Planning for Failure

Yesterday, NASA experienced a potentially catastrophic failure. While performing a test landing with the new Orion crew capsule, some of the parachutes designed to slow down and safely deposit the capsule back to Earth were missing. However, this failure didn’t make the news because it was a designed failure. In fact, it really wasn’t a failure at all–it was a success.

Orion is currently on track to be NASA’s next vehicle for human space exploration. It will potentially take astronauts as far as Mars in the next couple decades, but it must do so safely. Hence the vigorous and detailed testing of every component.

Before Apollo 8 became the first human spaceflight to leave Earth orbit, NASA’s Director of Manned Space Flight Safety noted:

Apollo 8 has 5,600,000 parts and 1.5 million systems, subsystems and assemblies. With 99.9 percent reliability, we could expect 5,600 defects. Hence the striving for perfection and the use of redundancy which characterize the Apollo program.

This got me to thinking about whether we plan for failure enough. Like NASA (though on an admittedly smaller scale) our ministries are complex enough that even with a high success rate, things will go wrong. Do we have backup systems, and when was the last time we put them to the test? Here are a few areas in a typical worship experience that we should probably look at building redundancy into.

  • Personnel. You wake up with a fever that laughs in the face of medicine. Or the sushi from last night has you hugging the porcelain. Or your voice is gone. Who is prepared to preach in your place? Sing in your place? Direct the choir? Play the piano? Teach your Sunday school class? Watch the nursery?
  • Sound and video. If Satan has a favorite place to hang out on Sunday mornings, it is likely your sound and/or video system. Is your band prepared to lead without amplification? Can you explain the video clip you can no longer show in a way that is as effective as seeing it? If you use slides as a guide for your message, do you know your content well enough or have a printed/written outline to make sure you hit the major points?
  • Live streaming. If you are a multi-campus church that relies on being able to send live feeds to other locations, what’s the back up plan? If you live stream for people to watch online, do you have a backup service if Ustream or YouTube or whatever your primary service provider is goes down?
  • Worship order. The person who was supposed to give a testimony went to the wrong service. The band launched into its set when it was actually time for the offering. Do you and the leaders of your service know who to look to for direction if something gets out of order? Are they empowered and confident and flexible enough to just go with it? Is there a communication system in place to reach the people in the tech booth or the ushers in the back?
  • Emergency plan. This is the one you hope to use the least but is probably the most important. What do you do if someone has a medical emergency? What if the power goes out? What if you need to evacuate? Do the key people know where the fire extinguishers are? Do you have a portable defibrillator, is it charged, and does anyone know how to use it? When you sign people up to volunteer as ushers, they are probably just thinking about things like shaking hands, handing out bulletins, and passing the plates. In a time of emergency, they might be the ones you rely on to respond in the moment. Are they prepared?

When, not if, things go wrong–especially things that are big enough to be noticed by the congregation–we will have a measure of sympathy. No one expects everything to be perfect, and worship should always be more about what God is doing than what we are doing. However, if we can plan ahead, build in redundancy, and practice those moments of failure, we can handle them with a cool and experienced head.

Image by Flickr user NASA Orion Spacecraft. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.

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