Joel Stepanek

The Art of Losing

Let’s talk about something uncomfortable – total, humiliating defeat. Yesterday, Germany humiliated Brazil in the World-Cup semi-finals. I’m not much of a soccer fan, but I do know that generally the games have lower scores. It isn’t uncommon to see a final score of 1-0 or 2-1 – even a tie of 0-0 is possible.

So when Germany went up by five goals at halftime, it was understandable that many Brazilian fans left the stadium. It was unfathomable that Brazil would recover from a five goal deficit in the second half and, quite frankly, I’m sure those people had better things to do than watch their team continue to be pummeled by Germany. Ultimately, that is what happened in the second half. Brazil lost horribly in their home country (Brazil hosted the World Cup this year). Twitter exploded with images of crying children and adults, along with plenty of memes and satire.

I cannot imagine how Brazil must have felt losing that game, that badly, in front of a worldwide audience. But, I do know defeat. I do know that feeling.

Futbol to Football

Lately, my wife and I have been discovering new television shows via Netflix. One of our current favorites is “Friday Night Lights.” I really enjoy it, especially Coach Eric Taylor. He is the head football coach of a high school team in the heart of Texas, a place where football is life. I enjoy his character because he is practical, motivating, and tough. He also has a lot of great lines – this is one of my favorites:

“Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he’s gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself.”

He speaks the line to his team at halftime of a championship game that they were losing… badly. He recognized that the situation was dire – it did not look like the team would win. He wanted the young men on his team to know that, even in losing, they could still be men of character and integrity. They could still give it everything.

Since it is a television show, you know what happens next: They come from behind and they win the championship at the last minute on a heroic play. Cue the epic music and happy faces.

Television isn’t reality, though (even when we claim that a show is “reality TV”). Brazil found that out when they lost the semi-final. I am sure their coach had a similar half-time talk; there is no “mercy rule.” Brazil was going to go back on the soccer pitch and continue to play the best they could, even though it was nearly impossible. At that point, it was less about the game and more about the internal battle – the battle to not “lose yourself.”

Failing

Every youth minister is going to fail. We are going to engage in an event, a ministerial relationship, a job, whatever, and we are not going to succeed. I can say this confidently because it is part of professional growth. If any person begins a ministry or career and believes he or she will instantly be an expert, that person is a narcissist.

Youth ministry is tough and it takes years to progress beyond “beginner.” I have worked in youth ministry for a little over a decade and I still feel like a novice. In those ten years there have been plenty of battles I’ve lost.

The retreat that drained half our budget and then was poorly attended and cut short due to weather.

The staff meeting where I had to explain our lousy attendance numbers, after I had boldly proclaimed that there would be “over 100 teens at youth group” by that time of year.

The time I forgot about my meeting at the parish offices with a young man that needed to talk about his faith. All that was left of that meeting was a note telling me he waited. I never spoke more than a couple sentences with him again.

I’ve failed and it stinks. You probably have failed too – and it hurts. In the midst of failure it can be really tempting to throw in the towel. In the middle of that retreat, it would have been easy to say, “this isn’t working – these teens aren’t getting anything out of this and we aren’t even going to be able to finish this.” I could have put things on cruise control and let the weekend finish out. Thankfully, I had good people around me that didn’t let me do that.

We have to come to terms with failure in our ministry. We have to acknowledge that sometimes we will fight a battle we will lose – and that in that battle we cannot lose ourselves.

Quitting Time

I know many youth ministers that are in the midst of a “season of failure.” It usually happens in the first year at a parish and resurfaces about year four or five. Things feel like they are falling apart. You may feel like you can’t do anything right and are constantly fighting battles or putting out fires.

It is in those two places – year one and year four or five – that a lot of youth ministers quit. They believe that the war has been lost, just because they lost a battle. They look for another field outside of ministry. In the midst of losing a battle, they lose themselves.

Sometimes we just have to accept that defeat, but not let it define us. The greatest victory has already been won by Christ and that is what defines us. We are not the sum of our failures – we are the chosen ones of the Savior. Our great victory is secure.

It doesn’t mean we won’t lose a battle from time to time. It doesn’t mean that our parish leadership won’t undergo transition and move the youth ministry in a “new direction,” or that we will mess up and host an event that totally bombs. It won’t stop parent phone calls about the permission form we forgot to mail out, but finally got in the mail two days before an event. We are human and we are learning; we are going to fail. The key is to know where our true victory lies and to not lose ourselves.

Defeat in the tiny battles of life is inevitable, it is how we grow. Don’t lose yourself in the battle – your victory is secure. Our victory is in Christ.

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Joel Stepanek

About the Author

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.)