Pastors and the “F-Word”: A Conversation with J.R. Briggs


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

According to J.R. Briggs, “the elephant in the room for pastors is that many of us are afraid of failure, and we don’t feel as though there are safe spaces to talk openly about it.”  Which is why J.R. organized the Epic Fail Pastors Conference and why he authored one of the most important books I’ve read this summer, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. 

J.R. serves as Cultural Cultivator of The Renew Community a Jesus community for skeptics and dreamers in Lansdale, PA. He is the founder of Kairos Partnerships an initiative that partners with leaders, pastors and church planters during significant kairos moments in ministry. As part of his time with Kairos Partnerships, he serves on staff with The Ecclesia Network and Fresh Expressions U.S. and coaches leaders, pastors and church planters across the country.

I’ve long admired J.R.’s take on ministry, so it was honor to talk with him about what it means for pastors to serve with faithfulness, regardless of the outcome, in a culture that idolizes celebrity and success. I hope it will be an encouragement to all of you, but especially those of you in ministry. 

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RHE: First of all, thank you so much for this book. I know it’s not easy to write with such honesty and vulnerability about your own struggles and failures, but it’s such a gift to people who would otherwise feel alone in their experience. This has to be especially true for pastors, who are often held to impossibly high standards and for whom “success” can be especially hard to gauge. I think you’ve started a really important conversation here, and it took guts to do that. 

So, to start, tell us a little about the Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference. What gave you the idea to do that? And what was the first one like? 

J.R.B.: Thanks for your kind words. I do hope the conference, and now the book, can prompt honest and significant conversations among pastors (and truthfully, among all people) regarding failure and how we respond to it with hope, grace and freedom.

The Epic Fail Pastors Conference came about almost by accident. Previously, I was on staff at a large church in a very visible role. By all accounts, people would have believed I was “successful.” Then, God called my family out to plant a church with little resources and few people. It was an incredibly dark and painful season for me. The thoughts of failure were right in front of my face. 

During that time, I realized that most of the ministry conferences around the country were oriented for – and run by - “successful” pastors at “successful” churches. I found myself leaving these conference feeling either guilty that I wasn’t doing church “the right way” or like I couldn’t relate to the speakers and their context in any way. I am sure they were kind-hearted and loved the Lord deeply, but I wondered if what we were doing, whether we knew it or not, was worshipping at the altar of our American-defined ideal of success, only in the setting of a local church. 

Shortly thereafter, I wrote a satirical blog post suggesting that someone host an “Epic Fail Pastors Conference” where we put our “worst foot forward.” I wrote that instead of talking about our successes, the speakers should be required to only speak of their failures – and, to follow up, share how God showed up anyway in the midst of the failure. I suggested in the blog post that no speaker should be a pastor of a church larger than 200 people, that we should call our speakers “Experts on Failure,” and that there should be no green room, lanyards, merchandise tables or honoraria, and that we would end the event with communion. 

Ironically, the satirical idea took off. People contacted me from all over the country asking when and where we were hosting this counter-intuitive event. It shocked me. We had no serious plans to do so, but after talking about it with a few ministry friends, we decided to pull the trigger. We hosted our first event about four years ago in my community, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, in the upstairs of a gritty bar that used to be a church. It was a raw and beautiful experience of healing and grace. So beautiful, in fact, we felt we needed to steward this idea wisely and continue to host these spaces. We’ve hosted Epic Fail events around the country over the past few years and continue to do so. (For more, check out www.epicfailevents.com).


RHE: I have to say, the statistics from Chapter 2 of Fail shocked me. I had no idea how many pastors struggled with depression and frustration regarding their ministry roles. You write that 80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of their spouses) are discouraged in their ministry roles, that 40 percent say they have seriously considered leaving the pastorate in the past three months, and that 70 percent say they don’t have a single close friend. Those are some really astounding and sobering numbers. And yet, this reality is so rarely talked about—in church, at conferences, in books. Why do you think that is, and why is it important that we change that? Why must we talk about failure, (or the sense of failure), among ministers? 

J.R.B.: Yes, ministry can be brutal. One of the most sobering statistics I found in my research is that for every twenty pastors who enter the ministry only one will retire from ministry. The irony is that so many pastors think about failure, but so few have spaces to talk openly and courageously about it. As I’ve listened to the stories of numerous wounded and hurt pastors I’ve realized that the less we talk about failure the more we feel it, but the more we can talk about it the less we feel it. 

The biggest barrier to talking openly about failure (or the sense of failure) is fear. Pastors are always wondering, if I talk about this, will this cost me? Will it cost me my job? Will it hurt my family? How badly will my reputation be damaged if I share how I’m really feeling? Will people hold it against me? Will people be disappointed and leave my church? 

We have to talk about failure because if we don’t we perpetuate the façade that the pastor has it all together. Masks are readily available for pastors and when we refuse to be honest and go into hiding, we’re tempted to reach for a mask to give the impression we’re someone that we’re not. And there are numerous ornate ministry masks available to pastors. But when we put on the mask we put aside the cross. The irony is that we bear the message of grace, where Jesus says that no perfect people are allowed. Even though we preach grace from the pulpit – that we’re all messy, broken, sinful, spiritual high maintenance people – that doesn’t always get into our bloodstream. If we don’t talk about failure and brokenness in appropriate ways, we perpetuate the priority of religiosity, the very thing that Jesus came to put to death. If we perpetuate religiosity and refuse to embrace grace, we are hypocritical and unfaithful to our calling as ministers of the gospel. But when we model and embrace grace, it’s certainly messy, but it’s also incredibly beautiful and attractive to others around us.  

It’s important to state that pastors are in need of both wisdom and courage. Talking about our wounds, failures, sin and brokenness takes courage. It’s only when we’re vulnerable that we grow. But we also need to exhibit wisdom to know when, where, with whom and how much to share about our brokenness. Finding the right balance of wisdom and courage in addressing our brokenness is crucial.


RHE: I once wrote a post entitled, “Dear Pastors, Tell Us the Truth,” and was heartbroken by how many pastors responded to it by saying they would never feel comfortable being that honest with their congregations. Why are so many pastors afraid to tell their congregations the truth—about their fears, their doubts, their ideas, and their failures? 

J.R.B.: I remember your article well. It struck a chord because it was so refreshing to the hearts of many pastors. As I mentioned above, there’s a lot of fear of what it will cost pastors if they tell the truth. This inability and unwillingness to talk about fears, doubts, ideas and failures leads to isolation, performancism and loneliness. Being with many pastors as they tell me their story, one of the main words I would use to describe their lives is loneliness. The Evil One loves this. If you isolate the life of a pastor, all sorts of significant damage can be done. It’s healthy when the pastor needs a community as much as a community needs a pastor.


RHE: What are a few things parishioners can do differently to support and encourage their pastors better? 

J.R.B.: There are many I would suggest, but I’ll stick with three. 

The first is to never forget that pastors are people before they are pastors. The expectations churches often place on pastors can lead them to believe they have to be super-human. It is important to remember pastors have bad days, feel “off,” need a break, and need friends and safe spaces where they can let their hair down. When parishioners have this perspective it can be a gift for pastors and their families. Don’t ever forget that your pastor is in need of as much saving grace from Christ as you or anyone else in the church. When we forget this, we miss out on understanding the gospel and we set pastors up on pedestals; and when this happens it is dangerous for both the pastor and the church. 

Second, commit to regular prayer and ongoing encouragement of your pastor and his/her family. When people in our church tell me that they have committed to prayer for me, I tell them it is one of the best gifts they could give to our family. Pastors don’t always do it right or preach amazing sermons or respond in the most gracious way. Pray for encouragement for your pastor, pray they would have a deep intimacy with the Lord, a deep understanding of grace and protection from the Evil One. 

Lastly – and this may be more for the leaders or elders of the church – cultivate a culture that encourages rest, health and healing. Seldom do I meet well-rested leaders. Even more rare is a well-rested pastor. Make sure time is allotted for vacation and time away for their families. Require that your pastor practice Sabbath as a way of taking care of mind, body and soul, as well as modeling healthy rhythms for the congregation. Some churches I know pay for a spiritual director or a counselor for their pastors, not because they think their pastors are screwed up, but because they want to make sure there is healthy support in place since ministry can be brutal. I’m certainly not suggesting you pamper your pastor unnecessarily, but creating a culture that cares for your pastor ultimately leads to your pastor caring well for the congregation. 


RHE: How has our success-oriented culture and the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon within Christianity negatively affected everyday pastors? 

J.R.B.: The phrase “celebrity pastor” is a contradiction of terms, but it feels somewhat normal to us in our cultural context because the mindset is so rampant. Unfortunately, the Church in North America has been co-opted by the corporate business approach to success and efficiency. It wasn’t the corporate world forcing it’s way onto the Church; we brought it on ourselves. Because of that, the church now uses the same metrics as the world.  The psyche of the average pastor is concentrating on metrics that the world uses: bigger, better, more efficient, more influential, bigger platform, etc. 

More simply, we tend to measure our effectiveness as pastors on the three B’s: buildings, bodies and budget. If these three B’s are strong, we’re tempted to think, well then, we must be successful. Conversely, we think that if those are down, we must be failing. The problem is that this is dangerously different from the heart of Jesus and the kingdom he came to declare: small, on the margins, ordinary, obscure, focused on faithfulness and humility that requires dying to ourselves. What happens when we adopt the world’s way of counting is that we think more like spiritual managers and church entrepreneurs than shepherds and soul gardeners. When we manage people’s spiritual lives we can think of them as problems to be fixed, issues that need to be tweaked and a system to be fine-tuned. This is not ministry; people know it when it happens. They get the sense that the pastor is using them to accomplish his/her grand vision. 

I’ve shared this quote from Eugene Peterson (from the Introduction of his book Working the Angles) with dozens of pastors because it gets to the root of the issue at hand. It’s so important that I keep it tucked away in my Bible to remind me of my calling: 

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”


RHE: When we look at national trends, it becomes apparent that churches in the U.S. are indeed seeing an overall decline, and no denomination has been spared from that. It seems to me that this might provide a sort of death-and-resurrection moment for Christians—a death to the old ways of measuring impact by money, power, numbers, and influence and a resurrection into the ways of Jesus, where the focus is on the hard work of discipleship, healing, fellowship, etc. What does “success” look like for pastors at a time when the Church is changing so dramatically and when most can’t brag about impressive numbers? 

J.R.B.:  Many have asked me a similar question: “If it’s not about the three B’s, then what am I after?” As we study the gospels and learn of Jesus’ challenge for us to seek the kingdom first and teach others in the Way of Christ, we see the dominating posture is faithfulness. Jesus will never say, “Well done, my good and successful servant.” In some ways this is encouraging; in other ways, it means a more difficult road. Faithfulness is the basis for ministry.

In the book I mention four shifts we need to engage in as we think about a new way forward. The first shift is from product to process. Instead of focusing on the end product or on hard numbers, we focus on the journey. So much of what Jesus did was with people. Pastors are on a journey with together toward Jesus. 

The second shift is from prioritizing results to prioritizing relationships. When we focus primarily on results we exhibit a spiritual management posture, instead of ministry. When we’re rooted in trusting relationships with others centered in Jesus, the kingdom is present. It may not put pastors on a national speaking circuit, but is that the goal of ministry? 

The third shift is from a focus on numbers to focus on stories. When we focus on numbers we dehumanize people. When we focus on stories we give people dignity and value. It helps people know their part in the story and know how to live into that calling. 

And the fourth shift is a move away from efficiency and toward congruence. The faster we move toward progress we feel less of a need for relationships. I certainly am not suggesting we strive for inefficiency; instead, what we strive for is effectiveness - or, a better way to put it, fruitfulness. I love the word congruence. When things are congruent they jive. They fit. The parts work together as one. When the heart of a pastor – and the hearts of the people in a local church - is congruent with the heart of the Father, the kingdom is present. 

These shifts are messy and take sacrifice and a great amount of unlearning, but it’s what leads to freedom, faithfulness and obedience – which are at the heart of the gospel story we are called to boldly proclaim. 

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Be sure to check out Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. And you can find J.R.’s blog here. 
 

 

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