What happened? How did I end up in this mess? I had such great plans, how did they all fall apart? Many of us have asked these questions when confronted with failure. Failure is a part of every life, even successful ones. While dealing with failure is never easy, those times we do not succeed are usually opportunities for learning and growth. If we do not learn the lessons then simple failure becomes a tragedy.
Failure in all forms is difficult but dealing with the failure of a church is especially hard. I saw this first hand 7 years ago when I was asked to preach to a church that was in its final days. The church had at one time been a thriving congregation of over a thousand. On the Sunday I was invited to speak the congregation had dwindled to fewer than 100 and had just made the decision to hand all of their property and facilities over to another church in town. It was a sad day. It was my goal that morning to find some positive lessons in the midst of the sadness.
I turned to a biblical story from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, a tale of a time when the nation of Israel faced a disastrous failure. There I found lessons on why people fail that were applicable then and are still applicable today.
In 1 Samuel 4 the story is told that the people of Israel were defeated in battle by their enemies the Philistines. The leaders of Israel came up with a solution to this defeat and prepared to reengage the enemy. They sent someone home to fetch the Ark of the Covenant (a gold plated box that symbolized the presence of God) and bring it to the battlefield. Their logic seemed to be, "God is in the Ark, so if we bring the Ark,we bring God. If we bring God, we will win!"
Their lack of true spirituality revealed when the ark was brought to the battlefield by two priests who should have been removed from office years earlier. They were incredibly dishonest and immoral men, thieves and adulteres who clearly did not honor God or His law. Nevertheless, they were deemed worthy of escorting the ark to the battlefield. Believing that the ark guaranteed God’s blessing and ensured victory, the people let out a mighty cheer when the ark arrived, a cheer so loud that it caused fear in the Philistine ranks. The Israelite joy was short lived. Their plans and thinking were revealed as foolish shortly after the battle started. They were routed by the Philistines, their priests were killed and the ark was stolen. Over 30,000 Israelite soldiers were slaughtered.
When news of the defeat reached the Israelites back home despair resulted. The father of the priests fell over backwards at the news and broke his neck. His daughter-in-law, wife of one of the priests, was in labor, giving birth to a son when the news came. There were serious complications during the delivery and she knew she was about to die. Overcome with despair at the loss of her husband and Israel's crushing defeat she named her son Ichabod, which means, “The Glory has departed.” She died convinced that the blessings of God were gone, that the nation of Israel was crushed and abandoned. It was a dark time of great failure for the Jewish people.
A close look at the story reveals common causes of failure in communities of faith, lessons for all of us today.
1- The people tried to do it their way. They thought they could do whatever they wanted and expected God to go along with their plans. They had an idea, going to war, and tried to get God to go along with it by bringing the ark. When people and churches fail it is often because they have gone their own way and expected God to follow. Many of my greatest mistakes have come in times when I was supremely confident that I knew what I was doing.
2- The people of Israel had leaders who made bad decisions and used flawed reasoning. Following bad leaders almost always leads to failure. In the Biblical example the leaders were mistaken in their understanding of the workings of God. It was the elders of Israel who had the idea of bringing the ark to the battlefield thinking that it would guarantee victory. So often leaders are wrongly convinced that they know exactly how things will play out. They get overconfident, place too much faith in themselves and everyone fails. We see this in organizations and even Churches today which often undone by leaders who mistakenly think they know how things should work or how God moves. Incompetent leaders don't make good choices!
3- The Israelites refused to deal with bad leadership. The immorality of the priests was widely known but was allowed to continue unchallenged for many years. I have seen this in business and even in small offices. When bad leadership is not addressed, failure results. Too often organizations and faith communities will sweep dysfunction under the carpet instead of dealing with it.
4- The true cause of their failure eluded them. They did not see that they were at fault and instead blamed God. The dying woman expressed this, saying"The Glory has departed," implying God had abandoned them. Our failures are typically our fault! Blaming others causes us to not learn valuable lessons.
My concluding points to the sermon I preached years ago still have relevance to people and churches now.
- We need to put less confidence in our own decisions. We need to be willing to question ourselves and seek wise counsel. For Christians, this means making sure we are following God's plans and not our own.
- We need to be careful who we follow. Organizations (including churches) cannot function if every decision is analyzed and questioned, but they can't survive if there is only blind obedience. When it comes time to choose leaders we need to be diligent and cautious.
- We need to hold our leaders accountable and not ignore their sins and repeated mistakes. Dealing with failed leadership is difficult, but it is essential.
- We need to resist the trap of thinking that failure is the end. The dying woman declared that "the Glory had departed from Israel." As we read through the Old Testament we learn that Israel's greatest days and triumphs still lay ahead of her. It is easy to get caught up in our failure and want to give up. If we do we may miss out on what God has in store.
Powerful lessons from failures thousands of years ago!
As indicated by the subtitle of the blog, my musings range from medicine to ministry to the meaning of life. I pray those post has stimulated reflection. If you found it helpful, please share it with your friends. For those new to the blog you can subscribe to future posts by clicking the subscribe button on the page. Posts on Medicine and marriage are coming soon! You can follow me on Twitter @bartbarrettmd. Comments are welcome! For those in Southern California, you are invited to join me this Sunday morning. 10:30 at Valley Baptist Church, 2201 West Alameda in Burbank. I will be speaking on dealing with criticism and tough times.