James Howell: Fail the way Jesus did

How to think about failure in a culture at odds with it.

For more on the theme of failure, check out Faith & Leadership's interview with Henry Petroski and a reflection from J.R. Briggs, organizer of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference.

It’s that time of year -- probably, but not inevitably -- when we United Methodists get this sharpened sense of simul iustus et peccator (wait, that’s Latin, or Lutheran for “At once justified and sinner”). The iustus dawns during Holy Week, when we wave green fronds, mutter behind a table, cast dark cloths over the cross, hear the trumpets of Easter morning and focus on the wonder of the gospel. The peccator intrudes in the form of gossip, rumor laced with a few facts, regarding clergy assignments about to be announced -- nothing official yet, only inevitable, titillating leaks. Other denominations must have some analogous process, just as quirky but perhaps spread throughout the year; we Methodists get it all bunched up at once, like the Holy Days.

We speak of Jesus’ washing feet but just two hours earlier I felt annoyed (secretly, you never admit these thing) that John Doe, my seminary classmate who wasn’t and still isn’t so brilliant, got yet another plumb assignment, while I’m still toiling away with mean-spirited Judases and uncomprehending Peters in a place I feel trapped. Or as one friend put it to me recently, it’s not that the church system has ever outright wounded him; he simply realizes he is the one “unchosen.” At dusk on Good Friday we robe for a shadowy service and read of the suffering servant, but then we might prefer to talk about suffering service in a finer place, with grander musical accompaniment and a larger crowd.

We really do care for our sisters and brothers and are intrigued by the transitions they face, leaving one pastorate and venturing into the next. But it can unearth a most seedy side of our ministerial selves. Even if one isn’t personally affected, or even if one is retired or at the alleged pinnacle of the “church business,” news of changes still elicits a capitalist, Darwinian mood; we assess, we judge, we might celebrate or we might roll our eyes -- although it must be Jesus who once more shudders.

Explain the understandably competitive manner in which we clergy tend to operate to bankers or salespeople, and they may blush a little, thinking clergy are selfless and godly, but they would comprehend fully the presence of, need for and virtues of a ladder. We may preach of downward mobility and humility -- and the bankers and salespeople may even nod appreciatively -- but they are thoroughly immersed in a culture at odds with Jesus’ way.

Sadly, embarrassingly, tragically, so are we.

But just maybe -- and that’s the Easter morning gasp, “maybe” -- you’re reading this and thinking, “Been there, done that, over it.” Maybe it’s because you were running in fourth to last place and got tired, but maybe it’s because grace really did settle in on you. My seminarian daughter urged me to read a book on the Holy Spirit she had just devoured, and it rather helpfully assesses Jesus’ failure:

“It is the Spirit who gives Jesus the freedom to fail. In the Spirit, Jesus can choose to receive from another rather than to keep for himself. The advantage of that for human beings is that we who do not have for ourselves can receive from the Spirit in and with him. He can lose his life rather than save it, because he can receive it again from the Spirit. Because he can receive from the Spirit what he has given up, human beings can receive with him from the Spirit what they have never had.”

Read that again. Somehow after contemplating it, I bet “failure” in ministry doesn’t even feel like failure any more -- or we realize our failures aren’t in the pecking order but in the zone of openness to transforming grace; we lose “his” life. Then the other guy looks like a holy failure, too.

That same book on the Holy Spirit made an intriguing remark:

“Marriage and monasticism are but two forms of the same discipline, in which human beings are formed by the perceptions of others to whom they are so committed that they cannot easily escape. Marriage like monasticism exposes the worst in human beings, so that it can be healed.”

The author should add “ministry” to that twosome, don’t you think?

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.