On Failure and Ministry

I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
                                                                                                                                               – Anne Lamott


from giphy.com

I am a junky for any and all personality type assessments available online or otherwise. A couple years ago, a friend introduced me to the enneagram, an ancient personality type indicator that utilizes nine different numbers in determining a person’s distinctive characteristics.

After a day long session with an enneagram expert, I discovered that I am a 3, also known as The Achiever or Performer. Though I share this wonderful number with the likes of Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, and Taylor Swift, my personality type also has some definite flaws. Namely: I thrive off validation.


Good ole Taylor would just tell me to “Shake it Off”

According to most experts, the 3’s deepest fear is that other people will see beneath their surface and realize there’s nothing there. I find that my deepest, most ingrained fear is a slightly nuanced version of the typical 3: My deepest fear is that people will see beyond my surface and realize I am not perfect.

Ok, ok. I can hear you all through the screen, rolling your eyes and groaning, “Emily – we already know you’re not perfect!” Some of you don’t even know me, and you’re thinking the same thing.

But, I like to live a disillusioned life. I like to believe that you, my lovely readers, watch me from afar and think, “Man – I want to be just like her. She is so awesome and perfect.” I like to think that you believe that I am incapable of failure.


from stirringsofthesoul.com

And, when failure manifests itself in my life, whether perceived or acknowledged, I call into question my whole sense of self worth and value. If I am not perfect, or at least putting on a plausible display of perfection, who even am I?

Well, friends, I am here to admit something extremely difficult today – I failed. And, quite frankly, I do fail, just about every day. Recently, however, this failure has seemed more pervasive and debilitating than other times.

I work in a field that requires near constant interaction with people. Everything I do (or don’t do) at church will affect someone else in some way or another. Everything I do (or don’t do) at church has potential to inspire or discourage another person in their journey with Christ. Everything I do (or don’t do) at church carries eternal implications.

Or, at least, that is what I *remind* myself every time I don’t feel like I held up my end of the bargain. My brain is quite often my least gracious companion.

Sitting with my boss in our weekly meeting, I discovered another layer to the onion of my failure. Not only do I expect perfection and crumble when I don’t meet it, but nearly my only barometer for assessment to this point has been grades in school. I turn in a paper, I make an A. I take a test, I make a B. I preach a sermon: A. In school, there was no room for doubt; I either passed or failed, and I knew every time which was which.

Chris (my boss) is one of the most academically accomplished people I know, with a PhD in New Testament and a prodigious appreciation for history books (who on Earth loves to read about history??). But, in that moment, he shared something I won’t soon forget:

I didn’t make B’s in school. I just didn’t. But, sometimes, I preach what feels like a C- sermon. And it’s not for lack of effort. It just didn’t go as I’d hoped. The key is how you bounce back and preach again the next week.

It turns out that no one has perfected this whole life thing. The challenge is finding a barometer for assessment that mirrors the grace of God, and realizing that one C- does not have the power to drag down your entire average… Unless you let it.

Yesterday, I sat in a hospital room with an elderly church member who lives with dementia. She couldn’t remember how long she’d be in the hospital or why she was there, but when I read Psalm 46 aloud, she recited every word by heart.

For nearly half an hour, we shared conversation about her family, our church, and the many ways she found God in her life. Near the end of our time together, she looked at me and said, “If you put the Lord in front and tag along behind, you’ll be alright.”

Rarely do I have to excuse myself from the hospital room because the person I am visiting brought me to tears, but yesterday’s visit ended in just that manner. I didn’t know if this woman would remember that I came by five minutes after I left, or if she would know my name the next time she saw me, but she knew exactly where to place her faith.

Her life’s barometer measures success not by how many mistakes she does or does not make, but on who is taking the first step. For her, failure is marked by trying to overstep God.

And, truthfully, I do that every day! My barometer for success is measured on what I accomplish, how I look good, what I can control, when I get the credit, and how much I impress other people.

This, my friends, is not a sustainable gauge of success. My barometer has and will again explode from all the pressure.


from contemplativepresence.org

In life, and in ministry, success must depend more on following and trusting God than anything else. Tag-a-longs are not just the best kind of Girl Scout Cookies. Asking God to take the first step and then tagging along behind is the only successful way to lead.

This concept frightens me, because God does not always lead in the most popular way. God does not always walk down the path of recognition or acclaim. God’s path is not always pruned and sheered.

But, God always leads in the direction of compassion and grace (even towards oneself). God always walks down the path of service and hope. God’s path always heals and restores. Why wouldn’t I want to tag along down that road?

God called me to ministry for a reason. And it wasn’t so I could be the most important minister out there, or so that I wouldn’t make mistakes. God’s call invites me to accept grace – for myself and for those I serve. God’s call urges me to accept a backseat, so that God’s love is on display. God’s call demands me to recalibrate my barometer for success.

When I accept this truth. When I learn to tag along. When I put the Lord in front. Then, I will be alright.

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived [and God has lived through you]. This is to have succeeded.
                                                                         – Ralph Waldo Emerson, with additions from Emily Holladay

  One thought on “On Failure and Ministry

  1. Francie
    February 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Nice……thank you. xoxoxo

  2. Dawn Stambaugh
    February 3, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Wonderful words Emily. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. sdowd2012
    February 3, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Emily, send me your email address and I’ll send you summaries of a couple of Brene Brown’s books so you can decide if you are interested in reading or listening to them. I like her take on affirmation, perfection, and resilience. sharyndowd1@gmail.com

    • February 3, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      Good to hear from you, Sharyn! I just e-mailed you. Can’t wait to hear about the books!

  4. Elizabeth
    February 4, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Emily, great blog. Good to know that people continue to impact us throughout our lives. I praise God for the great influences I have received and will continue to receive. Thank you for impacting me and my girls so wonderfully!

    • February 4, 2016 at 11:18 pm

      Thanks Elizabeth! You and your girls have had a profound impact on me as well!

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