Learn from Sunday School Failure

Saturday 5th April, 2008

Over the years, I have seen lots of Sunday School failures. I have seen new classes launched which never grew and had to be closed. I have seen new teachers enlisted who had to be removed after moral failure. I have seen other teachers who became undependable. I have seen others who did not do the job. I have seen reorganization cause a split. I have seen Sunday Schools who ignored the need to reorganized who continued a downward attendance spiral. I have seen major teacher/worker shortages that were not addressed through training or enlistment processes. I have seen Sunday Schools which had not started new classes in years. The list of failures goes on an on.

Recently I read an article that put these experiences in an appropriate perspective. Robert Jeffress wrote an article entitled Don't Mess Up for Free: Learning from Ministry Mistakes. In the article by Jeffress, he states, "Failure isn't really failure if you learn from it." There is so much truth in that statement. So many Sunday School lesson that I have learned have come following times of failure. In his article, Jeffress suggests nine questions we should ask others, ourselves, and God. I will share his questions in all capitals followed by my commentary:

Questions to ask others:

  • WHO COULD PROVIDE ME WISE COUNSEL TO HELP ME RECOVER FROM THIS FAILURE? This needs to be asked before asking others questions. Who are the right Sunday School leaders to involve? When possible, bring in those who know more about the situation. But sometimes there are insightful people whose perspective and advice are valuable even when they know nothing about the failure. But it may also be helpful to ask this question of people who have already been enlisted to give you help. They may be able to suggest additional Sunday School leaders whose wise counsel should be sought.
  • WHY DO YOU THINK I FAILED? Wise counsel can help us to head off future failure. Debrief with other Sunday School leaders you can trust. When no one else is involved, walk one or more other persons through what led up to the failure, and seek their insight. Make it a learning moment (and maybe a teaching moment for those who are listening).
  • WHAT WRONG ATTITUDES OR ASSUMPTIONS DO YOU THINK LED TO MY FAILURE? Expect Sunday School leaders who are giving you input to think beyond the facts. Ask them to ask questions. Ask them to help you move to contributing factors behind the scenes. Ask, "What was wrong with my thinking that led to this failure?"

Questions to ask yourself: 

  • HAVE I REALLY FAILED OR JUST FALLEN SHORT OF AN UNREALISTIC GOAL? Sometimes we are our own worst critics. Be honest with yourself. Could you have known or acted differently? Were your goals too high? Did you expect the class to grow too fast? Did you start too late enlisting leaders? How could you make sure future goals are more realistic?
  • IS MY FAILURE PRIMARILY THE RESULT OF OTHER PEOPLE, ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES, OR MY OWN WRONG CHOICES? Some things are out of our control. You planned a training event in January and a major snow storm hits forcing you to cancel the training. Another leader agrees to arrange for the food for a planning meeting, and they forgot. Or was your timing wrong or did you just make one wrong choice? Mentally address how this could be avoided next time.
  • WHOM DO I KNOW WHO HAS MADE THE SAME MISTAKE AND RECOVERED FROM IT? This is always a great question. If an Sunday School leader in your church or a nearby church can be identified, he or she co uld help you put the current situation into proper perspective and remind you that there is life after Sunday School failure. He/she can offer some clean up advice or encouragement.

Questions to ask God:

  • AM I DOING SOMETHING IN MY LIFE THAT DISPLEASES YOU? Depending on the failure, this may need to be the first question asked. Look for sin in your life. Ask Him to help you see it. Be honest with yourself and with God. It may even be that there is something displeasing in your life that is not directly tied to the Sunday School failure. Confess and ask for His forgiveness and help.
  • WHAT CHANGES COULD I MAKE IN MY LIFE THAT WOULD PLEASE YOU THE MOST? As a result of this Sunday School failure, pray for insight into mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational changes that need to take place. Ask Him to give you His perspective. Ask for His help. Praying this way opens your acceptance of change and His way versus your way.
  • AM I MORE CONCERNED WITH YOUR APPROVAL OR THE APPROVAL OF OTHER PEOPLE? Sometimes we care more about what people think than we should. In order to avoid future Sunday School failures, asking this question can help us to become aware of ways in which we are influenced. We may need to pray more during those moments.

I like how Jeffress closes his article suggesting that you allow other people (Sunday School leaders and God) in your life to serve as your "advance warning system" so you can avoid failure rather than having to learn constantly from your mistakes. His question is a good one, "Do you have people in your life who will tell you the truth, no matter how much it hurts at the time?" Seek wise counsel. Risk when appropriate. In life and Sunday School work, failure is going to happen. In those times, learn from failure and then it can become a learning experience! Be revolutionary.

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