If one duty of the church is—as Proverbs 31 commands—to “speak on behalf of the voiceless,” J.R. Briggs’s Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure is truly doing a good work. The voiceless population he calls into the healing light of grace is pastors who have “failed,” those who—at least according to the megachurch standards of Western culture—have not managed to grow their congregations large enough, swell their coffers heavy enough, or expand their parking lots and sanctuaries and TV and Internet extension campuses wide enough.
Though not a pastor myself, I can honestly say I was shocked to hear of how common feelings of failure are in the pastorate (almost half of all pastors have considered quitting in the past three months!). It’s just not the kind of thing the lay Christian thinks about, tending more often to assume that pastors, who have presumably the confidence of their “calling” and many years of seminary training to bolster them, rarely doubt themselves or struggle with their position of leadership. Of course, anyone who even half keeps an eye on the news is familiar with the wringer “failed” celebrity pastors are put through. Our media openly revels at any opportunity to point out pastors found in adultery, monetary mismanagement, or other scandal as a sign of the diminishing influence or transformative power of Christianity. For a pastor to fail publicly in this way is certainly a blow both to the individual and the church, and Briggs addresses the need for pastors to deal with failure that results from sin. However, where Fail becomes perhaps most interesting and uniquely useful for ministry is in Briggs’s address of the more subtle, amoral ways that pastors feel themselves to be failures and his advice as to how pastors might overcome such feelings. By and large, these feelings of failure come from the (unbiblical) standards of “success” that he argues have become the status quo in the Western church. Concern over purely numerical measures of success—names on members’ lists, bodies in pews, dollars in the treasury—often result in both an over-inflation of the pastor’s role in the church and an inappropriate measure of a church’s health.
Briggs attacks this false conception of success on several fronts: statistical, anecdotal, and biblical. Statistically, for example, to use the Western megachurch as a model of success is setting ourselves up for failure from the get-go. As Briggs points out, “we are a country of small churches.” In fact, megachurches make up less than .05% of the number of churches in America: hardly the norm! Anecdotally, Briggs offers his own story of “failures”: his feelings of insufficiency at a friend’s ordination ceremony where he was afraid to participate, not himself being ordained, though presumed to be so by all the other “real” reverends involved as well as the rejection he faced when deciding to leave one church where he was being groomed as the “Golden Boy” and upcoming pastor (“the next Andy Stanley” as one congregation member dubbed him) to lead a church plant. And biblically, Briggs points out that Jesus’s ministry was incredibly inefficient in terms of the Forbes-based standards we set for contemporary ministry success. He could have marketed better, focused more on earnings and membership, set up a few brick and mortar locations (or even just one!). And yet, His church has thrived.
In addition to offering a “theology of failure” for his readership, Briggs offers what I imagine will be very helpful practical tips for pastors who need their spirits uplifted and their focus on God’s kingdom and their right position and calling restored. They range from tips you might expect—find a mentor, journal—to the novel—give up reading how-to ministry books, watch Brené Brown’s TED videos.
Though Briggs’s primary audience is certainly the burnt-out pastors of the world, I benefitted from reading this book as well, and I would encourage other lay Christians to do the same. It offers a revaluation of what “success” should mean for the American church, and it pushes us to consider how the pastorate fits into this definition of success. It reminds us of our common goals and purpose as Christians and inspires us to push back against unbiblical standards of success promoted by our culture. It encourages sympathy and appreciation for the sacrifices made by those whose lives are devoted to ministry, and it reminds us not to make idols of any man or institution. In essence, while speaking to pastors, it points all readers back to the core elements of the Gospel. One of my favorite moments of the text is an anecdote from one of Briggs’s “Epic Fail Pastors” events, a moment which encapsulates what this book has to offer pastors who feel as though they’ve “failed” and the larger readership of the American church:
“After singing a few worship songs, we were just about to end the first evening of one of our Epic Fail Pastors events when I saw a hand in the back. A young church planter was so burned out he looked crispy around the edges. He leaned back in his chair and said, ‘This may be way off topic, but we sing these songs about Jesus and I don’t even know who Jesus is anymore or what I believe about him.’
He paused. ‘Can someone tell me the gospel again? I need to hear it.’ After a long silence a pastor across the room cleared is throat and shared the outlandishly good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When the pastor was finished speaking, the church planter looked up, smiled and said, ‘Thanks. I needed that.’
It was a sacred moment—and it most certainly was not off topic. In fact, it might have been the most significant three minutes of the entire event. As pastors, maybe more than almost anybody else, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves or at least have the courage to ask others to preach it to us.”
Read an excerpt from Fail – and an interview with the author – at the Patheos Book Club here!
Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.