August 23, 2020 • De Pree Journal
If we make too many mistakes in public, people will start to wonder about us. The solution is to run experiments on the margins. This is, of course, the opposite of what we tend to do as Christian organizations. Usually we announce our intentions as big plans.
For example, I have worked closely with the Fuller Youth Institute in training churches that want to implement Sticky Faith, an innovative way of doing youth ministry. We teach the congregations to try experiments on the margins without fanfare. But many ministries pursue the opposite strategy. They announce a new program, give it a name, and perhaps design a logo. They publicize it as if it were a finished product. Then they lose credibility when the first experiment is a successful first step but not a finished product. They invite people to watch them make their rookie mistakes.
Let me offer an analogy to show why this is a bad strategy. I taught my daughter to drive by taking her to the church parking lot on a quiet afternoon to practice simple maneuvers. But let’s say that my daughter was really nervous about learning to drive. And let’s say I decided to get her some support. Perhaps I built a grandstand in the church parking lot and invited all her friends and family, her youth group, and her grandparents. They all sat in the grandstand cheering her on while she fumbled through her first attempts to drive. They held up banners with her name. They chanted encouraging messages. They even waved giant cutouts of her head like it was a college basketball game. Would she experience that attention as support or as pressure? It surely would just make it harder to learn. Every mistake would be magnified by the attention. It would no longer be a safe place to experiment: the cost of failing forward in public is too high.
Yet that’s what congregations do when they announce big plans and make big promises about innovative programs before they have worked out the kinks. Experiments need to be in the quiet shadows so that they have room to fail their way to building success.
Instead of a grand announcement with a logo and theme music, youth ministries could try experiments that incorporate new ideas into what looks like the ongoing work of the youth ministry. Use a portion of the singing time to do something a little different; try a new way of teaching; incorporate a new idea into a weekly small group; or take a portion of the annual mission trip to do something new. All these experiments come under the cover of what looks like ongoing programs. No one outside the leadership team needs to know that they are experiments. Stealth experiments reduce the cost of failing our way forward. Every rookie makes mistakes. It takes time to learn. Don’t sign up to make your rookie mistakes in public.
Scott Cormode, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. The Hugh De Pree faculty chair was established by the family of the late Hugh De Pree, an accomplished leader and former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., and brother of Max De Pree.
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