This Could Be A Mistake

By Dr. Gena St. David

A few weeks ago, Dean Bader-Saye and I spoke in his office, in velvety green chairs across a round wooden table. I asked his advice about a homily I was scheduled to give that Friday in chapel. The gospel on the lectionary spoke to a painful experience in my life and I wanted to know: should I choose another text?

Preaching from our wounds, rather than our healing, is rarely helpful to our listeners. At the same time, my personal experience shaped my perspective on Jesus’ words in that passage. Dean Bader-Saye helped me consider the pro’s and con’s of going forward with the homily I’d written.

“It’s a risk…” I said.

He reassured me not to worry; if it went badly, we’d talk about it afterward.

This spring, our theme for Sowing Holy Questions is creating a “new normal.” I want to highlight a thread from Southwest’s “old normal” that is also being carried through in this new season. 

Even before the pandemic, our learning community valued small experiments. We invite faculty and students to craft a Rule of Life that involves small risks, where the stakes are low, and mistakes can be instructive. When our small experiments go “badly,” we may gain helpful information. We might discover a disconnect between our intention and our impact, or between our values and our behavior. 

In our learning community, we promote the expectation that a small experiment’s failure need not be fatal. After speaking with Dean Bader-Saye about my homily, I left his office encouraged: if the homily is a mistake, we’ll use it as a learning opportunity. It was a helpful reminder of the difference between recklessness and prayerful risk. Simon Peter made several mistakes, none of them fatal. Some of his risks may have even bordered on recklessness, and yet Jesus turned them into learning opportunities.

It is a rare gift to find a learning community that values the learning that can emerge when prayerful risks go badly. It’s vulnerable to be a learner, and our ethos of small experiments creates support for that vulnerability. The last two years of the pandemic were marked with many small experiments in online teaching, social distancing, masking and vaccine policies, and endless new approaches to togetherness. 

Now thankfully, we are entering a “new normal,” with embodied learning, liturgy, and community celebrations. We are retaining the information gained through our prayerful risks–those that went well, and especially those that went badly. And I am feeling an even deeper appreciation for the value of small experiments, along with the courage it lends our faculty and students.

I can say happily that the homily appeared to be met with gratitude by listeners so it seems the risk turned out worthwhile. More importantly though, talking it through with Dean Bader-Saye reminded me how beneficial it is to invite input when considering a small experiment. Inviting those we trust to give us feedback–before and after taking a risk–can help us find the courage to try something that might go badly.

And when our small experiments prove to be mistakes, may we find ourselves in the company of Simon Peter, whose wisdom was shaped less by his success than by his nonfatal failures.

Questions for further reflection:

What small experiments are you taking up this Lenten season?

Who do you trust to confide in when you’re feeling worried about making a mistake?

What have you learned from the “nonfatal failures” you’ve endured?

This spring, Sowing Holy Questions explores creating what is next, the new normal, grieving for what we cannot return to, and being “beside ourselves.”

5 Responses

  1. Gena, You have taken my breath away before. I graduated in 2013 and am a second career (late in life) priest, now in Benton Harbor Michigan, but for 7 years just 1/2 mile away from SSW at All Saints’. This piece of writing is a gift at JUST THIS TIME. I am facilitating The Artist’s Way for the third time, and it is all about being vulnerable enough to create with the Great Creator, to co-create. And to gather supporters, not critics who tear down your efforts. That creating is risky, but do it anyway. You show that, and you show how to be wise creators. I will share it with our group of 11 women tomorrow. Thank you. And if you have never done TAW, it is magical. Deeply True. The material is so good that the facilitator needs to only gently guide, and wonderful things happen–sometimes big things, but always good things.

  2. Dear Dr. St. David,
    I was so pleased to hear from your essay how the seminary remains the encouraging, empowering and life giving space it was when I attended 2005-2008. Your reflection took me back to those times I sat in my professors’ offices nervous to put my ideas out their and asked the same question: should I try this? I was always encouraged to think it through and they would provide various lenses from which to reflect. Non were fatal failures as you describe, only learning experiences that remain with me today in my work.
    I’m grateful for this seminary and the continued education from wise and loving teachers that lovingly prepare their students for the unique ways in which God has called them to serve the world. O, how we need it now!
    Respectfully and with gratitude, Rev. Emma Jane Conley, MDiv 2008

  3. Hi,Dr Gena.
    firstly i would like to say i’m very blessed to come across such spirit filled writing that encourages our spirit to look forward to the next chapter of our lives .I also share your writings with group of our church intercessors who does not have access to internet and they are so blessed and full of hope. i am talking about group of women from ages of between 45 yrs and 75 yrs ,whom some did not even have the opportunity to attend school as we are living in rural areas just to give you the picture. SOWING HOLY QUESTIONS for me is a spiritual eye opener ,that i refer to the event on Luke 24:13-35 ,considering our current pandemic situation , it takes the one who has called and planted us,to inspire people like you to calm ,comfort and encourage us around the world. May God continue to bless you and family.

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