Embracing failure

Embracing failure

The future health of Unitarian Universalism depends on all of us learning to embrace failure.

Peter Morales
UUA President Peter Morales

UUA President Peter Morales (© Nancy Pierce)

© Nancy Pierce


I often speak about the unprecedented rate of change in religion today, particularly about the explosion of the “nones”—those with no religious identity at all. I also talk about the organizational initiatives we at the Unitarian Universalist Association are making to respond to these challenges. This includes everything from training for entrepreneurial ministry to the organization of our field staff to changes in our website.

What I do not do often enough is to highlight the spiritual challenge we all face in these times. I am convinced that the future health of Unitarian Universalism depends on all of us learning to embrace failure. Embrace failure? Absolutely. The thought of failing at something is pretty frightening. I like to be thought of as competent. I like triumphs small and large, and I love feeling respected for the things I accomplish.

Yet in times like these if we limit ourselves to what we already know how to do we will never imagine new opportunities and seize them. Ironically, repeating past success will, over time, bring failure. But failures, the right kind of failures, will bring success.

One way of thinking about changes in religion today is to view them as an enormous problem. Another way to think of our situation is that there is a huge spiritual hunger, and that millions upon millions of unaffiliated people constitute a breathtaking opportunity.

In order to seize this historic opportunity, we are going to have to innovate and try a number of ideas. When we try a number of ideas, many will fail. Probably most of them will. The important thing is to learn from our little failures in order to build toward a huge success.

But before we innovate and experiment, we need to engage in serious spiritual discipline. We must set out with open hearts to hear and feel what spiritual hunger the religiously homeless people around us feel. What do they long for? What is missing? If normal congregational life is not feeding them, what will? Empathy and compassion are the foundation. An open heart is more important than a clever mind. Humility helps.

Empathy. Compassion. Openness. Humility. Then what?

Only when we understand deeply, only when we have immersed ourselves, can we unleash our creativity. At this point, we need to let go of our preconceived notions of what is needed and move outside our comfort zones. (This is really, really hard. We all have preconceived notions and are ready to defend them. Setting them aside takes discipline.) Here is where we dream, where we bounce our ideas off one another. Together we come up with a few promising things to try. Playfulness is key. So is boldness. Oh, and passion, too.

Release preconceptions. Play. Be bold and passionate. And then?

Then we actually test our new ideas on a small scale. Now the spiritual discipline gets even harder. Testing means, well, testing. Most of our ideas will not produce the results we anticipated. We are in new territory, after all. This can be excruciating, I know. No one is fonder of his pet projects than I am. Here we have to face the facts and share what we learn. We face the facts, we learn, we adjust, and we try again. This is what I mean by embracing failure.

We have staggering potential. We will realize our potential not with cleverness, but with spiritual discipline.

Empathy. Compassion. Humility. Letting go. Playfulness. Courage. Passion. Facing the truth. Embracing failure.

What amazing possibilities lay before us. Let’s fail joyfully together. If we do, we will build the foundations for spectacular success.

Peter Morales
President, Unitarian Universalist Association