Five Stages of Dealing With Failure


Perhaps you've heard of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). I wonder if a similar list could help define the stages a leader goes through when his or her organization is failing. I know such a list (at least in hind sight) is helping me.

In the past year at Granger, we have been trying to get our minds and hearts around some of the data that points to failure...or if not failure, at least a lack of meeting our expectations. What do you do when not as many people are inviting their friends...not as many have a biblical worldview...not as many are tithing...not as many are reading their Bible...not as many are attending...and not as many are being baptized?

These questions are very real for us right now, and the following list represents some of the stages of failure I have recently experienced...

  • Justify. Well, the attendance is down because of the weather. Everyone is at the Notre Dame home game. People aren't reading their Bibles because we have so many seekers. The economy is in the tank so people aren't giving.

Sometimes there are rational reasons for failure, but if you continue to explain it away over time, it begins to look like an excuse rather than a reason. You can justify a week or even an entire season...but it's difficult to justify trends that are happening over time.

  • Question. Perhaps the stats are wrong. Maybe we didn't ask the question in the right way. I bet a certain category of people refused to take the survey and so the results are skewed.

When we don't like what the data says, it is so easy to question its' validity. We look deep for one anomaly. We find the one piece where we can cast doubt on the data...thus causing a large shadow over all the findings. Then it makes it easier to say everything is okay. The problem isn't the church, it's the data.

  • Blame. It's the fault of the congregation. They stopped giving. They stopped inviting their friends. They think they're mature and deep, but they aren't contributing to the cause.They are whining but not helping.

In our frustration, we blame the people. We might even design messages with a prophetic tone to get them to be better, stronger and more committed. Rather than lead them through the difficulty, we preach them through it.

  • Redefine. Well, it's not attendance that really matters anyway. We'd rather have 100 mature believers than 1,000 in a crowd. It doesn't matter how many are coming in our doors--what really matters is how many we are sending out our doors.

Instead of figuring out why we keep missing the target, we just move the target to the location where our arrows are landing. Rather than adopting a "both/and" mentality -- we say that it is "either/or." We are tempted to say, "Either we are growing in numbers or we are growing in our faith. It can't be both. Either we are having an impact on the community or we are helping believers mature. It can't be both. Either we are attractional or we are missional. It can't be both." Really? Why not? I think it is dangerous to redefine success just because we are missing the mark.

  • Lead.  At some point, we decide to lead. We stop blaming, questioning, justifying or redefining--and we hunker down and lead through the crisis. We figure out what is wrong and we get on our faces before God, and we begin to fix it. We face the really tough data and talk about the facts of our situation which might be embarrasing or self-condemning. We acknowledge where we are wrong and we get risky and determine to try some stuff to get back on track. We stick our necks out and cancel some stuff that has perceived success, and add some stuff that has no historical track record. We work through the feeling of failure, the muddy conversations and awkward staff meetings. We don't jump ship because the waters are suddenly rocky. No, instead we rally the troops, and we do what leaders do in times of crisis...we lead.

Anyone else identify with any of these stages of failure?