One of the most important steps forward I’ve taken in ministry came from a failure that felt like an enormous step backward.
I’ve always been excited about gardening, and as I looked over the needs in the town where we used to live, I saw that the local soup kitchen was a pretty obvious place to serve. While they had plenty of volunteers in the kitchen, I thought that our church could provide some more interesting food options, such as heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and herbs that their cooks wouldn’t have on hand.
After meeting with the soup kitchen and confirming what they needed, I organized a group of volunteers from our church to work on a community garden plot.
We shot out of the gate strong. Our volunteers managed to till the plot and to plant everything. However, maintaining the garden in the months that followed strained my organizational abilities.
I’ll just say it: I failed miserably.
We grew a few things. I made deliveries every week. We even took donations from other gardeners in neighboring plots. However we were far from successful in growing enough food for the soup kitchen. I couldn’t handle organizing our volunteers, motivating them to help, or following up when they didn’t show up.
An army of weeds multiplied day by day.
Tomatoes and squash wilted during a brutal heat wave and drought that we failed to counteract with daily watering.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite ministry experiences. I’d taken on a huge project only to see it turn into a patch of weeds and dust.
However, I finally learned one of the most important lessons ever for me and ministry: I should not lead.
I finally understood why I was always a little anxious during the leadership classes I took in seminary, why I struggled to lead a worship team in college, and why my palms became sweaty when my pastor wanted me to take charge of the communications volunteers at our church.
I am a terrible leader.
A few months after the great garden flop, I found out about an Alpha group that meets at a local prison. The team of three volunteers had been going into the facility for years. They had things under control. I just needed to show up and pray with the men.
Visiting the prison each Wednesday evening was the best thing I’ve ever done in ministry. I mean that. I just had to show up with an open heart, listening to the men in my small group. I didn’t have to motivate or organize the volunteers.
I’m a self-starter who immediately panics at the thought of “starting” others.
On the evening that the other volunteers couldn’t make it and the DVD player broke, I stuck to my rule. I’m not a leader. I told the men that the night was theirs and sat down among them. One by one, the men shared what they were learning, and almost every one of the twenty men in attendance had something to share.
The men were so encouraged that they walked out of the meeting room singing a hymn with smiles on their faces. I’m not a prison expert, but I’m pretty sure you don’t see inmates walking the halls singing all that often. Driving home that night, I could see it all so clearly: Good things happen when I don’t lead.
I’ve since gotten better at saying “yes” to the areas where I can serve others with my gifts and “no” to the things that would flop with me in charge.
Given oversight and regular follow up, I can decimate a to-do list. Put me in charge of a bake sale and all of the kids will be weeping by the end of the day. I’m a follower, an assistant, a worker bee. Do not put me in charge.
Sometimes we hear about people who are changing the world, and we worry about what we’ll ever do for God. Everything we could do seems small and doomed for failure. Maybe it is.
Then again, a failure may be a really good thing. Failure in ministry may close off some options for the future. Failure may give us enough wisdom and focus to recognize the right ministry when it comes along.