Learning from Mistakes

Have you heard the story about the high school class that were asked to learn how to make clay pots? It goes something like this:

A high school teacher divided his class in to halves. One half was told that they had the whole term to make one perfectly sculpted clay pot between them.  Just one. If they could do this, they would all get an A grade.

The other half of the class was told that they needed to make 50 pots between them in the same amount of time. It didn’t matter whether the pots were really good or not, they just needed to be clay pots. If they could achieve this then they too would all get an A grade.

Which half of the class do you think was the best at making pots by the end of the term?

Well, as you can imagine, the first half of the class worked tirelessly – spending hours and hours on their single pot, throwing and re-throwing it.  But for all their hard work, they just couldn’t get one exactly right.

However, as the term went on, the second half of the class were producing so many pots between them that they learned how to sculpt, bake and glaze one pretty much to perfection. Through trial and error, they learned the necessary skills and were able to helpclayjarbw the others in the class.

Did they also make some awful pots? Absolutely! But every ‘failed’ pot was an opportunity to learn something and change accordingly.

Perhaps you can see where we are going with this…

A common topic of conversation with our team and leaders we work with is “what we have learned through 20 years of mistakes”. This isn’t to say that everything was a mistake (!) but there have been plenty of them along the way to growing a movement of discipleship and mission, and that means there were plenty of opportunities to learn something.

The scars from past mistakes and accidents are often reminders of our most valuable lessons. Visual cues that point to vital experiences. But these experiences haven’t just taught us about how to do it “better”. They have also formed a conviction in us that we are dependant on God’s grace to meet us in those places of weakness and failure. As we watch him at work in these places, we are then not only able to learn from what He shows us, but also to share that same experience with others. That’s a real privilege.

In every book, coaching huddle or learning community, we are looking to communicate this “learning from failure” – partly just because its true, but also because we fully expect everyone we train to experience this to some degree. You can’t pioneer anything without making mistakes. Our desire is simply that by sharing both our mistakes and the valuable lessons learned, we can help others to avoid making all of the same mistakes too!

With this in mind, here are just a few key things we have learned from getting it wrong:

High accountability is really important

At the start of this journey, we had some experiences of strong, charismatic and “successful” leaders that became too separated from the leadership team and therefore unable to receive challenge about some key areas of their personal lives. This had damaging consequences for many others, and high accountability has since become one of the core values we insist upon most strongly.

The centre is still vital!

At points, the desire to pioneer discipleship and mission out in communities and on the fringe has led to an overswing away from the centre. Some of the vital central ministries suffered as a result and led to some in the wider community experiencing a “disconnect” and instability. Some of our community leaders in particular became burnt out and overstretched. From this, we learnt how important it is to have a strong central team, clear lines of communication and good relational investment in our community leaders. This helps them set sustainable rhythms of life, and feel supported by a strong centre, which they are able to return to and be sent out from.

You can’t over-communicate

Part of the disconnect mentioned above was at points particularly around communication. Sometimes it was too easy to think something had been communicated well when it hadn’t! We’ve learned the benefit of a having strategy that uses as many different media (recordings, videos, blogs, emails etc) and places (missional communities, huddles, gatherings) as possible to reinforce the same message; rather than assuming that it will have been picked up by everyone on a Sunday, or that everyone has read the church newsletter!

It’s unhelpful to release MC leaders too quickly

In a strong visionary season where there are lots of opportunities and ideas, it was tempting to release people too quickly with the missional vision they had. Without the proper support, relationships and training in place, this was another recipe for leaders becoming quickly burnt out and less positive about leading missional communities. We learned the importance of getting alongside emerging leaders, bringing them in to huddle and a discipling relationship and helping them process a sustainable pace at which to plant, lead, and grow a community.

Mission needs to be there at the start

Earlier on in the journey, we let missional communities start with a set of comfortable relationships and a very general vision (or no real vision at all) and left them to try and work their mission out as they went along. This rarely worked to produce a thriving missional community as building in common missional activity felt too costly, in terms of making it compatible with their pre-existing relationships and comfortable patterns.  We’ve learned that missional communities really need missional activity built in at the start to help set the culture and patterns of the community.

Church staff should lead by example

With a growing number of leaders, we have had the experience of staff becoming so busy coaching and huddling others that they have not had time to fully live out the lifestyle of missional community themselves. Aside from this not being a healthy, balanced lifestyle for our staff, it also meant that there was less for people to see and learn from, which was unhelpful and led to a decline in growth. We learned that it’s vital to have staff as living examples of the principles they are training others in.

Everything needs to be multipliable

Sometimes we had incredible, high capacity leaders that could build large communities or ministries, but weren’t able to multiply them to allow them to keep growing. One of the main reasons was that other people in their teams would look at what they had and think “I can’t/don’t want to do that”. This led to us learning the importance of keeping everything simple, sustainable and reproducible. Sometimes this has felt like needing to make a sacrifice with how “slick” and shiny some communities and ministries are – but it’s a worthwhile trade off and keeps the focus on multiplication not performance.

Embracing discipline brings greater fruitfulness

We’ve seen a lot of innovation, creativity and pioneering, but often it was in a very intuitive way! Along the way, we didn’t know why things worked or didn’t work (!) and so couldn’t hold onto the breakthroughs we were seeing or keep training others in the same thing. Going through a Learning Community process ourselves around 10 years ago was really important to sharpen what we do, to become more intentional and to learn from what we were pioneering, both to grow what God was doing locally, but also to take up the call to train others from different churches who were asking for our help.


The learning from this post is compiled from the experience of Rich Robinson (3DM Europe Team Leader) whilst in his role at the local church in Sheffield, as well as that of various other senior leaders from churches that are part of the movement in Europe. Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to hear more

Categories: discipleship

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