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Failure and discipleship formation


WORLD Radio - Failure and discipleship formation

How do we handle failure in our discipleship process? Today we’re joined by Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie, and Jessie Swigart to explore the pitfalls and positives of missing the mark.

KELSY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.


KELSEY: Today, we have a panel of guests joining us and we’re excited about the conversation we have the privilege to share with you today. But before we dive in, we want to invite you to write or record your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: So as we observe culture and current events, sometimes we notice specific trends or stories. Other times, we notice these perennial themes, concepts that show up in all sorts of stories over and over again. And this is one of those moments. We want to look at a theme we grapple with constantly in the news—but not only that, also in our own lives, and in our own discipleship. Today, we’re talking about failure.

That word can strike fear into our hearts. We think of failure in an academic context, like this big red F on a test. But what is failure, exactly? What does it do for us? And is it really all bad? We want to start today by exploring those questions in a discipleship context—what failure means for our own formation. In a later episode, we’re going to come back to look at failure on a broader cultural scale. But to help us explore this topic today, as Kelsey mentioned, we have several guests with us.

KELSEY: So joining us today on Concurrently are a handful of people who have had a profound impact in my own formation. Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie, and Jessie Swigart, who is a Ph.D. candidate under Dr. Guthrie right now.

Bob serves as a Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham, North Carolina. He’s married to Janet, 46 years now. They have two sons and eight grandchildren. Prior to serving at Good Shepherd, he served as Associate Professor and Dean of Continuing Education at Covenant Theological Seminary.

Donald is Professor and Director of the Educational Studies Ph.D. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He’s married to Mary and has a son and daughter-in-law and a daughter. He serves as an elder at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in Vernon Hills, Illinois.

And Jessie is Dean of Academic Administration and Assistant Professor of Educational Ministries at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. She lives in South St. Louis with her rescue pit bull and worships at New City South. As I said, Jessie is a Ph.D. student at TEDS, where she’s exploring professional identity formation and communities of practice. Welcome all of you. We’re so glad to have you with us.

So Jonathan asked some great questions to help us launch into our material for today. And so he’s keeping us accountable to that expression, that exercise of defining our terms before we engage discussion. So first of all, just what do we mean when we use the word failure? And what do we need to consider in our definition? Now I’m going to pose the question first to you, Donald, and then I’m going to facilitate each of us going around and around as we go through. So, Donald, that question to you first.

DONALD GUTHRIE: Yeah, I think the kind of the normal definition of failure is a “missing of a mark.” I guess I like to think of it more as an iteration opportunity. I have a colleague who did a whole bunch of research on something called craft learning. And at the core of craft learning, which is learning in a group or organization, is the notion of something called educative failure. So failure, you might say, is a terrible thing to waste, because it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn. Sometimes you just miss a mark—I mean, so the traditional definition holds. But often there’s lots to learn and iterate and have some more perhaps success the next time.

KELSEY: So failure is opportunity. Jessie, I would love for you to continue on, as we add our definitions in a snowball effect here.

JESSIE SWIGART: Oh, yeah, I totally agree that failure, most simply, refers to a process or an outcome that doesn’t align with a goal or a standard or an expectation. But the thing about failure and deciding what is failure and what is not, is those goals, standards, and expectations. Whose goals, standards, and expectations? And those things can exist across the domains of our human existence. So goals, standards, expectations could be intellectual. They could be physical, relational, or moral. And to whom are those standards—who are we accountable to? Are we accountable to ourselves? Are we accountable to someone else? Whose expectations do we have in mind when we are considering whether a failure has indeed taken place?

KELSEY: So even as we think about our definition, we’re having to think of persons within it. You know, who is the accountability or the authority that is setting these standards? And also, you’re talking about so many locations for those standards to occur, when we’re talking about the domains of learning—our emotions, our morals, our social—many, many places where we learn as human beings. So we’ve talked about opportunity. We’ve talked about expectations and standards. We talked about missing a mark. We talked about the who of failure. Bob, what would you want to add into this definition where it is?

BOB BURNS: I think a couple of things. One is that the word failure in and of itself is really imprecise. It really is a subjective response to circumstances and situations, my response and the response of the people around me, and can go from—the range from the very smallest issues or problems to major, major instances. And it also has a great deal to do with my emotional response to a situation, the embarrassment I might feel. Again, Jessie set the table with that thinking about the expectations I have, the expectations other people have. I think a third thing I would want to simply say is kind of building back on something Donald said, and that is that failure is one of the most significant contexts from my own personal learning as I reflect on my own life. I don’t think of a lot of the learning I’ve done through quote unquote “success.” But I have a lot of learning, going all the way back to my earliest memories of childhood, from my failures. So failure is an experiential learning context, to put it another way.

KELSEY: I really appreciate you redefining it through that experience, and also through the lens of subjective. So much of it has to do with how am I feeling about the experience of learning? And we’ve tried to wrestle with this concept a little bit in the podcast, but I know through my time with you, we’ve talked about that dissonance that we experience when we’re learning. And so failure seems to be one of the key prompts for dissonance in our learning process. So each of these categories, it’s really hard to simplify, to condense into one thing, but I love each of the colors, and shades you brought out. And maybe it’s good to draw this conclusion that it is going to be disruptive to us, it is going to cause some dissonance. “Growing pains” might be a simple way of putting it. So failure: It produces growth in us, but not without some of those growing pains as we adjust to this idea that failure is a part of the learning process.

I’d love to know what shaped each of your thinking regarding failure in this process, and what the benefits are of embracing failure. So Jessie, I’d love for you to start. What really shaped your thinking here?

JESSIE: Yeah, first I want to mention—so I am, maybe by the time this podcast releases, but I am not quite yet a candidate in the PhD program at TEDS. I will be once my proposal, through a process of failure and iteration, is approved. So I’m looking forward to that.

But for me, I have never been comfortable with failure. I think I’ve had some pretty unhealthy emotional responses to failure. I can remember the first time I got something wrong on a school assignment. I still remember, in first grade, receiving a worksheet back and something being marked wrong on that worksheet. And I remember like the lump in my throat and desperately trying to fight back tears. And so I think, for a long time, I’ve seen a failure as something to be avoided, and had a lot of shame associated with failure. I remember thinking, at some point in my teens, thinking like, okay, mistakes are inevitable. But I need to make all my mistakes now, like before I’m at the old age of 25. Because after 25, mistakes are surely not acceptable after that point, so I better learn really hard now so I won’t get in that situation!

What I think for me—how God really transformed my perspective on failure is, first of all, in early adulthood, I transitioned from being a student to being a high school teacher. And one of the things about being a teacher is, failure is inevitable. As hard as you try to avoid failure, and as hard as you try to have to always be successful, that will not happen to you if you are a teacher. Every single day is full of like 1,000 little mistakes that you see right away, and maybe a few dozen successes that you may never see. And I think it was like, in that environment of disequilibration, that the Lord really brought to me some people who modeled failure really well, where they would talk about what they got wrong and what they learned.

And in the midst of that, I transitioned to seminary. And at seminary, it was an explicit part of the conversation. People talked about being in process, all in the context of being secure in God’s love, that none of us have arrived, that we are all in process. And when you are in a community that is talking about that, that provides the richness for transformation to occur.

If I could tell one more story of after I started teaching at seminary. I was teaching a class and there was a student who was very averse to any attention being given to them in class. And at one point, I put them on the spot, and really, really, unintentionally, but in reality, really embarrassed them. And they told me about it. And I was just crushed. Like I was just crushed. And I went to another professor, and I was telling them about it. And they cheerfully said to me: “You blew it! Okay, what’s next?”

And that’s—it was like the world, the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I had messed up. But I was still accepted, and I was still part of this teaching and learning community, and I was able to think about, okay, now what was I going to do?

KELSEY: There’s so much in that to unpack, I can’t even attempt to give a full synopsis. But I’m hearing more echoes of that experiential process, but with reflection that’s intentionally engaged in that process. So there’s so much beauty that you’ve pointed towards, and I want to allow Bob to draw out some more of that beauty from, what shaped your thinking regarding failure in the learning process, and even the benefits of embracing it?

BOB: You know, as I think of that question, I’m actually going back to—the Lord brought me to Himself as a middle schooler, and I never had—I love my parents dearly—but my parents, we never had times of talking and processing failure and mistakes. They loved me. They accepted me. I can remember when I was in sixth grade, waiting to do a project, the big school project, and I waited to work on my project till the night before it was due. And I can remember my mother talking with me and supporting me, but there wasn’t a developmental process, you might say, that my parents walk with me in to try to help me think through and how to deal with failure and process that.

So when I became a Christian, the whole idea of the fact that God has accepted us in our brokenness, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that therefore sin is endemic in my personhood—that began to give me a framework to think about failure. I didn’t know it. I was just a seventh grader at that point. But it started to build into me an understanding of processing failure from a bigger perspective than just my losses, my own brokenness. And if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins. And so embedded in the whole Christian life process is not just an acknowledgement of my brokenness, but an acceptance by the Father, and still being loved and still being in the family.

Now, I’m still processing that. I’m not saying that, you know, at age 27, I finally went over the hump and realized how hard it is. I’m still processing. And I think that’s the whole center point of what we would call sanctification. And the sanctification process is one of recognizing our acceptance in the Beloved, and then at the same time allowing that acceptance to help me face the reality of my brokenness in repentance. And as I raised my sons, I can’t say that it came easy. But it was a process of trying. I always reflected upon Paul’s prayer in Ephesians chapter three, and this is from the New American Standard, where he says, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name.” And [I] just used to say, “Wow, the position that God’s given me as a dad is to reflect the acceptance to my sons that He has given to me in Christ Jesus, even as we deal with their failures.” And again, I’m still processing that, I’m still in a learning, growth mode for that, but the whole—our whole biblical theological framework of God’s acceptance for us that we are His children, we are His sons and daughters. He is our Abba. [That] creates a whole new environment to think about that failure from a different perspective.

KELSEY: Everything that you guys have said is saturated with the gospel. It provides for that teaching and learning process, that most intimate of processes in parenthood and Donald, you know, I think everything has been said. We were getting around to you, but what can you help us draw out further? I’m being silly when I think that there’s nothing more to be said on this very dense area. So what else can you draw out for us?

DONALD GUTHRIE: I guess I could add that I experienced what Jessie and Bob have said, through both my family and my mentors, my community. I mean, it was obviously a huge provision and a huge gift to me, that isn’t lost on me at all, but pretty consistent reinforcement of the notion that failure is not the end. It’s an opportunity, as Jessie said. Okay, so you messed up. So what’s next? Let’s go. Let’s learn. Let’s keep moving. That was sort of the constant refrain for which I’m super grateful, over the course of my life. And I think then later on, as I studied more, I guess, seriously and professionally, both the scripture and scholarship, I got more—I guess I got more language to go with this experience I’d had from the time I was a boy. There were names for these things, there were connected concepts. And it made more sense, both theoretically and scripturally, and experientially. And that’s been a really, sort of another big blessing. And now I get the opportunity for all these years of being a teacher myself to try to give this away and try to help other folk explore the whole notion that failure is not an end in itself.

KELSEY: So failure, process, practice, sanctification—all things that have this progressive element to them as we dive deeper into what growth looks like in the human life. So we’ve talked about things that should allow us to embrace it, but what impedes our willingness to embrace failure? You know, what are the obstacles that tend to get in our way as individuals or in community, or even culturally, what stands up as an impediment to us in terms of our cultural thinking? And Bob, would love to pose this to you first.

BOB: We have a natural desire to protect ourselves, to protect our image, to protect our status. Who’s going to voluntarily choose to publicize mistakes? So to be to be in a community where we’re accepted in the midst of our mistakes is a beautiful idea. But all of us are struggling with that. So in the context of the church, I was just talking this afternoon with my wife about a small group that she’s in, and about the level of trust that has been developed in that group. And she was relating how they’ve gotten to a certain point where they can open up about their struggles. But it’s not at a point yet where everybody feels free to disclose some of the deeper things going on. I think all of us, depending upon the context we’re in, are in this dance. It’s an unconscious dance, but it’s a dance of, how do you view me? How do I feel about myself? Am I accepted? Am I respected? If I blow it, how are things going to work out in that situation? So for Jessie to say she went to a partner, a professor, to process this, and that professor said—she didn’t say “Great!” but it was, “Okay, here we are! That’s where we’re at”—she experienced acceptance at that point. And in that acceptance, she could be released. “Okay, now I can process this.”

I think, in similar ways, that’s the way it is as a parent, when the child—again, talking about my wife. My wife grew up in a home, a non-Christian home with—I would classify, both of her parents have passed away, but classify her mother as passive, and her father as an aggressive abuser, who laid a perfectionistic standard upon [her]. And she has inner voices at this time in her life, where she’s still dealing with the voices of her father, telling her how she didn’t measure up. And everything about the scriptures, and everything about the gospel, says in Jesus, you’re accepted, you’re beloved. So this is that dance. And you get three Christians together, and they’re all in the same dance, seeking in the same process to work through these things.

And one of the things that I’ve been learning in the context of the church, in the context of leadership, is often the level of acceptance and the level of capacity to acknowledge my failures begins on the level of the leaders. So the level of the parents to be able to look their kids in the eye and say, “Dad really blew it, would you please forgive me?” Or for the pastor to be able to stand in front of a congregation or a Sunday school teacher to be able to stand up and acknowledge their own struggle, creates a context where people can begin to say, “Maybe this is a safe place where I can do that myself.”

KELSEY: It’s so important, what you’re saying, that leading of a response to failure, for the sake of leading someone to the gospel. When we lead out with a performance mentality, we do no credit to the gospel. And so again, that gospel saturation, that helps to tear down those impediments. But let’s keep addressing these obstacles that get in the way that. We can sometimes be, as parents, the obstacles that get in the way of this embrace of failure for the sake of the gospel becoming more in the life of the learner. So Donald, you’re next in this lineup. What do you see as impediments to this embracing of failure as individuals or within community, or even due to our cultural context?

DONALD: I think, building on what Bob said, I think maybe the foundation that leads to the performance substitute is insecurity. So if I’m insecure with myself, I mean, let alone let alone everybody else, I’m not sure what else I would do. I probably would just go to performance, or I’d maybe go to just opting out and quitting. But if I would, if I go towards activity, I’m going to go toward performance, to perform my way into acceptance from others, acceptance from the Lord, and so forth. I just think insecurity’s a real foundational roadblock to recognizing failure as an opportunity to grow and learn, because it’s just going to—my insecurity is just going to drive me deeper and further and further and deeper into myself and my failures, rather than into the Lord’s kindness and mercy, and into the kindness and mercy of others. There’s no neutrality here. It does kind of go one way or the other. And it kind of snowballs one way or the other. So I guess I’d put a lot of weight on insecurity as a—I don’t know, I’m not sure I’d say it’s the primary roadblock. I think it’s right up there, maybe to add to the conversation.

KELSEY: I get the benefit of seeing Jessie nodding, since we have this video element. Jessie, what would you like to add?

JESSIE: I think that is so fundamental, that insecurity. I think another way to say it is, like, it is a heart cry to belong. We want to belong. We fear that we don’t belong. And that motivates this need, or this, yeah, this compulsion to justify that we belong in the room. Carol Dweck, who is a psychological researcher, she has come up with what’s called mindset theory. And she talks about two basic mindsets, growth mindset or fixed mindset. And the difference between the two mindsets, generally, is someone with a growth mindset enters a challenge with a desire to grow, and you could say sees it as an opportunity to increase in competence. Someone with a fixed mindset enters that challenge, where their primary—they see their primary task as confirming their competence. So the difference between increasing competence or growing in competence, or confirming competence. And so what does that mean for us? If we have a fixed mindset, that means that in that situation, okay, our main task is to confirm that we can do this. And in the church that might look like, okay, I need to, whether I’m giving an answer to this Bible study question or if I’m teaching Sunday school or whatever I’m doing, I have to somehow prove that I still belong. And that, as you can imagine, that is life-taking. And it is a detriment to community. And I think, as Bob said, when you get—you know, when you get people together, who have this, what Don said, insecurity, that we unwittingly confirm and reinforce that fixed mindset in one another, that you already are all that you will ever be, and you just need to confirm that you still are that, so you can continue to belong.

KELSEY: Man, do I see myself in that. There’s such a mirror into my own mentality, my own mindset that I see standing in front of me as you describe those things. And there’s so much beauty in being able to even name those things, and see what the Lord is going to do as you willingly look into the mirrors that either a good friend sets up in front of you, or as we’ve mentioned before in the podcast, that scripture is to us, that we look into it long and hard, and see what it says about who we are, and hopefully hunger for growth. And so as we hunger for that growth, what are some intentional ways—and this is going to go to you first, Donald—what are some intentional ways we can seek to transform our perspective on failure? And how does that even transform our discipleship practices?

DONALD: Well, we’ve made lots of references to lots of different scripture already. I just take a lot of comfort—I’ll just pick two among the many, many, many. The scripture doesn’t hide people’s failures. That gives me a lot of confidence in the scripture. It gives me a lot of confidence in the authors of scripture and the Author of scripture. It’s not like people cleaned themselves up and were in scripture. I mean, my goodness, is that not true. Except for one, of course. There’s one. But you think about how–I’ll just put two quick examples. In 2 Samuel 11, where David spectacularly breaks all 10 commandments, like in one swoop. And then Psalm 51, basically publicly, in the assembly, talks about it and talks about the need for repentance, and just falling on the Lord’s mercy. You just go, okay, well, that’s a lesson to observe about what to do with failure.

And then the other person who I think is an amazing case study in scriptures is Peter. If Peter is still on the team, I have hope. Put it that way. What in the world is he still doing on the team? And yet, there he is. There he is. The Lord takes him for a walk after breakfast, restores him, and off they go. He still has some trouble. Read 1 Peter and 2 Peter. It’s so autobiographical, especially chapter five of 1 Peter, of what it looks like to meet the Lord Jesus Christ with who you are, let alone who you’re becoming.

I just think that’s a profound, wonderful reminder of God’s mercy to us, that they are us and we are them. The other thing I’d say is, isolation kills. So since isolation kills, you’ve got to find folks who are also—not perfect, because that’s the only kind of people you will find—but who recognize and are maturing and mature in Christ, to kind of reinforce and push back on this notion that it’s all about your performance. It’s all about following Jesus, and His perfect obedience, and that reflects on us in terms of our obedience. But you’ve got to find folk and hang around them and listen and learn. And sit at the feet of folk who remind you of this truthfulness, from the scripture and from the Lord’s mercy in their own lives and so forth. You cannot get by doing this on your own, it’s just not possible. So don’t even try. Get yourself to church and get yourself to a community that will help remind you of these things. So scripture and community, I guess I just start with that, for the sake of the conversation.

KELSEY: I’m hearing the means of grace, cultivating means of grace in your life as a part of transformed perspective.


KELSEY: Jessie, to you.

JESSIE: I mean, I certainly don’t have anything to add to scripture and community that—you know, that points us to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and letting the Holy Spirit, you know, tell us how the Lord views us.

I would think something like, really, really practical, is take up a hobby that you aren’t good at. And let’s do this with our young people as well, and ask the question: What do you do that you enjoy doing or that nourishes you, but you aren’t particularly good at? And do those kinds of things together, that you may see there is—so you can experience together and build into your life things that aren’t about performance.

KELSEY: I hear a cultivation of humility. It’s very humbling to practice something that you know you’re not good at. Even sometimes we practice things that we think we are good at, like my example of hiking. You guys heard that I had a major fail this week, falling, doing something I thought I was good at, crunching my left ankle. I have to face my feebleness and frailty. When we do that as a community, how sweet to be able to do that arm in arm with others. So, Bob, as we turn to you to speak to some of this, I wonder if you can also give us some questions that we might ask, or some other thoughts as we engage intentionally with this idea of failure in discipleship practices?

BOB: I’m thinking of—whatever church community your listeners are a part of—I’m thinking of, first of all, I’m generally not going to have a context where I’m processing my failure out loud in a large group situation, except, what is the attitude in the context of my community, from the worship service on through, about confession and repentance? And how does that play a role in the worship environment, from a large group? But I’m thinking more the critical importance of parents being in a smaller group, a community group, a place where they can begin to, step by step, become more vulnerable and more open. And a question to ask is, what level of vulnerability can I have in my congregation? What level of vulnerability can I have in my small group? I would push beyond that. I would want to go and, if I have children in the children’s ministry or somebody in the youth ministry, I would want to go and observe and ask questions of the people in leadership about the importance of developing an environment of acceptance. You know as well as I do that when kids hit middle school, if not before that, they’re going to begin leaning harder on their social system than they are on their parents. The home is still going to be a critical context. And so I begin by asking the question in my home: How is vulnerability and and failure managed and accepted in the context of my home? But then how is that also exhibited, for my middle school and high school youth, in the context of the youth ministry, from the youth minister on down to the small groups that they’re having? They’re certainly not going to be experiencing that, depending upon you evaluating the school environment that they’re in. And I know you have listeners who are homeschooling, I know you have listeners who are in public schools and in Christian schools, every environment is different. But I can take you to a lot of Christian schools where there’s not that level of acceptance of failure; there’s a high performance level.

So I guess what I’m saying is, to do self-examination, to do examination of my own continued formation in my congregation, to then ask questions about the kind of formation that’s happening in the environments that my kids are growing in, both the home, the church, and their school environments, and their neighborhood environments. And then to be processing those things. I mean, I can still clearly remember one of my son’s coming home after having a miserable experience playing with some of the neighborhood kids, and then processing with him about that experience and talking about that with him. And so, just asking these questions, for ourselves and for our kids, and for our church environment.

KELSEY: Thank you, Bob, would you bless us with a benediction for this episode?

BOB: Absolutely. I’m thinking of James 1, where James says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

And if we’re going to meet trials of various kinds, that means we’re going to meet failure. And in the midst of that failure, that’s producing faith, that’s growing in steadfastness, so that we might be complete and perfect, lacking and nothing. Oh, rats. That means God is using failure to grow my faith so that I might be complete, lacking nothing. And without the failure, I don’t get it.

KELSEY: Failure is a part of that equipment. So parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens, and you students who are listening in, let me remind you: Even through failure, He equips you for the work.

Show Notes

How do we handle failure in our discipleship process? Today we’re joined by Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie, and Jessie Swigart to explore the pitfalls and positives of missing the mark.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week's downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.

Further Resources:

Failure has been a hot topic in an interdisciplinary sense for over a decade. These four sources come from three different sectors: education, ministry, and business. Each have excellent material to add to the conversation:

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

Today’s episode is sponsored by Covenant College.

Looking for an unapologetically Christian College Experience? Pursuing knowledge transformed by faith, Covenant College prepares students for their callings and careers. Covenant is located on top of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, 20 minutes from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Students who visit are eligible to receive a grant of $1,200. More at Covenant.edu/world.

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