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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Excellent Mistakes: A Reflection on Doing and Learning

Just for the sake of giving him a name, I’ll call him Nebuchad-nezzar. Nebuchad-nezzar did his internship last year, and came away with excellent and hard-earned evaluations. I was talking with Nebuchadnezzar, and told him that his successor, Jeroboam, had now begun his service, and good reviews were coming back.

Nebuchadnezzar pondered a minute, then posed a semi-rhetorical question: I wonder if Jeroboam forgot the Kyrie the first time he led worship.

Nebuchadnezzar, you see, did forget the Kyrie the first Sunday he led worship, and he still remembers the forgetting.

But I bet nobody else does, except maybe for Mrs. Nebuchadnezzar.

Many mistakes are like that. We remember them long after others have forgotten them. Among the artifacts on display in the museum of my memory are very specific mistakes I made when Richard Nixon was still president of the United States, things I wish I had the chance to do over again. Nebuchadnezzar may never forget the Sunday he forgot the Kyrie.

If you are starting out on internship, you’ve probably made a few mistakes already. If you haven’t, then you probably haven’t been doing very much (which is, in and of itself, a mistake). We do not expect you to have a mistake-free internship. We expect you to make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes.

About twenty years ago many of us were reading the books of a church consultant named Kennon Callahan and going to his seminars. This was good and helpful stuff. Kennon Callahan would often talk about the value of excellent mistakes. Excellent mistakes grow out of attempting something great and failing. From them we learn something about success and failure, about what makes for success and what makes for failure and something about ourselves as well. There is no progress, Callahan said, without excellent mistakes.

My friend Jack was a fine aeronautical engineer. I remember a period of time when he was working on a project for the national airline of Saudi Arabia. Drove him nuts. He would come in with plans, and could never get a yes or no to those plans. In the corporate culture of Saudi Arabia, the worst thing you could do was make a mistake. The executives of the airline avoided making mistakes by not making any decisions.

Well, we expect you to make mistakes. It’s all right. We’ve all done it. We have a God who specializes in forgiveness, and most congregations are pretty good at it as well. So get out from behind your computer, make some excellent mistakes, and learn from them!

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