Responses to Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison
Revs. Meg Riley and Ian White Maher
Response by Rev. Meg Riley:
Thank you so much Sean. So much to respond to! This will spark dozens of collegial conversations, indeed!
I think Sean asked me to respond because he knows I’m good at failing. About the time he was seriously beginning to buckle down on this talk, I told him that I had signed up for something called “Rejection Therapy Boot Camp.” I signed up online with a guy named Jia Jiang for a 100 day adventure. Each day Jia Jiang would give us a specific assignment—we were either to ask for something that was very likely going to be met with the answer “No,” or to do something which was very likely going to be met with annoyance, repulsion, or outright rejection. Now, for those of us who have teenaged children, or who are ministers, this bootcamp might seem redundant. But I wanted to see if getting rejected in a structured way built my resilience—CLF’s theme of the month was courage and I wanted to see if this helped build courage. And it was February in Minnesota and I was desperate.
I quit long before 100 days was over. Partly because I have an attention span the size of a gnat, but partly because so many of the tasks we were assigned to do involved asking low-wage workers for things. Jia Jiang is a young immigrant from China. I saw that what might be very daring for him to ask—can I ride along while you deliver a pizza? can I see the back of your grocery store? will you, my waitress, sing happy birthday to me even though it’s not my birthday? do you have a piece of gum?—because of my social location as an older white middle class woman, these requests and many others were met with a bewildered “Yes.” All of those requests I just listed, and many more, got a yes. And the truth was, I didn’t want or have time to tour back ends of stores or deliver pizzas with people every day, and I felt like I was harrassing already stressed-out workers.
Soon my afore-mentioned 18 year old told me I wasn’t allowed to ask another low-wage worker for another thing with the 18 year old present! And it was winter in Minnesota and the people at the dogpark were few and far between to ask for stuff, so I gradually stopped rejection therapy, unless the ask of the day intrigued me—for instance, offering money to strangers on the street. That is a fascinating social experiment and most people, in Minnesota at least, say no in horror. But, though I dropped out, I think it did build both resilience and deepen my awareness of the privilege I walk around with.
Because what I can see is that the same energy that took me to Rejection Therapy moved out in two very different directions. One is that I’ve been part of starting a local chapter of SURJ—Showing Up for Racial Justice—a white allies group. I recommend it to you if you want to organize white people in your area—google Showing Up for Racial Justice. SURJ is launching a conversations project where white people talk to white people about racism. Now THERE is a rejection therapy project worthy of time and attention! My post-boot-camp challenge to myself has been to bring up racism in all-white environments—to say out loud the kinds of things I am often thinking as I continue to wake up to the fact that I am always white, not just occasionally when I remember to think about it.
Just one example: In a drivers’ ed refresher class for people 55 and older, I brought up the different ways people of color need to drive from white people—the vigilance that needs to be paid, the police stops for driving while black or brown. Talk about rejection therapy—the teacher was furious. He prefaced about six sentences that hour with a snarled, “Black, white, or Chinese, it doesn’t matter…” as he glared at me. So now everyone was thinking about race. Call it victory.
Initiating these conversations, fully expecting rejection, allows me freedom to cross boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Because, let’s face it, what’s socially acceptable is oppression of all kinds.
The other place I went after rejection therapy was to an improv class. Improv is completely about saying YES. I notice that improv class also builds resilience to failure. Because my YESES can move me out fully into the big open sky of pure joy and imaginative play, or sometimes they just take me to little cul de sacs. And all of this before an audience of my classmates.
The yeses that only take me to cul de sacs usually occur because I get too involved with the particularities of the setting or character I’ve been assigned. The yes gets very small when I’m focussed on what 15th century pirates might do or say and worry I might get it wrong. The yeses that take me to the infinite energy of the world occur when I deepen into the relationship with the person or people I am working with, and say yes to the relationship, with the setting far off to the side of my attention. Whatever they ask for, whatever they tell me about myself, I say yes.
And so Sean, it’s in the spirit of improv that I say this to you: You can’t leave ministry. No matter how you shape what you do and where you collect enough money to support yourself, you are a minister. And if you quit Unitarian Universalism today, you are still so deeply in relationship with so many of us that there’s noplace you could go and not take us. We’re all grateful that Ralph Waldo Emerson failed as a Unitarian minister—look what that failure brought us. Did Fred Rogers fail as a Presbyterian minister or did Mr. Rogers bless the world? If you can’t bear to over-serve the privileged, if you work for an arts nonprofit or run a coffeehouse, you will still be blessing the world with your gifts. Say yes to your biggest joy and passion, because we need it! And maybe we will all walk away from the congregations which are enclaves of privilege and control. Maybe that just needs to happen.
And I say this to everyone including myself—we need to create and live Unitarian Universalism that won’t cease its ministry regardless of the form it takes. Many of our churches will die. We know that. The question isn’t how to preserve their form, it’s how to preserve the substance—how to keep our values alive in the world. I love Unitarian Universalist congregations but I love LOVE more. I love the earth more than any church building. I love human liberation more than any governance policy. I love Black lives more than any compensation package. Understanding the pain and failure that is absolutely implicit in loving what I love, I can meet the world’s yeses and no’s with increasing clarity.
As William Stafford concluded his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other:”
For it is important that awake people be awake
Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep
The signals we give—yes or no or maybe—
Should be clear, the darkness around us is deep.
Response by Rev. Ian White Maher:
Personally speaking, I have a real aversion to what often sound like glib exhortations to fail these days. The ones coaching us to not be afraid to fail which are often followed with tales of serial entrepreneurs who tried a dozen times before they finally hit their success. These stories may be true, but they often leave out the pain. Failing is like a kick in the teeth. It is like a boot to the ear. It becomes an agonizing reckoning of everything you think you are as a person leaving you with terrible questions about your character. Are you failing because the market is not right? Are you failing because the support system is anemic? Or are you failing because you’re not good at this? Because there is something about you, personally, that just isn’t right? Whatever rationalizations I made I could never escape the relentless voice of insecurity telling me the project, the congregation I founded, was failing because I was not enough. And even though, intellectually, I knew this was an unavoidable element of trying something new, there is nothing glib or encouraging or inspiring in these moments because, whatever the reason may be, your dream is dying and it is excruciating to watch your dream die.
Additionally, the exhortations to change, to dream big, to lead the movement in new directions are often silent about some of the consequences for trying. The biggest one, in my experience, was the loss of relationships. If you decide to commit to the risk and venture out into new territory inevitably you will encounter conflict with people who disagree with you. If you have the audacity of greatness—with the emphasis on the word audacity because vision comes to those who, for better or worse, are audacious—you will encounter people who chafe at your audaciousness, although they will probably have another name for it.
There is an orthodoxy within Unitarian Universalism. And this orthodoxy serves people. And I don’t just mean congregants. I also mean ministers. Some ministers say they want change, but in reality they are served by the orthodoxy. They like the way we look and sound and act. We are this way because the majority has chosen it. We have a culture and it is made up of us. We created this culture. And when you attempt to create something else essentially you are saying I want something other than what this culture offers. However harmless it is in the abstract, making the vision real puts you in conflict because it confronts the orthodoxy, the often silent, unspoken, unacknowledged orthodoxy. You step on the shadow and people react. This has been my experience, anyway.
But if I am to own what I just said, I must also implicate myself. I too have a shadow and even more than that I have a particular personality; one that works for some and not for others. To believe that I could create something out of nothing, that I could hang a shingle on the corner and say come listen to what I have to say, takes faith, will, courage, and audacity, although some people may have another name for it. In many respects, my response to your paper, Sean, my message today, is not for the entire room but for the few of you who are really considering the bold move of striking out on your own. Those who, for better or worse, actually take the advice to leave the known and allow yourself to be claimed by the mission of God’s calling or something insane like that. While the lessons of my experience are far ranging what feels most poignant for this crowd is that some of your colleagues are going to respect you more. Some are going to respect you less. Some are going to put their names on the line for you because they believe in you. Some are going to talk behind your back and undermine your reputation because you chafe them in ways that are your fault and in ways that are not your fault. No congregant ever hurt me the way ministers hurt me. And no congregant ever loved me the way some of you loved me. But you cannot dream big and think that everyone is going to like you, that you are only going to become more popular particularly if you fail, that you are going to have all of your friends and more. Because you are trying to change the culture and you will encounter the shadow of the orthodoxy. You will step on toes. And your toes will be stepped on. And it is incredibly painful in a small group like ours where collegial relationships are a luxury. Lose too many and you are alone. Try not to lose any and you will not have the audacity that you need to be great. And at some point, you will encounter the dark night of the soul and wonder if this is even a place for you any longer. Some decide it is not.
So I am all for exhortations to dream big. It is all I think about. I am, in a way, obsessed. In my case, I tried to start a congregation and it failed. We had a few good years but we failed. And I am frustrated by the impulse in people who fear that word and tell me it wasn’t a failure, that we learned things, that everyone was changed. All of which may be true, but also we failed. It’s okay. And personally, I’m taking a break from ministry. It cut me to ribbons to watch my dream die and I encountered the dark night of lost collegial relationships. And I am exhausted.
And I encountered those who people who put their name on the line for me. These people mean more to me than I ever could have imagined. And, when I get back, I will probably try to start another congregation. It is the most amazing, life-giving thing I have ever done.
Some of you are going to try something big. You are going to try to change the culture and I wish you courage. Don’t stop, but understand the risk you may be gutted. You will lose friendships, you will lose respect for people and you will have to sit with the understanding that people lost respect for you. But if your faith is strong you can weather these. And then failure is just another thing. It is a terrible thing, but just another thing. And you will throw on some Taylor Swift, and you will try to shake it off, and you will ask God for help to make a way where there is no way, and you will pick your dream up from the floor and you will try again. Because we are called to do this and while it is hyperbolic to say we don’t care what the orthodoxy thinks, because we all want to be loved and appreciated, we are more than just entrepreneurs. We are evangelists who know that our world is dying from a spiritual malaise that can only be healed with a spiritual solution. And we are charged with offering it. Failure is excruciating. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But to dream is life giving. May you have courage, may you have faith, and may you overflow with the audaciousness of a vision that is going to really upset some people, including some of your colleagues. We are called to say yes to life and with God as our guide we will do our very best to endured the failures as they come so the sunshine of the spirit can shine through ever more beings. May it be so. Amen.