Why failure is not an option

Why failure is not an option

Ministerial Conference at Berry Street essay presented by the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison.

Kenneth Sutton
The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison

The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison. © 2015 Nancy Peirce/UUA

© 2015 Nancy Peirce/UUA


"Do not keep any secrets as you write," said the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, quoting author Ksenia Anske. And following that advice, Dennison opened his Berry Street essay by revealing his theme and conclusion: We cannot help but fail. Failure is not an option, it's inevitable.

The truth is, he said, that we're already failing.

Dennison encouraged us all to plan for failing, because we will—and because we already are. The trick is to free ourselves from the fear of failure so that we are no longer stuck staying small, keeping to the safe, known path.

Current generations, Dennison said, are awash in information. No one needs to turn to ministers or sermons for information; what people are looking for are ways to sort through information to find what is authentic. In our carefully managed, image-conscious culture, authenticity is paradoxically revealed most fully through flaws.

'I could no longer serve the over-served'

Dennison recounted his friendship with internet personality and minister "Real Live Preacher," who left the ministry and later told him, "I left the ministry because I could no longer serve the over-served." Dennison said this has been a sore spot in his heart ever since. Unitarian Universalism inherited, practices, and perpetuates systems of privilege.

"We say everyone is worthy, but the system still measures and ranks against perfection," Dennison said. "The system is cunning and crafty and infiltrates our thoughts." This leads us to fear imperfection, to fear our faults, and to cover them up. In a system of judgment and ranking, our value comes from our proximity to perfection.

And this fear of failure is what causes us to fail. We fear and resist people with big, bold, passionate, unrealistic visions. We're afraid and tired, Dennison said, and so our mission becomes safe and small. Dennison wants us to be claimed by a mission so big it startles and scares us. A mission so big, so grand, that it's impossible. A mission with a claim that even if we messed up, we'd keep trying.

We'd fail, he said, and we'd recommit and keep going.

I love love

The first respondent was the Rev. Meg Riley. Her opinion of the potential for congregational failure was, "I love UU congregations, but I love love more."

The second respondent, the Rev. Ian White Maher, spoke of the costs of failure, saying that failure is pain, and all the stories encouraging us to dream big and try over and over again leave out the pain. The congregation he founded, Original Blessing, failed. "It cut me to ribbons to watch my dream die," he said. Even so, "Failure is a terrible thing, but it is just a thing."

The Ministerial Conference at Berry Street has convened each year save one (during World War Two) since 1820. Previous essays can be read at uuma.org/?berrystreetessays and this year's 195th session can be watched online.

Watch live streaming video from uuma at livestream.com