Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure should be required reading for anyone entering into, or already engaged in, ministry. It is jarring. Raw. Author J.R. Briggs writes about failure in a refreshingly honest way. At times he shares from his own experiences with failure. In other instances, he shares lessons that he’s learned through relationships that have been cultivated as a result of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, which J.R. created. That is not to suggest that Fail is simply a book of anecdotes about ministry failure. Far from it. As the title suggests, the book is primarily about ‘finding hope and grace in the midst of ministry failure.’ In other words, Fail is a book about picking up the pieces, healing and moving forward.
With that in mind, we now turn our attention to the book and its content. We will begin by looking at the two forms of failure. From there we will look at the four sections into which the book has been divided: unlearning success, learning failure, embracing failure and the way forward.
The Four Forms of Failure
Before diving headlong into the subject matter, it would probably be beneficial to discuss rather briefly the four forms of failure. Many times when it comes to ministry failure, the type of failure that we hear about and discuss is what could be termed ‘moral failure.’ This type of failure might include such things as: misappropriating finances, sexual misconduct, or some form of illegal activity. J.R. refers to this as a mighty fall. The second form of failure is the tragic event. J.R. has this to say regarding tragic events: ‘often [they] are not sinful, but they are often sudden and tragic… It may include the news of a spouse’s cancer that took his or her life within a matter of months, a shocking termination that seemed to come out of nowhere or a searing betrayal by close friends.’ Third form of failure, the slow leak, ‘is the result of the subtle wearing down of the soul. Slow leaks are the constant drips of encouragement. It may include the unending barrage of negativity from an elder board, depress, disillusionment or severe resentment when thinking about how one’s life and ministry has turned out.’ The fourth and final form of failure is what Briggs terms the burned-out statistic. This type of failure results from ‘jumping from one crisis to the next.’
It is worth noting that of the four forms of failure only one, the mighty fall, is a moral failure. The other forms of failure are what we might refer to as ‘amoral ministry failure.’ That suggests that many of those who leave ministry will leave not because of a moral failure. Instead, they will leave because of betrayal, unrealistic expectations, weariness, depression, loneliness, etc. A fact that should be noted by those preparing for ministry and should cause those who are in ministry to pause and spend some time reflecting on where these forms of failure may be subtly eroding away at their health, joy and peace.
From a short summary of the forms of failure, we now turn our attention to the four sections into which the book is divided.
Part 1: Unlearning Success
In the first section of the book, the author looks at the religious landscape of North American Christianity. Dotting the landscape are a myriad of denominations, networks linking together non-denominational churches, and not-a-few independent churches. At first glance, the religious landscape of North american Christianity appears to be anything but homogenous. Upon further examination, however, it becomes clear that despite their apparent differences, the North American church by-and-large shares a common understanding of success. J.R. suggests that the predominant understanding of success comes with three accompanying temptations. The first, ‘the temptation to be relevant comes when we want to be sought out–when others desire to hear from us,’ has us believing that ‘the more relevant we are in our leadership, the more people will come to our church.’ The second, ‘the temptation to be spectacular comes when we are asked to don the cape and attempt something heroic.’ It is a temptation that leads us to do crazy things, tell outlandish stories, and attempt great exploits in the hope of garnering applause. The third and final, ‘the temptation to be powerful comes when we seek to control people–their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, giving, attendance and involvement.’ At its core, the temptation to be powerful leads us to engage in manipulative behavior, so that we might achieve the expected and/or projected outcomes.
Bottom line of Part 1: We must unlearn success as we currently know it. We must redefine success in terms of health and faithfulness.
Part 2: Learning Failure
In Part 2, J.R. contends that failure is a fact of life (and ministry) and that we must learn to fail in ways that are healthy rather than defeating. Oftentimes, when we fail, we become angry, bitter. We feel betrayed. Bogged down in the swampland of the soul (shame), we feel unworthy to receive love. So we put on a mask and pretend to be someone other than who we truly are. While these chapters were rich, my big takeaway was that ‘for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen-really seen.’ This is true with respect to our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, as well as our relationship with others. The psalms, especially the psalms of lament and grief, provide us with a pattern for how we might allow ourselves to be seen, really seen, by God. Additionally, we must summon the courage to be vulnerable–’to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart.’ It’s an exercise in truth-telling. Telling both ourselves and others who we are, rather than pretending to be someone that we are not. It is an exercise that teaches us to be loving, forgiving and compassionate with ourselves. Something that is incredibly important because, ‘where there is little compassion for self, there can be little compassion for others.’
Bottom line of Part 2: Each of us fail. We must learn to fail in a way that results in health, relationship and connection rather than isolation and disqualification from life/ministry.
Part 3: Embracing Failure
Part 3 employs Israel’s roundabout wanderings in the desert as a metaphor for our wilderness experiences, our own experiences of failure. J.R. contends that while we try to avoid the desert and wilderness at all cost, we should, instead, embrace the wilderness, as it represents an opportunity for growth and maturity. He says it this way: ‘We grow in the wilderness because the only way to survive is if God shows up.’ Thus, it becomes important for us to live into and embrace the wilderness experience, rather than endeavoring to short-circuit and/or speed up the process. We do this by allowing ourselves to grieve and/or mourn our failures. After we’ve given ourselves permission to grieve, and have entered into the process of grieving, we can then begin to look at re-entry. Chapter 9, the chapter on re-entry, provides a brief sketch of Dr. Stephen Burrell’s research regarding amoral ministry failure and how a person might begin to prepare for their next ministry opportunity. This chapter, and Steve’s insights, are excellent. (In fact, I’d humbly suggest that this chapter alone is worth the cost of the book.) One of the most important insights in this section has to do with the ‘recovery window.’ Burrell’s research revealed that the average pastor took somewhere between seven and fourteen months to walk through the stages of grief toward acceptance.
Bottom line of Part 3: Post-failure is a dark time. Most of us try to avoid the pain and frustration of this season. However, health and future ministry vitality demand that we not rush through or dismiss our grief. Instead, we must embrace the wilderness and wait (patiently) for God to show up.
Part 4: The Way Forward
The final section explores life and ministry after failure. In particular, J.R. looks at how our past failures prepare us for future ministry. Rather than disqualifying us, they shape us. One of the ways that our failures shape us is by reminding us about our ‘need to breathe.’ Briggs contends that this happens when we begin to exercise self-care. When we embrace rhythms and practices and enter into relationships that help us to be a full-time human before being a pastor.
Bottom line of Part 4: Pastors are not super-human. As such, we need to exercise self-care, as ‘self care is the first step in caring for others, for loving your neighbor as yourself.’ What is more, ‘as pastors, maybe more than almost anyone else, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves or at least have the courage to ask others to preach to us.’