Monday, August 11, 2014

Failure Builds the Story

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm rather fond of the indie role playing game Dungeon World. One of the things it does is redefines the concept of failure. In many of the games I've played in the past, if you fail you just fail and move on. But not in Dungeon World - if you fail you gain experience and in some way the story is advanced. It might be as simple as another monster shows up to cause trouble or as complex as you fall through a trapdoor into a room separated from your fellow players. Even dying is an opportunity for the story to advance as the player is transported to death's gate and negotiates with death itself. It is all high drama - and surprisingly the way failure plays out is more like real life.

Two years ago I took a sabbatical to complete my PhD dissertation. But truth be told we had reached a place in our church plant where there were problems I needed significant time to reflect on. In the years up to it we had a very vibrant community, for the most part. Lots of interesting people, lots of opportunities to share our gifts and wealth with others, and lots of challenges. But in the last year or so before my break we were down to one main group. We had two others that started in that time, but the amount of attention our main group required made it difficult to really nurture those groups properly. The ultimate barometer was that my wife stopped attending regularly. She doesn't take a pastoral role in our church (she's full time employed as a pharmacist) but when the church is not a place she wants to go there is usually a problem. In a real sense it felt like our 10 year project had become a failure.

In reflecting on what happened with our last main group I'm able to identify a number of problems. Many of which I rightly shoulder (not developing enough leaders, over extending my time and energy resources, not focusing enough on finances/administration, etc.) and some which just happened. regardless of how and why there are two choices as to how we deal with failure - we can let it rob us of our action (like in older role playing games, nothing is so disappointing as calculating the target number you need, rolling and coming up short!) or letting the "failure" build the story.

My friend Colin Benner wrote a book about failing forward. He starts by talking about the act of walking as a series of falls forward. Each step we take is regaining our footing from the last fall. Every step builds a bigger story than falling face first to the ground. Yet, more profoundly, we never get anywhere unless we actually fall forward. It's a brilliant insight.

Our challenge is to actually embrace this redefinition of failure. As a church planter/pastor I find that I end up at pastoral events in one of two minds. In some instances I'm living out the pain of the old idea of failure - that it means everything we did went to crap. Thankfully, I've not lived in that place a lot. The other times, I come in as one made wiser by the risk and realizing that the story is much bigger than the last failure (desolation), and that the failure actually helps the story move along. In those times I'm able to draw from all the amazing things God did in and through our community over the 10 years we were around. Learning from all that worked and especially all that didn't work but we risked doing anyway. I love the comic Matte started her last post with - the answer isn't making more mistakes but letting our failures build a richer story.

Frank Emanuel


  1. Thanks for the honesty, Frank. I think we can learn lots from not only sharing our stories of so-called failure but by walking through the rough patches with each other.

  2. It seems that our slogan "it's better together" has a lot of practicality to it.