EFCA’s Eastern District Superintendent Eddie Cole on Normalizing Failure

Eddie Cole, the EFCA’s Eastern District Superintendent wrote a blog post in April about things he would change. The number one item dealt with normalizing failure. This post is looking at the issue of failure inside evangelicalism.

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Thomas Edison 

“Fail, fail again, fail better.”

Samuel Becket 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV

Back in April the EFCA’s Eastern District Superintendent wrote a solid blog post on 10 things he would change. You can read the post in, “10 Things I Would Change.”  On the list his number one item stands out and this blog wants to reflect on it today. The most important advice the EFCA’s leader gave to both pastor’s and staff of the Eastern District is to normalize failure. This is what Eddie Cole states: 

We are human and we have high ideals that far exceed our capacity. While the two words “appropriate disclosure” need to factor in to every failure story, the reality is pastors need to embody resiliency and struggling well. That’s where people live! When we appropriately share our struggles we do something important – we distinguish the difference between who we are and what we do. The implications for this are huge. When it is not okay to fail, people are afraid to try new things, which results in fewer people following the Lord into new and creative areas as disciples.


Failure Should be a Part of a Christian Life

If a person is going to be a Christian a failure will ultimately be a part of their life. We are fragile and all of us are capable of making mistakes. If Christians had the realization that failure will happen that, I think will soften the blow. Its also I would suggest show a deeper view of grace. But the reality is that people are broken and deal with their own demons. Even atheists struggle with issues like alcoholism, failed families and so much more. But failure should not be the end for the Christian. It should and can lead to a new life. One of the concerns I have with evangelicalism is that the push the concept of a new creation. And the problem with that is that for many evangelicals a new creation means a being or becoming perfect. It also can become deeply legalistic and a heavy burden. But one way a Christian can have a rich life is if they embrace failure. Now what would happen if individual pastors led the way and shared their failure? 


Christians Don’t Admit Their Failures 

One of the issues this blog frequently encounters is one the troubles me deeply. Many evangelicals, nor churches or denominations don’t admit their mistake. They don’t speak about their failures. All too often they listen to legal counsel and follow their advice. This can happen over and above what the Bible or even Jesus has said. This is the problem of what happens when faith becomes about protecting the brand. The core message of the Christian faith is thus lost. 

But the tragedy is that Christians don’t admit their mistakes. When that happens what they show is their lack of humility. Their inability to show what it means to be humble. I find that sad and troubling. When this happens it has a damning effect on the core message of the Christian faith. What would happen today if churches, pastors and organizations did that? What happened if Mark Driscoll admitted that he failed in the Mars Hill scandal in Seattle. What would happen if C.J. Mahaney admitted that he failed to lead his organization and all the mistakes that were made inside Sovereign Grace? What would happen if James MacDonald admitted his mistakes in the context of the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal? What if local EFCA pastor’s admitted mistakes and frequently and regularly admitted mistakes? Let me tie this to one of the core issues that the EFCA is dealing with currently. What if D.A. Carson admitted that it was a mistake to support C.J. Mahaney and attack a rape victim at 13. Right now the EFCA is becoming isolated as being one of the only organizations that has not taken the right course of action. Even Al Mohler who leads the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville has acted on this issue. I wrote more about this in, “An Open Letter to Greg Strand (Will the EFCA Take D.A. Carson Attacking a Sexual Assault Victim Seriously in the #churchtoo Era?)” When Christians and organizations fail to admit their failure it continues to turn people off and emboldens what atheists and secular humanists claim about Christianity. 


Failure is an Opportunity to Show Grace

Failure is an incredible opportunity to show grace. Failure can help people get the help they need and to rebuild their life or make changes within. While Eddie Cole writes that advice in the context of pastors let me ask a couple of questions. What if the EFCA allowed people who failed and gave them a second opportunity? What if there was a pastor who ten to fifteen years or so ago had an affair that wrecked his marriage. What if in that pain he was shown grace and he owned his mistakes. Now what if that individual went on and became a leader later on and was able to comfort, help the broken and encourage those who made similar moral mistakes. How beautiful would that be? What if you had a pastor that had a history of alcoholism and he learned to overcome and deal with that demon? How amazing could that be to have a recovering alcoholic encourage and cheer on someone struggling along the way? Failure is an opportunity to show grace. In my view that is what separates Christianity from other religions. However by showing grace in such a capacity one is also showing that fallen pastors and people in general are not disposable. Failure can be an amazing opportunity to show grace and help a person, church and the community they live in.  


Many Evangelicals Place Pastors too High on a Pedestal and Forget they are Human 

There is one aspect to pastors that I find interesting. From either Chicago or when I travel on the East Coast I listen to people who were involved in different ministries or EFCA churches. All too often people tell me how they often put pastor (_________) in such a high regard and then when a scandal comes they realize they put them on a pedestal that was too high. They often would forget that the pastor is human. A person with emotions, flesh and blood who also struggles with life. Honestly I think if people looked at pastors as being human some of these issues that I write about frequently would be solved. Due to the human factor in life I have learned to have lower expectations of people. I don’t mean that in a condescending way.  But when that occurs that helps keep issues and people more manageable at the end of the day 


Concluding Thoughts

I deeply appreciate the insight of the Eastern District Superintendent. His thoughts on failure are welcome and encouraging. The fact of the matter is that we’re all going to fail in life. That failure is going to be unique to each and every different person. But pastors are people also and failure will happen to them also in different ways. Hopefully they will learn to normalize and share their mistakes. 

4 thoughts on “EFCA’s Eastern District Superintendent Eddie Cole on Normalizing Failure

  1. This subject particularly hits home for me. A number of years ago when I was experiencing some real struggles in my long-time church, it was becoming apparent that I would need to search for a new church home. I visited several other churches to start that search. What was interesting was that in most of the churches I visited, during the morning’s sermon the pastor mentioned something about a struggle that had been experienced, or a difficult lesson that had to be learned, or a past failure or misunderstanding that had caused problems or created conflict.

    To me, hearing pastors speak this way was almost jarring, and like a light bulb going off in my mind, it caused me to realize that in our church, over the course of many years our long-time pastor had NEVER ONCE mentioned any struggle he had, any failure he experienced, any place where he had messed up or had to learn from a mistake. No, in his sermons it was always stories of victory, stories of everything working out great because he had done the things the Bible said to do. Over the years, this message had become so constant and commonplace that I didn’t event realize it until I visited elsewhere and heard some messages that were, by contrast, more open, more transparent, more reflective of humility. This sudden realization immediately shed some light on the nature of some of the struggles I had been having in church. I came to realize that there was an constant underlying message there that basically said, “If you do A, B, and C, everything will go well for you. If you are having any difficulties, that must just mean you aren’t doing enough A, B, or C, so if you just try harder then everything will start going fine for you. Your struggles or difficulties must just mean that you aren’t trying hard enough and you are dropping the ball.”

    That was a terribly oversimplified, and often wrong, message. And I hadn’t even realized the extent of it until I saw the contrast in other places. It really caused me to understand some of the reasons why I was struggling at my long-time church, because there was a mindset there that everything was just wonderful, and if that wasn’t the case for you then that must mean that YOU had a problem that YOU needed to fix. And once you did so, then you could experience the wonderful victorious life that everyone else around you was experiencing! Wow . . . talk about a deceptively harmful message that really undermined one’s thought process and made one question their faith, their well-being, their worth, their whole person.

    We all struggle, we all mess up. Acknowledging this is the case, being honest and transparent about this, is the first step in humility, and it s a necessary step if we are to really follow the Biblical admonition to “bear each other’s burdens.”

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  2. One of the concerns I have with evangelicalism is that the push the concept of a new creation. And the problem with that is that for many evangelicals a new creation means a being or becoming perfect.

    J Michael Jones (Christian Monist)’s book Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar is all about that phenomenon, how it relates to a Spiritual/Real dichotomy and ends up forcing the Christian into heavy-duty “Pretending” and near-psychotic denial of reality.

    One of the issues this blog frequently encounters is one the troubles me deeply. Many evangelicals, nor churches or denominations don’t admit their mistake.

    Because of the Zeitgeist where you are the ONLY imperfect sinner among an ocean of Perfect Uber-Christians and it’s not only chickens who peck any defective to death in the barnyard.

    onestly I think if people looked at pastors as being human some of these issues that I write about frequently would be solved.

    Remember that burned-out country preacher we both know? The one who describes himself not as Reverend or Pastor, but “a middle-aged fat man with a bad back”? I first met him (through the intermediary of the picture and story that gave me my handle) in a SF fan and struggling writer context, not in a church context. And I’ve always seen him in a fannish context (SF, gaming, furry, Brony), one of only two writers I can not only collaborate with, but collaborate SYNERGISTICALLY, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of our parts.


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