Today I was on a panel for a Center for Teaching Excellence presentation at Southern Methodist University. Our panel consisted of 3 of us professors, one from the business school, one a physicist, and yours truly, the theologian. Our task was to share in 10 minutes apiece how we engage in “high impact teaching.” I talked about creating community gardens that then take on a life of their own and go in directions you never imagined. The business professor described a class she teaches that actually produces television commercials that are used by a major sports channel. But the presentation that keeps repeating itself in my mind came from Dr. Sekula, the physics professor who teaches his students how to fail boldly.
Failure, he said, is the key to being a scientist. Without a willingness to fail boldly, over and over again, there would be no scientific breakthroughs. Failure is how we learn, he said, as he showed slides depicting some of his students earning impressive awards for their achievements. For every achievement there are many necessary failures.
So I have been thinking about that, how failure has played out in my personal life and how I see it playing out in the church.
Last week I spent time at a national gathering for United Methodists who start new faith communities and endeavor to revive failing churches. As I talked with many people, listened to stories, and heard the questions that were raised, over and over I heard fear of failure. I wanted to gather up all the frightened and anxious people, the bean counters, the creatives, the apostolic types and the dreamers. I wanted to tell them over a cold beer to relax. Breathe. Fail.
Whatever freedom I have in my life, whatever wisdom might be forming, whatever capacity for kindness, compassion, empathy, and mercy have all come through experiences of failure.
That’s the way it is.
I wonder if we can take our cue from high impact teacher physicist Dr. Sekula, and help one another learn to fail our way into a better future?