pastors, burnout, failure, and shame (interview with J. R. Briggs)

Today’s post is an interview with J. R. Briggs, author of Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (see also here). Briggs serves as Cultutral Cultivator for The Renew Community, a network of Jesus communities made up of skeptics & dreamers scattered throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. He also authored When God Says Jump: Biblical Stories That Inspire You to Risk Big. His full bio can be found here.

You’ve written a book on failure and ministry. How did you land on such a counter-intuitive topic and what qualifies you to write a book on failure?

Much of this comes out of my own painful ministry experience and the grueling yet rewarding journey back to wholeness and healing. Somewhere in the process – and somewhat by accident – we began creating spaces for other broken, failed and wounded pastors called Epic Fail Pastors Events.

The purpose was to help pastors deal with and address their failures and wounds in a raw, but hopeful way. We desired to help pastors develop a robust theology of failure and a biblically rooted metric of ministry “success.” These Epic Fail events are full of delicious irony. It’s about death and resurrection, which kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I wanted to help pastors process failure appropriately more than what we could reach through our events. Writing this book was a way to steward this message faithfully to more pastors.

As pastors read this, what do you hope they walk away with?

Many, if not most, pastors have failed, feel like failures or are accused of failing. There’s the old adage “hurt people hurt people.” It’s also painfully true that hurt pastors hurt congregants.

If pastors aren’t willing to deal with their own failure and brokenness appropriately, it wreaks havoc on families, friends and entire churches.

Risk aversion and truth aversion are what happen when failure is not processed healthily. We must address it – even if it is messy and scares the snot out of us.

I wrote this book to offer the Church a tool to help pastors and ministry leaders deal with those appropriately in order to not just preach about the Good News from the pulpit on Sunday, but actually embrace it and live it in real and evident ways throughout the week.

Oftentimes authors learn quite a bit from the writing process, including elements that may come as a surprise to them. Has anything surprised you and what has this process of writing on failure done for you internally?

I was surprised at how emotional the writing process was for me. I’ve written other books before, but I’ve never been so drained as I was with this project.

What do you say to limping, wounded leaders who God has called to be pastors and desperately need encouragement and hope? I cried with every chapter I wrote – both out of deep sadness for pastors and deep joy that God’s grace really is sufficient for us – even for pastors and Christian leaders!

While it drained me, it was also therapeutic, providing healing and perspective for my own soul. My hope is others experience that, too.

I was also surprised by my own fears. It’s easy to tell the edited version of who you are. At its core, courage is telling your whole story with your whole heart. Writing is difficult; it stirs the waters of personal insecurities in a writer’s life. But writing a book about failure? That’s insecurity on steroids.

In the process I became aware of some of my own idols – especially the idol of people pleasing – and I was forced to bring those before the Lord. He performed a lot of open-heart surgery on me as I wrestled with how this book might be received. It was a scary and exhausting – yet beneficial – process for me.

How do you measure the “success” of a book on failure?

It’s a great question – and one that’s been asked frequently. It can be a maddening Catch-22 to write a book on failure. Did I succeed if I fail to write a great book about failure? Or if it sells a lot of copies am I a hypocrite for successfully writing a book on failure? If you think about it too long, it’s enough to drive you crazy.

But I’ve chosen to live by different metrics. As I’ve prepared for the release of the book, I’ve prayed regularly that God would allow me opportunities – regardless of the frequency or amount – to hear stories of worn out and beat up pastors who found hope and healing through the book.

I’ve asked the Lord if I could hear stories of leaders saying, “I was about to quit, but I read your book and because of it, I stayed the course and remained faithful to my calling. I’m glad I stayed with it.” To me, that would be success.

What is the biggest misconception about failure?

Somehow in our North American church culture we’ve bought into the lie that big and equals successful and famous equals faithfulness. Sadly, many of us pastors have come to believe our worth and value are measured by the size of our annual budgets, the square footage of our facilities and the number on our attendance roles.

This could not be further from the value system of the kingdom of God. The Church in North America needs new ministry metrics; metrics that actually care about the things that Jesus cares the most about. Some of the best, most faithful, pastors I know serve in scandalously ordinary churches you’ve never heard of before.

On a personal level, pastors can be tempted to believe certain lies when they fail or feel like failures. What are some of those lies?

There are a lot of tempting lies that pastors believe. A significant one is what Brene Brown calls the scarcity mindset: “I will be enough when ______.” So we begin to think that I’ll be a good pastor if I preach better, do more visitations, pray more fervently, recruit more volunteers, increase our annual budget – whatever, fill in the blank. This mindset is enslaving, self-reliant and far from the truth.

Other lies include: The busier I am, the more important I am and the more I do for God the more pleased he must be with me.

Maybe the greatest and most dangerous lie is this: grace is for everyone – except for pastors. It’s not the gospel. It’s not the gospel at all.

More is caught than taught. When we believe that our worth and value are tied up into what we do and how well we do it – rather than who we are and to whom we belong – we model a works-based righteousness to our churches, and then our people begin to live that way, too.

It’s this mindset of religiosity that got Paul so angry with the people in the church in Galatia. Sure, they believed in Jesus – but they also believed it was “Jesus plus fill-in-the-blank equaled salvation.” Paul tells them they have it all wrong.

When you add to the gospel you subtract from its power. We all have blanks that we add to Jesus. They may sound spiritual but they are still blanks. But the blanks subtract from the Good News. Pastors need this truth to move out from just our heads and into our bloodstreams.

It seems pastors are quite susceptible to feeling the effects of failure and burnout. Why is failure such a difficult topic for pastors and ministry leaders to wrestle with? 

I’ve been wading chest deep into the wrecked lives of pastors and I can tell you: there are a lot of pastors who bear third-degree burns on their souls.

The statistics about pastors and ministry are utterly devastating. 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month. For every 20 pastors who enter the ministry only 1 will retire from ministry. Even Peter Drucker said that pastoring a local church is one of the four most difficult professions in America today.

Pastors are vulnerable and susceptible to attack, discouragement, temptation and failure. I sat with a pastor in his office this afternoon who told me, “If God handed me the keys to leave this church I’d take it in a heartbeat. I want out. But I don’t know what else to do with my life.”

It’s time we talked openly, honestly and courageously about this reality. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was to begin the conversation. Nothing will change if we aren’t talking about it and naming things has a way of changing things.

But it’s also important to realize we’re never guaranteed a life free of failure. We know that, but it’s surprising how many people live by this guaranteed success mindset. But Jesus tells us that we will face failure and rejection because we choose to follow Him faithfully.

Failure is difficult and we feel it so deeply because it ushers us down the path in the direction of shame. Shame is such a powerful emotion in the human soul. People can be manipulated by shame so easily. If left unchecked, pastors can become skilled shame manipulators. When shame is present, we hide, we fake, we protect and we silence. Pastors do this, too. The Evil One thrives in environments that encourage hiding, pretending and silencing.

One of the most important ways pastors can minister is to model confession and repentance in courageous and appropriate ways. If confession – the admission of failure – is the entrance exam to the Christian life then we should be the ones modeling this best. If we aren’t a confessing and repenting community of Jesus, then grace simply remains a theoretical ideal in our heads rather than a hope-filled reality in our lives.

The Good News of Jesus is this: His grace really is sufficient, even for us. Somehow He uses broken, sinful failures cleverly disguised as pastors to proclaim and embody Jesus as the hope of the world.


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