by Dick Wiedenheft
Each summer the peach tree in our yard comes under assault from two or three very persistent and enterprising squirrels. Their untiring mission is to pick all the peaches before they are ripe enough for us to enjoy. Today, after a brave fight on our part, the squirrels won the battle. There is not a single peach left on the tree (I wrote this several weeks ago).
It instantly struck me that I have failed. Not mainly because the squirrels got the peaches, but because I still don’t know how they did it. I have failed to learn from my mistake. Therein lies a lesson for ministry and mission.
But first, more about the squirrels. A techy friend (who also has peach trees . . . and squirrels) helped me set up a low-budget, but very sophisticated electrified barrier (nearly 4 ft tall) around the trunk of the tree. For a while it kept the squirrels at bay. But then my kids started seeing the furry fiends in our tree again. We’re not sure how they are doing it. Is electricity not flowing through the barrier? Are they just white-knuckling it, braving the shocks to get what they so passionately desire? Or, can squirrels jump higher than I guessed, leaping from the ground straight into the tree branches? One of my kids saw a squirrel do this, but I am not sure if that Olympian leap was an anomaly. I told myself I was going to test the barrier and see if it was working properly. But I waited too long and now, alas, all the peaches are gone. The worst part is, I don’t know why I failed. Which means, I don’t know how to improve my strategy for next year.
For the past few years, I have been telling our church that when we try out new ministry and mission ideas, it is okay to make mistakes. The only real failure is the one we fail to learn from. You see, I am trying to cultivate a culture in our church which encourages creativity and experimentation. Our church vision is Transformed by God for love and mission in a changing world. The “changing world” part is to remind us that we are living in a rapidly changing time when many old methods and ways no longer work. So, we’ve got to try new things. We’ve got to take risks. In the process, we will often fail. But that’s okay.
The only real failure is the one we don’t learn from.
Let me put this in more sophisticated language (that squirrels don’t understand). We are living in a time when technical leadership isn’t always enough. What is often required today is what Harvard leadership professor Ronald Heifetz calls adaptive leadership (which many agree is critical for leading change today). Technical leadership is about using tried-and-true knowledge and expertise to solve problems and accomplish goals. It involves making plans and carrying them out with ever-greater efficiency—taking a proven system and using expertise to improve upon it until it is a well-oiled machine. This kind of leadership works great when the surrounding culture is stable and the rules of the game aren’t changing. However, when everything around us is in flux, relying on technical leadership alone is a sure-fire short-cut to extinction. Just ask Kodak or Borders Books (or ask my peaches). What is needed in chaotic times like ours is adaptive leadership.
Adaptive leadership encourages creativity and experimentation. It involves trying new things, learning from the results, and collaborating and networking with others who are doing the same. It compassionately leads people through the unnerving and uncomfortable process of change and uncertainty on the way to new discoveries. It is companies and organizations who have great adaptive leadership who are thriving and growing today.
But is all this just the latest round of ‘worldly’ business advice, or is there godly wisdom in it? In my forthcoming book, The Meaning of Missional, I address this question:
In response, some Christians may protest that God will not let his own people go extinct. Surely, if we simply and faithfully hold on to the true Word of God, we can trust God to take care of the rest. Despite its pretense of faith, this attitude is often motivated by an underlying fear of change and a desire to maintain our own comfort. It assumes that God will suspend the laws of the universe to avoid inconveniencing us. Church history is quite clear that God seldom takes this approach. Most often, God’s Spirit seeks to preserve his people by guiding us in the changes we must make to survive and thrive in changing times. Those churches that refuse to follow the Spirit in these new directions eventually die off. This observation is not intended to justify compromise or cultural accommodation. Certainly, we must hold true to God’s word. God’s people have often had to find ways to translate and re-contextualize that word for new situations. Missional churches believe that we can count on God’s Spirit to teach us how to do just that.
Remember what Jesus told us: New wine requires new wineskins (Mark 2:22). When God’s Spirit releases the new wine of the kingdom, old structures, patterns, and assumptions can’t hold the new thing God is doing.
God was not taken off guard by the change now happening all around us. God anticipated it (perhaps even initiated aspects of it), and God is now at work dispensing the new wine which will keep his work in the world today fresh and vital. It is our job to let God lead us in the fashioning of new wineskins able to embody this new wine. In today’s world, this involves much experimentation and not a little failure. Flops and blunders have to become okay for us. The only real failure should be the one we don’t learn from.
This is what I neglected to do with the squirrels. If you have any advice about squirrels, please do share. Meanwhile, I am going to get back to the challenge of leading mission and ministry in a changing world.
Dick Wiedenheft is author of the forthcoming book The Meaning of Missional: A Beginner’s Guide to Missional Living and the Missional Church. To learn more about it, visit and/or ‘like’ his Facebook author page. Dick is a 3DM frontier leader and has a Doctor of Ministry in Discipleship and Mission from Northern Seminary. He pastors a church in New York where he lives with his wife and four children.