It’s surreal to be at this day! And it’s an understatement to say that I had different expectations for what would happen and how things would unfold when I set out on the journey to start a new progressive church for this place and this time.
With foolish hope, I met with the Board of the Northern California Nevada United Church of Christ Conference in 2010 about the idea of starting a new church somewhere in the Bay Area. There was enthusiasm, but not much in the way of guidance or practical support. I took classes and got a coach and read books and attended seminars. I interviewed lots of people, did as much research as I could, and then guided by searching prayers and Census data, we moved to San Jose in 2012, to follow the energy and statistics to the South Bay.
It seemed clear that this is where the growth would be, that this would be the place for a new radically inclusive, deeply spiritual, unapologetically progressive, theologically diverse church for this place and this time. If you haven’t spent much time in San Jose, you might miss the vibe entirely. San Jose has the City version of a Napoleon complex in part because the buildings can’t be taller than 300 feet due to the proximity of the airport and also because San Jose is often referenced next to San Francisco as something akin to a southern cousin you act like you don’t know.
San Jose is the tenth largest city in the country more than 3.7 times the size of San Francisco, but it hasn’t ever cared about promoting itself. This city holds the stories of people like Cesar Chavez and Steve Wozniek. It is a place for people with great ideas, but it doesn’t always get the credit.
It is the home of Cisco and Ebay and Adobe and others, which gives it the engineer and tech culture energy and the nickname of Man Jose.
I didn’t know all this when setting out, I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I began, so I thought I came to startup town to LAUNCH a new thing. I thought I could read the right books and talk to the right people and generate the right checklist, as if following a plan perfectly is a guarantee. Our experience has taught us about what Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, labels, achieving failure, which is “successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere.” I think that religious communities are brilliant at this. W are successful at generating plans, but often we end up worshiping the plan instead of the Spirit behind them.
It turns out that inclusive, deep, spiritual, diverse faith communities are not launched, especially not on a stage in an inaccessible theater with an expensive bar. Faith communities are not launched, they are planted. Kindness must be planted and love must be sown. What we do is too precious to happen quickly.
And my testimony tonight is persistence and patience, but more importantly, it is failure.
I thought that this could be avoided, but the truth is that it is the secret sauce of spiritual innovation. When we are artists of anything that is not yet, failure is our destiny.
And here in the valley of innovation, part of the civic religion is not just failing, but failing fast.
Fail fast, they say, failing fast isn’t failure! It’s really accelerated learning. Learn what sparks, see what inspires, and discover what works, as quickly as you can!
Or as Thomas Edison, one of America’s greatest inventors said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
And yet many of our most important institutions don’t seem to hold this same value- institutions of higher learning and religion and philanthropy, just to name a few. In a time that demands our most creative and justice-seeking, risk taking and boldest efforts, across all sectors, in many of our settings, success is not seen as finding 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Am I right?
Instead, what success is, is financial sustainability and mostly young people. Hasn’t everyone figured out these two things are generally incompatible?
One of the very first meetings I had about the vision of a new church here was with Penny Nixon, the Senior Minister of the Congregational Church of San Mateo. She gave me this rock and I have prayed on it, time and time again.
At one point, when it was lonely and super hard, I met with Penny to lament. As I sobbed over a beer, she said, “Can’t you just love the journey somehow?”
“No, not really,” I said. “Not right now.”
But gradually as we went from just one, to Peter, then Deb, then Brian, then Manuel, Lisa, Deb, Alison, Kevin, Bob, David, Jonah, Kristen and now a small tribe, and it is clear to me that being midwives to a spiritual startup has required all of us to love the journey, to let go of expectations, to try things that don’t work, to keep going and to embrace failure not as not something to be avoided, but as evidence of our learning and our commitment to the vision in the long term.
And because of this experience, I find myself asking was Jesus really a success?
Because here are the facts: the ones who were supposed to be his most invested students and his closest friends, let him down. He died too young by state-sanctioned violence and there was no smartphone to make it go viral. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t famous. And he never said anything about financially sustainability.
Maybe Jesus showed us how to fail fast?
He demonstrated how to throw your whole heart into the Spirit’s call on your life, how to show up for others when it is mundane or even maddening, he offered what he had to those who could give very little in return, he found joy in food and friends without status, he taught how to make room for in silence and to love the vulnerable and how to use who you are to give hope. His life was all about how to give the world with all you’ve got and fail…and do it anyway.
As people of faith and conscience, we are called not to conform to the pattern of this world, a world that tells us success is having the most or getting there first or being the biggest or doing it perfectly or being extraordinary.
Jesus’ life tells us something else. When it is not profitable or scalable, plant kindness. When it’s not relevant or hip, sow love. Because if this is the path we take, we won’t avoid failure, but we can be rest assured, that it won’t have the last word.
May it be so. Amen.
After some silence, we reflected together around these questions:
- How has failure been a part of your spiritual journey?
- How can we create cultures that see failure as part of the creative process?
- How do we measure success as people of faith and conscience?