental illness and surrounded by a culture of toxic political rhetoric, move beyond holding up signs and literally take up arms against others.  It was a tragic event.
I believe that violent political rhetoric, especially the blatant militaristic language in recent years, was a clear influence on the shooter in Tuscan as it was on the Sign Guy outside of our church. While violent political language does not drive everyone to physical violence, it will be taken literally by some who are on the edge of mental health and it has an undeniable impact on the soul of a nation.
We would do well to stop and remember the teachings of Jesus:
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’  But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.  (Matthew 5:21-22)
There is a connection between our hearts, our words, and acts of violence.

This fall I chaperoned my daughter’s junior kindergarten class to a farm. To make sure that it was an “educational” experience, there was a lecture on animals. The speaker told the class that the animals were very busy preparing for winter.

There are three different animal responses to a change in the seasons:

Adapt – Prepare for the cold weather by making changes in their body and behavior. Rabbits take this approach.

Migrate – Leave the cold by flying to a warmer climate for the winter. Geese are best known for migrating for winter.

Hibernate – Enter a state of inactivity and metabolic depression for the winter. Bats are experts at winter hibernation.

As the presenter continued, I thought of how we humans respond to change. People, both individuals and organizations, facing change often pick one of the three responses found in the animal kingdom.

Adapt – Make the changes needed for success, or at least survival, in the new environment.

Migrate – Leave the situation and head for a more desirable environment.

Hibernate – Check out of the new reality while physically remaining in the environment.

Animals don’t really have a choice in how they respond to the change in seasons. They simply act according their species.  However, we humans are able to choose how we respond to the changes that we face in life.

What is your normal response to change?

What changes are you or your organization currently  facing?

How should you respond to those changes?