Notes from a Successful Failure


It’s so nice out today. Recent rain and a cooling off period! A cardinal brightens my view and a light breeze carresses this early fall in Austin.

This is a lucky time, a liminal time.  Between jobs I can simply fantasize about my next ministry; anticipate without the burden of specifics; reflect on generalized anxieties that stem from a lifetime of experience.

I would love to know if any of this applies to you, my faithful readers, so do let me know!

Self-deprecation, self-doubt: I am my own worst critic. I’m smart enough and experienced enough to know how inadequate I am to life, to vocation (in my case, ministry). Praise feeds my ego and every criticism goes straight to my stash of inferiority. Compliments from unexpected quarters leave me both grateful and amazed. Loved ones may say I’m great, but how can they be objective? On the other hand, doesn’t self-criticism place me smack in the middle of humanity? Believe in it or not, I know I can do  a good  job.

[Here’s where you can substitute your own fine qualities]: Speaking for myself, I have plenty of experience and ability; a gift for collaboration and synthesis, and a calming presence in groups and with individuals.  Whether or not I am called to a specific place, I can remain confident in my ministerial excellence

Perfectionism: Perfection is perhaps a worthy goal but it is neither attainable NOR necessary! My seminary friend Nan posted a quotation on her computer–“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” She was even more of a perfectionist than I and she was brilliant! The quote was not an invitation to do poor work nor to slack off but simply to say, Do Something and let go of the expectation that it will transform the world. The perfect sermon/essay/column/report is probably still a blank document. Plain paper, blank screen. Just do the writing then edit later if there’s time.

Until something is written there is nothing to edit. Until the text is read or the sermon is delivered there is nothing for reflection. Okay, then, I am a perfectionist by nature and always seek to do my best. However, I meet deadlines and come prepared. My sermons are rich, thoughtful, and full of content and story. My delivery is not flashy even after an acting class and an improv class but I am comfortable in the pulpit with notes or outline and there are plenty of people who like them!

Wounded Healer: I am aware of my family dynamics and from whence come the wounds and scars. I have had ample family systems training and use systems theory in my work.

But here’s the good news. My failings as a professional are simply failings as a person. They are part and parcel of my character. They mark me as human (imagine)!  That very simple statement brings me comfort today. Our work in no way expects perfection no matter how many complaints or snide remarks may be thrown our way. Indeed, ministry expects humanity.

We are expected to do our best with our gifts and challenges and within ethical boundaries. We love praise but we learn to live with the complaints that yea, verily, we disappointed or royally screwed up. Sure, we may not be right for a particular ministry, but we are inherently worthy. At the very least we have significant education, multiple supervisors, mentors, and evaluations along the way, and ever-increasing quantities of life experience. We can model what a compassionate and competent person can do when we fail.

Moving to a new home or city or employment is one way to make a new start, but still we bring our best and worst selves along for the ride.

One more thought. I can let God be God–hold all that perfection and ideal and power that eludes every single one of us–and I am human, just doing my best with the choices and challenges life brings. End of sermon!

P.S. About an hour after I wrote the earlier reflection, I accepted the offer of a nine-month ministry as assistant to the Rev. Daniel O’Connell at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston! The previous assistant had resigned abruptly and this is to finish out the church year. Back to weekly commuting to/from Austin as I have done before. I think I will learn a lot at First UU, a church that is anchoring a transition to satellite churches–4 clergy for 3 campuses. Hmm, a 3-ring circus!

8 responses »

  1. A shift in the seasons provides the opportunity to reflect on life’s changes. The older I get, the more aware I become of the cycles of the seasons and how they signify the passing of time. The awareness of time passing also calls to mind life’s achievements and failures. When focused on shortcomings, too often we find ourselves boxed in by thoughts that could as easily open windows and doors to new experiences. By reaching a goal or making a mistake, a person can be tagged with a certain talent, skill set or capability – or lack thereof. In science, lack of success in one trial points the way toward future possibilities. In other facets of life, failure can result in a permanent label that thwarts personal and professional growth.

    This week a friend mentioned seeing a clock that was marked “NOW” at every interval. What is it we want to do NOW? Freeing ourselves to see the possibilities of each new day is a good start.

    • Very nicely said. NOW is the time; NOW is the season; and we are in this moment. Sometimes it takes a little vinegar or elbow grease to clean an overlooked window.

  2. Best wishes for a wonderful experience in Houston. They are very lucky to find you available. Blessings to you (and Jon).

    • Hey, Nan! So good to hear from you! I just got back from finding an apartment in Houston, but will not plan to move there permanently unless the universe surprises me again. It’s a short-term, interim position through July, so it doesn’t make sense to relocate. Jon is pretty well tied to Austin, except for trips to visit me! I’ll send you an email so we can reconnect.

  3. Beautifully written, Kathleen. I resonated with much of what you said. I love your let God be God statement. In fact, I think I’m going to quote you to an eating disorder parent support group! Don’t you love the ripple effect?! Thank you for your ministry.

    How exciting to have this new challenge at First Church Houston. I look forward to your reflections on your new adventure!

    • Thanks, Carolyn! I have an apartment lined up and will write about that next.

      I love knowing I can help your ministry in some small way. Of course, God is as big as we need God to be. And BE is a big concept for us all.



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