most pastors are failures–and it’s OK to talk about it

most pastors are failures–and it’s OK to talk about it June 11, 2014

My friend and Lansdale neighbor J. R. Briggs has just published his latest book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. Failure is common among pastors, and it’s one of those things that’s hard to talk about, and hence gets buried as a shameful secret.

J. R. is taking the bull by the horns and talking about it.

My first exposure to J. R.’s vision for talking about the failure in ministry was several years ago at his first “Epic Fail” conference here in Lansdale (2011, I believe). There were probably about 50 pastors in attendance, many local but others who drove half-way across the country and slept in their cars because they couldn’t afford a hotel.

They just needed to be there.

They recounted their own stories to each other of dashed unrealistic expectations (their own and of others) and feelings of guilt, depression, and worthlessness.

J. R. clearly had his finger on the pulse of a major problem and decided, instead of poor pastors secretly driving across the country to attend a conference, he would take the show on the road. Several such conferences have since occurred.

This book is the fruit of those experiences and will be a tremendous source of encouragement for pastors who fail.

You’re not alone. You’re not abnormal. You’re not broken.

Here is the Amazon blurb:

“I thought God had called me to plant this church. Why did we have to shut our doors after only three years?” “I was at my breaking point. Then I got the news that our nine-year-old daughter had leukemia. I would have quit ministry forever, but I had no other employable skills.” “False accusations were made against me and my family, wrecking our reputation permanently and forcing us to leave not only the church, but move out of the area.” “I’ve served my church for the past 27 years and I’ve grown that church from 150 to 24 people.” What do we do when we’ve failed? Some ministries are shipwrecked by moral failures like affairs or embezzlement. But for most of us, the sense of failure is more ordinary: disillusionment, inadequacy, declining budgets, poor decisions, opposition, depression, burnout. Many pastors are deeply broken and wounded, and we come to doubt that God has any use for us. J.R. Briggs, founder of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, knows what failure feels like. He has listened to pastors who were busted in a prostitution sting or found themselves homeless when ejected from ministry. With candid vulnerability, Briggs explores the landscape of failure, how it devastates us and how it transforms us. Without offering pat answers or quick fixes, he challenges our cultural expectations of success and gives us permission to grieve our losses. Somehow, in the midst of our pain, we are better positioned to receive the grace of healing and restoration.

You can see the video trailer here.


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  • It’s difficult when the often wide-ranging set of pastoral job duties bring them to the point of failure. But it is just as much a failure of their congregations that they got to that point. In some church communities, depression and anxiety aren’t viewed as issues of mental health – but as spiritual weaknesses in a leader. The same stigma is attached to the pastor having normal life problems, like marital counseling needs. A pastor is expected to be a fault-free titan of faith – he may have problems but we don’t want to hear about them. That’s recipe for a breakdown.

    To deal with declining numbers, I feel like encouraging a consumerist mindset in the laiety has brought in parishioners with precisely the wrong mentality for serving and supporting the church infrastructure. That pastor who said he went from 150 to 24 people probably considers himself a failure. . . but if he had doubled his numbers by typical megachurch growth strategies he might be dealing with a whole new set of problems in addressing a new congregation that expects a steady flow of entertainment, goods, and services. So many are dealing with the bone-headed expectation that you can change people brought into the community under false pretenses. If you were led to believe that church is a glam rock concert with childcare services, it’s going to be difficult to cajole you into becoming a service-oriented Superchristian. That’s a Sisyphean battle with false expectations which you *will* lose, barring the influence of a miracle . . . add in the pressure coming from church leadership and the big donors and you get a crucible that would crush any human being. I don’t really see a solution to the plight of pastors within the framework of the current popular church growth models.

    But I think the beginning of a solution is to listen to what pastors need rather than what we need from them.

  • Agnaldo Mota

    Must be a excellent book! I am from Brazil and I have been a presbyterian pastor by 13 years, and I confess: some times I have thinking about giving up, just becouse, no matter what we do, the Church want more, more and more. We are not super hero, we are just a simple human being.
    ps: I’m sorry about my English grammar!!

  • Kim Fabricius

    Bonhoeffer said that the cross is God’s judgement on the successful – which surely includes the “successful” pastor. In fact, what on earth would a “successful” pastor look like? What would be the criteria of assessment? Jesus’ ministry ended in the shambles of a public execution. Are servants greater than their master? When Paul’s “boasts” of his apostolic accomplishments in II Corinthians 11:21bff. – jeez, his CV is a catalogue of disaster and misery. Needless to say, the so-called “super apostles” sniggered at Paul’s ineptitude.

    Numbers, growth, measurable outcomes, organisational performance, managerial virtuosity, entrepreneurial finesse, even personal fulfilment, etc., etc., – this is kata sarka thinking, theologia gloriae thinking. It’s the wrong ministerial mind-set from the get-go, captive to a culture of consumerist capitalism, not liberated by a kenotic and cruciform pastoral theology (which, btw, is not in the least masochistic, but deeply informed by the beatitudes and psychologically funded by the joy of serving the Servant and the nobodies for whom he died and lives.

    The tragedy here is not the suffering of pastors as such, but the fact that so many pastors seem to be suffering for the wrong reasons. Now, if (for example) you get shafted by your congregation or shat on from a great height by Mission Control for supporting LGBTQ – well now, Matthew 5:10.

  • Augustine:

    Si […] fallor, sum.

    If I err, I am.

  • Eric Hatfield

    I can’t help feeling we have set them up to “fail”. We have wrong models of leadership and wrong expectations. We have wrong models of communication (studies show sermons are one of the worst means of teaching and changing people) and poor models of discipleship. And we have wrong models of the mission of the church, or we don’t try to live up to the “right” models. Meanwhile congregations have under-used skills and underwhelming expectations of what they are capable and allowed to do.

    We train pastors according to these wrong models and then expect them to use wrong methods to achieve impossible goals. Somewhere we need to re-think and start again. And relieve good people of the burden of impossible expectations, and help them to a better and more life-giving way.

  • Al Cruise

    Just like in the business world, which is the model the current church uses, to be considered successful you must grow large. The mega Churches will be the only ones considered relevant and will be the gatekeepers.

  • With seminaries cranking out thousands of pastor-wanta-be’s each year, there is going to be an inevitable huge failure rate. The institutions still market it as “following God’s call for your life”. Hundreds of kids go into art school the same way, hoping to be employed, but not good enough to hold anything but a secretary job or needing further training after months-to-years hoping to be employed. And as mega-churches prosper, jobs for religious professionals will fall. But the propaganda of “finding your calling” or “being led by God’ will continue and people will fall into depression as they see it fail.

    So where is the problem? It is pretty clear to me.

  • Preston Garrison

    Pete, this pastor stuff isn’t selling very well. If you want to get some traffic (you know, sell some ads,) you need to poke the atheist hive again, or some other excitable group.

    • Oh, I don’t know: I’ve seen swarms of religious apologists pump up ad numbers by buzzingly defending their favorite doctrines be they Muslims, Christians or even Buddhists. So there are lots of hive to poke out there — don’t limit yourself only to the Religion-Free groups.

      • Preston Garrison

        Well, I said “or some other excitable group.” I started thinking about this later. Bees and other social insects will respond aggressively if you attack their home, but really excitable human groups will go out and forage for enemies. They wander around the internet looking for something on an opposing web site that they find offensive; then they recruit others of their “kind” to go attack the offenders. I don’t know enough about insects to know if there is any species that forages for enemies. Where is E.O. Wilson when we need him? 🙂

  • Thanks, Peter. I wasn’t familiar with Briggs’ work or book, and am glad to become aware. There certainly, in my mind, needs to be much more attention given to support of pastors, definitely including those having left for a variety of reasons and struggling psychologically, spiritually or financially. I have long envisioned something that probably goes beyond Briggs’ venture, tho I don’t know yet what all he is doing. It would include low-cost or even “pay-it-forward” job-search/career guidance and coaching so former pastors could find new niches and better know how to put their “transferable skills” to effective and money-making work. Most of them have a LOT of skills pertinent to the business and “secular” world, though it is not easy to find where they can plug in and get to use them.

    Peter (or others), What else do you know of going on of this nature?