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Permission to Fail

By Guest Contributor July 22, 2014

By Kyle Rohane

“I can’t do it,” he cried. We stood below, shouting words of encouragement. “You’ve got this! Think about how good it will feel to be finished!” But to him, we didn’t exist. The only two things in the world were the pole he was bear-hugging and the forest floor, so far away.

It took everything in us to get him up the pole to the tightrope in the first place. Thirty minutes later, he hadn’t taken a single step along the rope, and the situation was starting to feel like a hostage negotiation. We tried affirmation: “You’re stronger than you know.” We tried bribery: “If you make it to the end, you can be first in line for dinner tonight.” We even got him to speak with a loved one: “Dan, this is your sister. I just want you to know that we’re all rooting for you.” But the negotiation wasn’t working.

It takes a lot to make a 16-year-old, high school athlete cry in front of his friends. But a paralyzing fear of heights and half an hour of humiliation did the trick. He let out a sob that was half terror and half fury, and everyone on the ground turned their heads away in embarrassment. I walked up to the counselor running the ropes course and said, “I think it’s time to let him back down.” But the counselor shook his head. I asked why, expecting to learn about the safety regulations keeping students from backing out of a course. Instead, the counselor said, “At this camp, failure is not an option.”

Not an Option?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the upside of failure—articles, books, even a conference. But this concept is especially poignant in the realm of youth ministry. For some reason, we have a hard time letting students make mistakes. Maybe it’s because so much of our job involves dealing with the fallout of those mistakes. Maybe it comes from the pressure of helicopter parents with missiles targeting us, just waiting for an opportunity to fire. Whatever the reason, we aren’t doing students any favors by removing their ability to fail.

Tigers, wolves, cheetahs, bears, and other predators raised in captivity only have a 33 percent chance of survival when released into the wild. Why? Because life’s been too easy. They have nothing to fear. Wild predators know the desperation of hunting for survival, and they’ve learned from early failures. Captive-born predators are used to being fed, and they’re too trusting of humans and other large carnivores. When the consequences of failure shoot from nothing to fatal, most captive-born predators can’t keep up.

In truth, the camp counselor I spoke to was wrong. Failure is always an option, if not now, then certainly down the road. More than that, failure is inevitable. Everyone messes up from time to time. Everyone makes mistakes—big ones, the kind that hurt others and change lives. But life goes on, and leaders prove their salt based on how they respond to mistakes as much as how they avoid them.

When Dan finally inched his way across the chasm-spanning rope and found his footing on solid dirt, the counselor ran up to him with a cheek-to-cheek grin. “You did it! Don’t you feel accomplished? Aren’t you glad you succeeded?” But Dan wouldn’t even look at him. The tears on his face and the pit in his stomach told him that he hadn’t actually succeeded. He’d failed 30 minutes ago. The counselor could pat himself on the back knowing that 100 percent of the students under his care had completed the course. But Dan had to live with this humiliating episode burned into his memory forever.

A Test Track

Of course, there’s a flip side to this issue. At the end of the day, we are there to protect our students. They’re still learning the ropes, and some may mess up in ways that would kill any forward momentum if they felt the full weight of their consequences. We should be ready with a safety net in those situations.

Youth ministry is like a test track. We aren’t yet throwing students into rush-hour traffic on the highway. But they should be in the car, driving. And they should experience real consequences for their mistakes. Some are minor, like hitting an orange cone. But others are a big deal, like running into a barricade and totaling the car. Yet mistakes made on a test track aren’t fatal. And when the test drive is over, students are able to debrief with an instructor to evaluate their responses and to imagine how they can avoid those mistakes in the future.

Back in middle school, I once committed to fasting for 30 hours (not that long, looking back on it) to raise awareness of hunger around the world. But 15 hours in, my stomach started to growl. I rationalized, How does depriving myself of food help starving people, anyways? As I threw in the metaphorical towel and started opening a bag of chips, I half expected my parents to stop me. But they didn’t. They encouraged me to stick to my commitment, explained the importance of what I was doing, and reminded me of the other youth group members going through the same thing. That pushed me for five more hours. But in the end, I decided a handful of chips wouldn’t hurt.

But it did hurt. It hurt when I saw the disappointment in my parents’ eyes. It hurt when I had to confess my failure to my youth pastor. It hurt when I saw the accomplishment of the other students who had stuck with it. In the grand scheme of things, that small failure doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it stuck with me. It has motivated me as an adult because I learned early on the consequences of giving up when others were counting on me.

Take Down the Bumpers

So what does all this mean for you as a youth worker? Think of it in bowling terms. Are you acting like the students’ bumpers, helping them get a strike every time? If so, ask yourself this question: The minute I’m out of the picture, will students still succeed? Serving as an artificial barrier against failure feels great because it plays into our savior mentality. But putting up bumpers isn’t the same as teaching someone to bowl.

Give your students permission to fail. Help them to see the youth ministry as a safe place to ask questions, try new things, and push themselves. When they do mess up, mine the experience for all it’s worth. If students can discover now that failure is just as good a teacher as success, you’ll be preparing them for life after youth ministry—into college and beyond.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More