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Senior Correspondent

How Should I Respond to a Failure?

How Should I Respond to a Failure?

My latest mentee in the prison ministry program has blown it, big time. There are indications he has started up with drugs again, moved out of the ministry's halfway house training center, and is probably on his way back to prison when the parole officers catch up with him.

Regular readers of this blog know I invest a lot of my volunteer time and effort into prison ministry. I believe quite  strongly that a faith-based transitional program is one of the few ways for an just-released inmate to have even a fighting chance of making it on the outside. These men and women have made serious mistakes, paid the price, and are committed to turning their lives around. Even though society makes it as difficult as possible for them to succeed, I have seen the good this program can accomplish. I have also seen what happens when someone just can't control his internal demons.

There is really no way to predict who will make a go of it and who will be back wearing orange behind bars. We can conduct all the one-on-one meetings in the world, work through books designed to strengthen someone's faith, offer unconditional love and support, and surround them with all the tools needed to start anew. But, if there are issues and personality traits that can't be tamed or controlled, then that person will fail.

This is not the first time I have "lost" one of the men I work with. But, a few months ago when I picked this fellow up as he walked out of prison, I was feeling good about his chances. He gave every indication he wasn't going to follow the same path of failure. He had children he adored and wanted to be part of their lives again. His marriage was on life support but he seemed ready to put that behind him and focus on what he must do to stay strong and free.

Over the last few weeks I had begun to notice problems. His temper would flare and he'd have a hard time controlling it. His attitude toward others was often rude and aggressive. When confronted with a situation that required him to step back, he'd take a giant step forward and make things worse. He understood that this program was his best chance to get back into his kids' lives and be a positive influence for them. But,  he simply couldn't keep from making bad choices that made that outcome impossible.

His spiritual life was becoming non-existent. He didn't exhibit a truly changed heart or an understanding that God had a plan for him. Instead, he willfully insisted on his way to satisfy his desires. There was no conception of the long term consequences of his actions and decisions.

His phone calls became sporadic. His response to e-mails and tests became non existent. I was scheduled to go see him a few nights ago but was notified he hadn't come home for two nights (and counting) so there was no point in driving to the center to meet with him. He had vanished.

Eventually he called the director to tell him he was back on drugs and wasn't returning. The parole officer was notified and the wheels started to turn. Even then, the ministry offered him one final chance to stop his fall before it was too late. He rejected the offer and was officially in violation of his parole.

I was angry, upset, disappointed, and frustrated. His failure reflected poorly on me and the ministry. We know that not everyone will take the opportunity offered them. Ultimately the individual makes the choices that determine his fate. But, we'd be less than human if something like this didn't bother all of us involved with this man and his future and cause us to wonder if we could have done things differently to help him.

Now what? I'll lick my wounds and jump back into the battle. I'll start again to travel to the prison in northeast Arizona once a month to meet with other men who say they want the same chance this fellow had. Eventually, one of these men will become my next mentee and I'll try again.

Whether it is working as a volunteer, being a parent or grandparent, teaching others, starting or running a business, writing a book, or simply being a member of the human race, a failure cannot be allowed to be more than a temporary setback.

Sure, it hurts. Yes, I wish this guy had been part of my life for another 5 months until he had succeeded in re-launching his life. But, I will not let his decision affect my decision to be part of this prison ministry organization. If I did, his bad choices would have even greater negative consequences than they already have. I won't give failure that kind of power.

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