One of the biggest gifts you can give your leaders, is room for mistakes. The fact is, when you delegate to others, mistakes will be made. It’s a certainty. The variable is how you will handle mistakes made.

History shows that creating a culture in which failure is accepted, maybe even promoted, leads to excellence. One famous example is General Electric, whose legendary former CEO Jack Welch actually blew up a plant when he was 25 years old. Instead of firing him, his manager was curious what he had done (he’d been trying a different mixture) and if it would have worked. Satisfied that Welch had learned from his mistakes, his manager stood by him.

When he was CEO, Welch stimulated ‘shared learning’. Managers were always open to share their mistakes and failures so others could learn from them. They actually rewarded managers who would share their mistakes! Their motto was ‘only make new mistakes’. It was OK to fail, as long as you learned from it…and from the mistakes of others. And GE benefited as a company.

Another famous example of mistakes leading to excellence is Thomas Edison, who reportedly did 50,000 experiments before creating a storage battery. When someone asked him if he didn’t get discouraged, Edison replied: I now know 50,000 ways that don’t work.

Is failure accepted in your youth ministry? Are your leaders open and honest about their mistakes, or are they trying to sweep them under the rugs? And do you learn from mistakes or are the same errors repeated time and again? It’s like the old rodeo slogan: it’s not how many times you fall off, it’s how many times you get back on. 

Here are some tips to promote a culture in which mistakes are accepted:

Be honest about your own mistakes

Lead by example and be honest about your own mistakes. Admit them freely and openly and discuss them with your leaders. It will not only create a culture in which making mistakes is accepted, but it will also increase your leaders’ trust in you.

Be honest about failed experiments

In youth ministry, we often try new things. A new game, a new event, another way of leading worship. And that is great, because it keeps our programs fresh and innovative. But that doesn’t mean it always works. Discuss your failed experiments with your leaders and analyze them. Learn from what works and from what doesn’t. It will teach your leaders that it’s okay to try new stuff, even if you’re not sure it’s gonna work.

Handle mistakes with care

If someone makes a mistake, handle with care. First of all, thank them for being honest about it. Then discuss what happened in a factual way, focusing on the process instead of on the person. Affirm the person, but analyze the situation. Make sure your leader understands what went wrong, if you feel that he or she is denying responsibility, gently keep prodding and asking until you get to the bottom.

Christopher Wesley shared the story of his $3200 mistake on his blog a while ago. He admits he would have understood if he had been fired, but thankfully his pastor was full of grace and mercy. Instead of firing him, he handled the mistake with care and created a learning opportunity for Christopher. I can only applaud his pastor, because when you read this blog post, it is obvious that Christopher has learned from that mistake and will never make it again. More than that,he’s engaging in some shared learning by telling others about it and urging them to ask for help when they need it. That’s how it’s done people!

Learn from mistakes

Though your leaders will make plenty of mistakes, it’s good to strive for never making the same mistake twice. Ask your leaders permission to share mistakes openly, so others can learn from them. But make it a rule that you’ll only discuss the process, not the person. When the blame game starts, all lessons are lost.

Adopt a clean slate policy

After someone has made a mistake and has confessed this, don’t ‘punish’ them by ignoring them or taking away responsibilities. If you want your leaders to be open and honest about their mistakes, you have to make sure they won’t feel punished, ridiculed, ignored, or seen as less in any way. Confirm your belief in their abilities and trust them.

Create room for ‘dumb questions’

I was horrible at math in high school. Part of that was because I really don’t have an aptitude for it, but it was also because I was afraid to ask questions. You see, my math teacher always make me feel like my questions were so dumb, so stupid. It was quite effective in shutting me up, that’s for sure.

If you want to create an atmosphere in which mistakes are accepted, it starts with giving people room to ask ‘dumb’ questions. Your leaders need to feel accepted in every way, including areas in which they may have to grow. So let them ask the questions, encourage them to be vulnerable. If you handle these questions with grace, they won’t hesitate to come to you when dumber things have happened…

How does your youth ministry do when it comes to mistakes and failure? Do people feel free to come clean? Are the same mistakes made over and over again? Share your experiences in the comments!