Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

How to Fail at Failing

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2010 Oct 11

How do you fail at failing?

According to a recent article in Time magazine, all you have to do is study the recent collapse of Blockbuster. "Yes, the movie-rental firm was doomed," Stephen Gandel writes, "But the ending could have been a lot better."

There was little doubt that the practice of driving to a store to rent a movie was destined to come to an end. That it was Netflix, and not Blockbuster, adjusting to a new model that sends movies to our mailboxes - or better yet, our computers - is just one more story of an industry leader failing to adapt to a changing world.

But the Blockbuster story is deeper than that. One that isn't as tired or familiar. Blockbuster, as Gandel notes, failed at failing.

Netflix was operating for six years, gaining market share and rewriting the book on Blockbuster's world, before Blockbuster launched its own movie-by-mail service.

That's failing at failing.

In other words, you fail to do - in the midst of failing - what needs to be done to stop failing.

Here's the top six ways I've seen this happen in Christian churches, ministries and schools (in no particular order, except I do believe the last one is the most significant):

1.      Failure to address your failure through innovation until such innovation is pursued out of desperation and in imitation of existing mainstream innovations. Innovation can be strategic in turning around a failing enterprise, but it must be vanguard innovation, not "catch-up" innovation. So if you're failing, it's a bit late to launch a website as a cure-all. Everyone has websites. However, it might be time to explore an internet campus (if you're a church) or online learning (if you are a school). In other words, it must be innovation that actively engages the mission and propels that mission forward.

2.      Failure to address your failure through relocation until that time when relocation is no longer a viable option. I recently spent a season visiting the campuses of about twenty fast-growing churches. At the end, I compiled my top learnings for our staff. Number one on the list? "Location, location, location." Every single church I visited was located at an optimal location for growth, primarily through interstate access. If you are a church plant and things are not going as well as you would like, seize every opportunity to move to a better rental location. If you have land and/or have built, whether church or school, don't ever become so attached to it that you wouldn't consider seizing an opportunity to sell it and move to a better location. The longer you wait, the fewer your options to make a strategic move will be. 

3.      Failure to address your failure through changes in existing staff. It's a simple lesson, but seldom learned: the staff that brought you to your current level may very well be the staff that keeps you from reaching the next. The skill-set needed to get you to, say, 200 in attendance is very different than the skill-set needed to manage that same ministry to 500. Not every staff person has the ability to change their leadership style, grow in their leadership competence, or maintain a missional focus for that length of time. I'm not suggesting mass, heartless firings - but I am suggesting honest conversations, reassignment of duties, new layers of staff over existing staff, and yes, if needed, helping select staff and volunteers find new ways to invest in ministry that might prove to be a better fit.

4.      Failure to address your failure through a renewed focus on the mission. I've had more conversations than I can count with young pastors of struggling churches wanting to know how to grow. I listen to them describe their situation, and then tell them what I tell everyone: "You have to go after the unchurched. And I don't mean in rhetoric, I mean in reality. You can't compete for transfer growth with the larger, established churches in your area. And that's what you're trying to do - compete with other churches or ministries. You have to go after the person who is not even thinking about church and reach them for Christ." Then I tell them a bit about how they might consider doing that. And then it happens. Their face changes. Really, you can see their countenance fall. They don't say it, but it's written on their face: "What you suggest would take too much work." They wanted a silver bullet, a quick-fix program or a great marketing tool. The fact is that any mission can be attractive on the surface, but takes enormous intentionality and effort in the trenches. Sadly, many keep failing at failing by looking around for something to come to their rescue besides attention to the mission itself.

5.      Failure to address your failure by not expanding strategically. When you are failing, the temptation is to batten down the hatches, ride the storm out, and hope it just goes away; to conserve rather than expand, to pull in rather than push out. In truth, it is often the time to launch the most aggressive offensive you can muster. Start new services on new days and times, launch new campuses, reach out in fresh ways and explore niche ministries. Incremental adjustments will not lead to impressive new gains. You have to be hungry; you have to be aggressive. That means you have to be daring, risk-taking.  Fourth-quarter and behind on points is not the time to take a knee; it's the time to throw the ball down the field.

6.      Failure to address your failure by failing to look in the mirror. Perhaps the biggest way to fail at failing is to refuse the truth about what is actually driving the failure. Do you really think the problem will be solved with a new name, new logo, redesigned website, charismatic worship leader or cash infusion? Those are all things on the "outside."   What about what is on the "inside"? Do you know what I have never heard a pastor say? That the problem may be in the preaching. That is the one thing you will always hear them say is the church's strong suit. Really? Then why aren't more people coming to hear you? You say the leadership is sound? Really? Then why aren't more people following you? This sounds harsh, I know, but I'm not calling for mass resignations or low self-esteem. I am calling for honest self-appraisal and leaders willing to humble themselves and go into learning mode to get better at what obviously must need work.

Bottom line? We all fail.

The key is not failing at it.

James Emery White


"How Blockbuster Failed at Failing," Stephen Gandel/Dallas, Time Magazine, October 11, 2010, pp. 38-40. Online at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2022624,00.html