Being honest about your organization’s shortcomings… is it worth it?

What do you do when you’re in a ministry that has really dropped the ball? You haven’t done a good job of helping the people you said you were going to help. Or maybe you, as a leader, feel like you’ve let your team down in some big way. Is there ever a time that being honest about your organization’s shortcomings might be helpful?

Whether you’re a church or para-church ministry or nonprofit, your desire is great. Your desire to help, to serve, to make a difference, to see change, it’s great. But the barriers that sometimes prevent change from happening can be great as well. Most of the time, organizations don’t talk about the struggles or the failures they’re experiencing. They don’t talk about them internally with their team, and they definitely don’t talk about them with their audience.

Some people will tell you that vulnerability is a really dangerous thing because all it does is expose weakness. Others will tell you that it’s okay, but that you need to be really careful with what and how much you admit.

I would advocate to say that being vulnerable and honest as a leader and as an organization is actually one of the greatest things you can do. Why? Because it helps build a bridge, both with your audience as well as within your team.

A few years ago, we saw a church run a campaign that they called “I’m Sorry.” This campaign came out of a realization that a majority of the community had a perception about church in general that was not very positive. They realized that the church at-large was seen by the non-churched community as “anti-them.” This church knew that if they didn’t acknowledge a lot of the misconceptions and even wrongs that churches had done to people over the last several years, it would always be a hurdle for many within their community. The “I’m Sorry” campaign was launched to acknowledge this truth and to call out the areas where churches have fallen short in connecting with people in very real and tangible ways.

This campaign involved the church actually going into their community and saying they were sorry to people. This was risky, because it was a very vulnerable thing to do. For this church to build a campaign around relationships that didn’t exist yet, and might not even be successful, was ambitious. But the way they went about it was genuine, and the result was positive. They had multiple reactions from people. They had some that said “Oh I never really even thought about it.” And then others that said “Yeah, you’re right. The church has let us down.” And still others that said, “I can’t tell you what it means to us for you to come in and make these things right.”

This campaign around vulnerability helped bridge a significant gap between the church and the community in which they were living and doing ministry.

There’s a lesson in this for all organizations. When things aren’t working, admit to your audience that they’re not working. You’ll most likely be telling them something they already know, but the fact that you’re being honest about it will give you credibility and make you more approachable. We strive to model this well in our own organization — to be courageous in how we tell the truth and be open about what’s actually happened. If something doesn’t work, we want our clients to know it didn’t work, and how we plan to remedy it.

As another example, when I was a worship pastor, our creative team staff built a culture together around the idea that we would support one another’s strengths, and pick each other up in our weaknesses. This allowed us to become very aware of the strengths that we did have, but it also allowed us to say “I’m not very good at that, can someone help me?” It actually became kind of a joke because we ended up creating a list of things I wasn’t supposed to work on. Everyone knew if I did them, I would mess them up. We would laugh in staff meetings about something I had been working on that I shouldn’t have. My assistant would typically say something like, “Sounds like we need to add another thing to the list of things you’re not allowed to do anymore, Jason.” And she was right!

So how can your ministry learn to be more vulnerable in this way? Both externally and internally. How do you take both the wins and the losses, be open about them, and learn from them?

This really comes down to your culture. Intentionally cultivate a culture where it’s okay to make a mistake, and it’s okay to admit that you made a mistake. Not only among your team (like my former church worship team), but also with your audience (like the church who said they were sorry). Admitting failure can be extremely difficult for some people. But true growth comes about because of vulnerability and being able to work through obstacles together. If we have everything figured out, then we really have no room to grow. And we know that’s not true. Having a culture where it’s okay to fail is extremely important.

It takes time to build this type of culture. Begin setting this example for your organization, but be patient with the process. It’s tough, but it’s worth it.

Let us know how your organization is doing with this. We’d be happy to dialogue about it with you.

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