How to fail and still win

January 17th, 2023

All great accomplishments have one thing in common: failure. Discouraging, heartbreaking failure. Whether we’re talking about the amazing stories in the Book of Acts, the Wesleyan Revival of the 1700s, or the success of a regional megachurch, each one of these “successes” involved failures. Peter and Paul were embroiled in conflict in the book of Acts. John Wesley failed miserably in his work with the Native Americans and lost at love in his own life. Leaders of megachurches have had moral failings. But without these seeming failures, there would also be no memorable accomplishment. So let’s talk about how to fail and still win.

We tend to think of success as being defined by our accomplishments or victories, but it’s the failures that provide us with the wisdom necessary to succeed. The lie we tell ourselves is that the great leaders and movements of the past had it all together, while we struggle and fail. But every leader, movement, and person will fail at some point. That’s simply part of our humanity.

Failure gets a bad name. But failure need not be the end of the story. It is a necessary step to help us learn and grow in our faith journey. The Bible is full of stories of both failure and redemption, from Adam to Abraham, and from Sarah to Hannah, as well as Peter and the disciples. We would hardly call these heroes and sheroes of the faith failures.

As Christian leaders, it’s essential for us to understand how to fail and still win. In order to fail and still win, it’s important to understand the two types of failure. Knowing the difference can help you stay focused, motivated, and successful.

Passive Failure

The first type of failing is passive failure. Passive failure involves not trying or simply settling for the status quo. Passive failure does nothing to advance your goals or propel the Kin(g)dom forward. Rather, it keeps you stuck in a place of complacency where your potential isn’t explored or realized. It’s easy to fall into this type of passive failure because it requires no effort. But if left unchecked, passive failure can lead to stagnation and disappointment in your life and ministry.

We can all point to this kind of failure. We often use phrases to explain it, like, “They are just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.” We know it when we see it. Worship is lackluster. Your mission projects are repetitive. You sense a congregation-wide feeling of apathy. You manage what you have without risking innovation or breaking new ground. If you are still doing what you did three or four years ago, you may be slipping into passive failure.

The effects of passive failure can be seen in churches: years of declining attendance, no new professions of faith, and a diminishing pool of volunteers. When the only course correction offered is trying harder at doing more of the same, that is a sign of passive failure.

It’s not easy to admit, but I’ve seen this type of passive failure in myself. When I hoped that things would change for the better but took no action to try something new. It’s a painful spot to be in.

Active Failure 

The second type of failure is active failure. What sets active failure apart from passive failure is that rather than hoping things will get better if we simply try harder at doing what we’ve always done, we actively take risks. We give it everything we have—our total energy, focus, and commitment. Even so, we still miss the mark.

Yes, it’s still a failure. But this type of active failure brings hope by creating momentum. Even though the result might not have been what we intended, it’s still a win. By giving our best effort towards something meaningful, we will have created some new openings. Perhaps we operated from vision rather than fear. Or collaborated with new community partners. Or raised new funds and involved new people. Active failure is a win because it empowers those around us.

Active failure creates another kind of win: learning from your mistakes. The great thing about trying and failing is that you can figure out how to do things better next time. The same principle applies to us as Christian leaders. We may not consistently achieve our goals immediately or as expected, but failure often gives us the insights and wisdom to succeed.

Every great movie ever made, from Ben Hur to Star Wars to Mulan, includes a story arc of triumph over adversity. The hero fails multiple times before achieving the goal. In these stories, it is failure that helps shape and strengthen the protagonist’s character. This is true not only in the movies but also among the disciples, the early church, and even your church.

How to Get the Most from Your Failures

By understanding that there are two types of failure—passive failure and active failure—you can better prepare yourself for success as a Christian leader by embracing the art of active failing. If you fail but learn something new along the way, that’s a win! If you fail, but create openings for new action, that’s a win, too. So go forth boldly—trusting God—knowing that even if you fail this time, next time may be a huge success. After all, nothing ventured—nothing gained.

It was my failures, not my successes, in local church ministry that prompted me to develop Creating a Culture of Renewal®. I wanted to know how to create a lasting culture shift that moved the church from maintenance to mission, from inward focus to outward focus, and from discipleship to apostleship. This powerful program equips you with all the ingredients necessary to shift the culture of your congregation, no matter the size, denomination, or location. Let us know if you would like to know more about Creating a Culture of Renewal and make the most of your failures in the future!


Excerpted from Rebekah Simon-Peter's blog, used with the author's permission.

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