If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly!

A guest blog today : what a privilege and a treat!~

An exciting new Leadership Course; a book for Church Leaders; a Church leadership Forum; there's plenty here to hone your leadership skills whether you are an ordained vicar or pastor, or a ministry leader in your church paid or voluntary. AND -  the possibility of a FREE DOWNLOAD AND 20% off a stay at The Vine for a church leadership Intensive .... read on for more from The Revd Kim Swithinbank, who has over 35 years experience in church leadership!

A young person politely asked me as I expounded on this theme: “What exactly do you mean by that?” If they’d been from my generation, they would have echoed the immortal words of John McEnroe - “You cannot be serious!” Surely if we’re doing something for God, it should be excellent.  Christians have been known for far too long for being second rate and accepting second best. Whether it is by serving lukewarm, weak coffee in church-issue green or yellow cups and saucers from the 1950’s; or by projection and sound systems that have a mind of their own; and operators who put the words of the next verse up for the congregation only after the worship group have already completed the first two lines!

But I am serious. I have used this aphorism over and again as a church leader “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly!” And I mean it. I used to think it was an original thought of mine; but as we know “there is nothing new under the sun.” When my wife found this poster online with the quote attributed to G.K.Chesterton, I was initially miffed. My original thought was not so original after all. But when I calmed down, I thought to myself that if Chesterton had thought it too, and he was pretty bright, then maybe we were both on to something.

This might sound like I'm just trying to be provocative - and in a way, I am. But I firmly believe a leader’s job is to provoke, to get people thinking laterally, to create a culture of risk-taking and innovation. And that’s the point. It was John Wimber who said that faith was spelt R.I.S.K. But in my experience the church is very risk-averse. Often, because we don’t think we can do it well, we don’t do it at all. But what if it’s vitally important? What if it’s a biblical imperative?

The evangelist, Dr Billy Graham, was often criticised for his evangelistic methods. Graciously he would admit that he hadn’t perfected the art and that he still had a lot to learn. However he once famously said: “I prefer my way of doing evangelism to your way of not doing it!” If a thing’s worth doing, it has to be done, doesn’t it? If we wait for perfection, we’ll wait forever. Do I mean that we should always do things badly? No! But it’s better to start badly than not to start at all.

So why are we so risk-averse in the church?

A negative mindset

We sometimes contrast the US and the UK as ‘Can Do’ and ‘Can’t Do’ cultures respectively. Having lived and ministered on both sides of the Pond, I would say that’s an over-simplification. However I wish I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone in church in the UK say one of the following or something similar:

  • “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”
  • “That might have worked in your last church, but I shouldn’t try it here.”
  •  “But we’ve always done it this way.”
  •  “We don’t have the people or resources to take that on.”

In a culture where we naturally find so many reasons like these for not doing things, we need to counter-balance that tendency by tackling negativity, promoting risk-taking and creating a permission-giving culture. That’s a vital part of a leader’s role, whether for a whole church or for a ministry within it.

Fear of Failure

At the heart of the negative mindset is our fear of failure. You may know the story (apocryphal? - but often repeated) of the young executive in the early days of the computer industry, who lost the company $10m in a project for which he was responsible. On handing in his resignation letter to his boss, in his sense of shame for the fiasco he had caused, he was surprised to find that his resignation was refused. “We’ve just spent $10m of the company’s money on your education. We’re not going to let you apply what you’ve learnt to the benefit of one of our competitors!” If only we had that attitude to failure. Wanting to learn, develop and get better. Not give up and go home.

Yet fear of failure haunts us. The command “Do not be afraid!” comes 366 times in the Bible, once for each day of the year, including leap years. If we weren’t naturally prone to fear, the Bible wouldn’t exhort us on the subject.  Therefore it will take a conscious effort on the part of the leader to manage the failures that should and will inevitably occur, especially if you adopt as a leadership motto - “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”.

Part of this fear of failure is a fear of losing face. This applies not just when we are the leader of a project or ministry that fails, but also when we are the overall leader and the buck stops with us. This easily leads either to a controlling culture, where risk is discouraged, or a micro-managing culture, where the hope is to eliminate risk but the effect is to kill entrepreneurial energy. I’ll go into this in more detail in the chapter “Delegate; but don’t abdicate.”

False comparisons

In the age of the mega-church and the many larger churches, it is easier for those of us who find ourselves in smaller settings not to be inspired but rather to be discouraged by the apparent success of others. Or to use our lack of resources or expertise as an excuse for doing nothing. We go to their conferences, whether it is New Wine or HTB, Willow Creek or Saddleback, Spring Harvest or the EMA. But we know we will never do the Alpha Course as well as HTB (wouldn’t it just be easier to pay someone’s train fare to the nearest big course? No!).  And we know our worship will never have that kind of professionalism or musical excellence and that our preaching won’t ever be a match for Tim Keller’s.

This is where the principle of excellence can lead us astray. Of course, the Lord deserves our best efforts. The problem is when we compare our best efforts in our rural church in Wiltshire, where we now live, with what we were used to in North London or suburban Washington DC, where we lived previously. Excellence means doing the best we can, where we are, and with the resources currently at our disposal.

But if we mistake perfection for excellence, then it becomes a killer of risk-taking and innovation. In fact, the smaller settings and the apparent lack of resources can often lead to a different kind of excellence and be all the more rewarding for it.

However, even if we adopt that definition of excellence, we still need the sense that “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”


It may start badly ….

What happens if you do something badly in church? You may just get criticised. The ministry may fail. Or someone might watch you doing it badly and volunteer to help!

That is precisely the point and a deliberate part of the plan. A techie member of the congregation will be driven to distraction by whistling feedback from the sound system, or by the song words coming up too late. They may continue to hide their light under the nearest bushel; but, given the right culture, they may well volunteer to help. Then what started badly doesn’t stay that way. But if it hadn’t started badly, it might not have started at all.

Or a gifted musician who has helped lead worship in their previous church sees the not-so-good but heartfelt attempts of your current group and knows that they could make all the difference.

Sometimes doing something badly will spur others into active participation.

“If a thing’s worth doing …”

A culture of permission-giving

For this to work there has to be a permission-giving culture: permission to have a go: permission to fail: and no condemnation! A leader of a church or of a ministry within a church creates a culture, whether they realise it or not. I’ve heard of some leaders who call out the tech team and upbraid them for their ineptitude, when the gremlins get in the system or the operator gets get caught up in worship and forgets to change the slide. That only puts others off volunteering as well as demeaning the well-intentioned efforts of those doing their best. But if a leader has their wits about them, they will slip in a notice, thanking the IT team for their dedication but asking for new recruits in this vital element of Sunday worship. A gifted person with a heart to serve will see the need and respond.

Some of us are natural permission-givers. Yet many find this difficult. If that’s you, you will have to battle your inner perfectionism and tattoo this aphorism “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” on your heart or mind; or at least print it out in bold type and stick it on the noticeboard in your study or office.

What kind of culture are you creating in the area where you lead? Does it enhance, embolden and encourage people to step out in faith? Or is it restrictive, protectionist and afraid of failure? If people come to you with an idea, do they expect you to lean towards them saying “Go for it!” or to lean away saying “I’m not sure about that.”

The balance of R.I.S.K

Finally in case this sounds too gung-ho, it’s important to put in some qualifiers. Faith may be spelt R.I.S.K but that doesn’t mean that all risk is good. There is healthy, thought-through risk. And there is foolhardy, unwise risk. The wise leader knows the difference and listens to others to discern that.

Some of the aphorisms in the following chapters are designed to help us to differentiate the two and to judge the element of risk:

  • Is this a mainstream activity for us or a lower priority tributary?
  • Is the person in front of me a passionate lone ranger or can they gather a team?
  • Do they share the values of the church or ministry?

However, we need to know where our own personal danger lies. Are we natural risk-takers who may need to be held back from unwise risks; or are we normally risk-averse? In my experience very few of us in the church are in danger of overdoing risk. As one friend put it to me years ago: “For most of us the problem is not going off the deep end. It’s going off the shallow end!”

If we are to reverse the decline of the church in the Western world, we are going to need a generation of leaders who take calculated risks, who don’t wait for perfection before getting started, who are not afraid to try and fail, who’d rather do something than nothing, who create a permission-giving culture, who understand that “if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

This is the introduction to Kim's new book.

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