When you think of “failure” in ministry, what kind of person comes to mind? Have you considered the idea that people whom you think successful have often failed the most?

Babe Ruth, who made his mark as a home-run champion, was also a “strikeout king.” Poet Edmund Vance Cooke says, “If you never have failed, it’s an easy guess / You never have won any high success.”

We don’t usually hear about the failures of those we admire most, but rest assured that they have attempted lots of things that didn’t work. They keep running the risk. They try and try until they get through. Then they tell you what they’ve learned.

In innovative churches I consistently find a senior pastor who keeps trying to discover what works. People who achieve breakthroughs in ministry don’t allow setbacks to discourage them to the point of quitting.

Several of the most significant turning points in my life came because of huge failures on my part. For a person like me who has been very success oriented, it’s not easy to privately face my own failures, let alone publicly put them on display. Yet I’ve learned that failure can evolve into my . . .

_ Blessing in disguise,
_ Doorway to new opportunity,
_ Teacher of priceless lessons,
_ Enricher of personality,
_ Pathway to a richer fellowship with God, and
_ Stepping-stone to truer success.

Sooner or later the villain of letdown robs everyone. My prayerful intention is that by addressing this topic, many readers will face up to their failures and with God’s help experience personal growth.

Life-Changing Lessons I Learned from Failure

Almost every major personality profiled in the Bible seems to have experienced personal failure or to have come out of a failure situation. Yet God used each of them mightily! One cannot read the Bible with an open mind without seeing that God does not turn his back on people who have failed, but rather forgives them, strengthens them, and uses them to do wonderful things in the Kingdom. Classic examples include Moses, Samson, Jonah, David, Mark, Peter, and the other disciples. If God used these great saints of old after they failed, don’t you believe he can still do something marvelous with us today–in spite of our failures?

Failure can even emerge as a really good thing if it motivates us to move ahead to something better. I have come to love and live by the phrase popularized by my friend Dr. Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California. He said, “I would rather attempt something great and fail than attempt nothing and succeed.”

Because of these words, I ran the risk of failure by starting New Hope Community Church, Portland, Oregon, without any people or funds. To this day more than twenty-five years later, I am so glad that I didn’t surrender to my past failings or very real fears of being unsuccessful.

God enabled me to overcome some big obstacles over the course of my adult life, both in previous pastorates and at New Hope:

1. Wrong Priorities. One of my earliest failures was to put my goals and work as a minister in the church ahead of my family. For years I lived, despite the best intentions, with mixed-up priorities. I thought I did right by putting the church first in everything, while all the time neglecting my wife and children.

One day I read The Living Bible and these words grabbed my heart: “Let love be your greatest aim” (1 Cor. 14:1, TLB). This concept literally turned my life right-side-up with change. I realized that people and relationships, starting with my family, must be more important than programs. Ever since that discovery, I have wanted a reputation for spreading the kind of love that begins at home with members of my family and then extends to the other people with whom I share the closest relationships.

2. Workaholism. As a workaholic, even when attending a party given by the young couples in our church; I would never let down, relax, and enjoy myself. I would always work, plot, plan, get someone off to the side, and sell them on a new idea or program that l wanted to develop.

God has since taught me that I can please him by turning off the work completely and fully enjoying times of play. As the ancient preacher put it, “There is a time for everything . . . a time to plant . . . and a time to laugh” (Eccles. 3:1-4, TLB). What a transforming realization to discover that God loved me when I laughed and played–just as fully as when I focused on church work!

3. Poor Listening Skills. In the past my preoccupation with what I planned to say or do next kept me from carefully hearing what others tried to communicate.

This correction didn’t come easily. First I had to learn to stop thinking about what I needed to say next while someone else talked. Then I had to develop better skills at concentrating on the other person. I had made progress when a staff member who had known me for years said, “Dale, I really appreciate what a good listener you have become.” That was a very meaningful compliment.

4. Not Validating My Spouse’s Feelings. When my wife, Margi, feels hurt or upset, I have learned to hold her, to listen, and to validate her feelings as being okay and very important to me. Sometimes I still have to bite my tongue and resist the old temptation to correct or give immediate advice. I have also learned that part of caring for my wife and children involves keeping the home in good repair. In the past, I would walk in and out of our broken screen door for days and never see it, even though it had been called to my attention again and again.

5. Not Working at My Marriage. I have learned that I must work at marriage to keep the relationship growing. I used to give so much of myself emotionally to other people that I had nothing left for meeting my mate’s emotional needs. Most ministers and their spouses would agree that they have more difficulties getting along with each other on Monday than any other day of the week. Why? Because you have two emotionally drained people, each looking to the other for a lift, yet neither having anything left to give.

6. Judging Other People. I have learned through my own failures to leave the judging to God. As Scripture warns, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21, NIV). My job is to keep on loving and believing in people in spite of their failures.

7. Insensitivity. In the past I wasn’t as compassionate with hurting people as I should have been. God has taught me to show them the compassion and love of Jesus as I “rejoice with those who rejoice; [and] mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15, NIV).

8. Blindness to the “Beams” in My Eye. For years oblivious to my own weak spots and failures, I have since realized that the day I stop learning, I stop growing. With God’s help I have changed; I am changing; and I will continue to change for the better. Learning from failures makes my motto, “The best is yet to come,” a reality in my life.

How to Feel Like Somebody Again

I have never seen a man or woman able to live well with success who had not first traveled through the fires and storms of failure. Failure keeps people remembering, after they achieve the breakthroughs they seek, how other people hurt and feel. Truly successful individuals share the victory with others and help all those who have failed to also experience the joys of success.

God never sees you as a failure until you give up and quit trying. Someone has said: “A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.” We serve a God of love, hope, and bright tomorrows Claim the promises of God’s Word: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases . . .” (Ps. 103:2-3, NIV). Never allow yesterday’s failures to wipe out the possibilities of tomorrow’s successes.

Eight Things You Need to Know about Failure

1. To fail is not the same as being a failure. A person may have many failings and yet be very far from being a failure.

2. To fail is not the disgrace everyone thinks it is. To err means to do nothing more than acknowledge that you are a member of the human race.

3. Failure is only a temporary setback. Failure is never the final chapter in the book of your life unless you give up and quit.

4. No one ever achieves something worthwhile without running the risk of failure. The person who risks everything to try to achieve something truly worthwhile and fails is anything but a disgraceful failure.

5. Failure is a natural preparation for success. Strange as it may seem to most people, success proves much more difficult to live with successfully than failure.

6. Every failing brings with it the possibilities of something greater. Analyze failure under whatever circumstances you choose, and you will discover some seeds for turning failure into success.

7. What you do with failures in your life is up to you. Failure is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your reaction or response to it.

8. Failings provide opportunities to learn how to do things better the next time–to learn where the pitfalls are and how to avoid them. The best possible thing to do with failure: Learn all you can from it.

Galloway is the founding pastor of the 6,400-member New Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon. He now serves as dean of the Besson International Center for Biblical Preaching and Church Leadership, one of the schools of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.