Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.
I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. At work I lament that I flubbed my postlude or that a new hymn went over like a lead balloon. At home sometimes I can’t seem to comfort the baby, and my dining room floor is covered in about a quarter inch of Cheerio dust. So I was energized to read the latest newsletter from the Center for Congregational Song, which talks about “success” and what that means to us who serve Christ. “So ultimately,” it says, “the answer to ‘how will we know we’ve been successful?’ is that we’re not 100% successful until God’s kingdom comes. Until then, we work and we sing!” Yes, Amen! This message came at a perfect time in my life. In this blog post are some ways my work in congregational song has taught me to celebrate failure as a necessary and even healthy part of that work. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of my reflections and be able to share your experiences below.
I start to wonder if this decline is a reflection on me; if I was a flashier performer or a more charismatic leader, would things be better?
Failures piling up…
Perhaps the thing that has been most persuasive concerning the power of failure is that I now basically work full time with very small children. Children under five are extremely active. I now pack more in before 9 am than I used to in a whole day! So, there are plenty of opportunities for failure. How many songs have I tried to teach them that never caught on? How many music classes went by where I struggled to keep my students focused? As I began reflecting, I realized that I was keeping better track of my failures than my successes. Though it feels like my failures are piling up, it is actually because of them that I’ve become a better musician, a better curator of songs, and a better teacher. I am where I am today because I have failed so many times!
I found myself in that moment giving thanks to God for my failure. I was reminded of one of my favorite passages in Second Corinthians, where Paul tries to explain to his readers what it means to boast in Christ: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses…. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10. I’ve always liked this passage because Paul isn’t just saying, “It’s okay to be weak,” or “Be weak if you have to.” He’s really rejoicing in weakness! When I fail I am reminded to rely more fully on God’s grace, and I realize how much I need God and the support of other people. It is humbling and strengthening. It also gives me a chance to learn from my mistakes–if I’m not making mistakes, I’m probably not being bold enough each day.
“It used to be so much better than it is now…”
Failing to teach a song or manage a classroom of children is one kind of failure, but working in a declining church feels like another thing entirely. I know there are people reading this blog who work or worship in a mainline Protestant church, or another church that is experiencing decline. It can be deflating to worship with too few people in your sanctuary, to not see many young people darken your door or have many new members join your choir. I know I start to feel worn down when I have to constantly listen to parishioners talk about how much better things used to be. I start to wonder if this decline is a reflection on me; if I was a flashier performer or a more charismatic leader, would things be better?
I’m thankful for places like the Center for Congregational Song that remind me to put things in perspective: I didn’t decide to serve the church in order to make myself look good or to amass successes. I became a music minister because I want to serve Christ who came to earth because he was so crazy in love with each and every one of us. God calls us to emulate Jesus, whose entire life was lived out only for others, never for himself. As leaders and participants in congregational song, we work and we sing and we leave the rest to God. I’m reminded of another favorite Bible passage, Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Prosperity and adversity will come and go, successes and failures will come and go; God remains God, and our call to serve God will be the same in every circumstance. Amen!
I was highly entertained by reading the blog post from May 16th, “A Profound Silence,” in which Brian Hehn describes performing John Cage’s 4’33” in his church’s worship service. Brian tells the story from when he first got the idea through the performance and the feedback, which was mixed: some snark, some gratitude. I appreciate that Brian blogged about something with such a real life outcome in a culture that tends to only want to publish filtered and polished success stories. This wasn’t a conventional success story, but I think it was still successful. It sounds like the Spirit spoke to Brian, he acted on it, and now he’s learned something from what did and didn’t go well. As I embrace failure and read stories like this, I’m reminded to sin(g) boldly and to act more on the Spirit’s leadership than on fear. I’m also reminded to focus more on building God’s Kingdom than on tallying my successes at the end of the day. Finally, I’m thankful to have a tribe like the folks I know through the Center for Congregational Song to remind me why I do this work. We work and we sing!
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