[Book] Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

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.1 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.’2 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.’3 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.’4

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.5 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.’6 The second, ‘the temptation to be spectacular comes when we are asked to don the cape and attempt something heroic.’7 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.’8 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.’9 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.’10 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.’11

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.’12 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.13 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.’14 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.’15

Footnotes

  1. Reflecting on a cross-country move that didn’t go as anticipated, J.R. writes, ‘It felt like a punch in the stomach. We had moved away from our friends, our home and our church in Colorado to be mentored by a pastor in the Philadelphia area, believing it was God’s call on our lives. The senior pastor was no longer there, the vision of the church was changing significantly, and we were left wondering if we had a part to play moving forward. Being told by some remaining senior leaders of the church they would not have hired me had it been their choice pushed Megan and me over the edge (J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 30-31).’
  2. J.R. Briggs, Fail, 45.
  3.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 45.
  4.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 46.
  5. The three most commonly utilized metrics to gauge success being the ‘3 B’s’: butts, budget and bucks.
  6.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 65.
  7.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 65.
  8.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 65.
  9.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 77.
  10.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 77.
  11.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 77.
  12.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 112.
  13. See: Chapter 8 of Fail. In this chapter J.R. discusses the stages of grief and some possible ways a person may process their failure at each stage.
  14.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 161.
  15.  J.R. Briggs, Fail, 158.

[Book] Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Church Leadership

In Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership, authors J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt contend that ‘when a church lacks structural health, that local body suffers, and there’s no hiding it.’1 According to the authors, ‘the local church is most healthy when it is pursuing God’s heart and oriented around his mission.’2 Thus, church leaders – Briggs and Hyatt term these people ‘elders’ – play a crucial role.3

But what is an elder? What are the responsibilities of an elder? Who can be an elder?

We begin with the question: What is an elder? Simply put, elder ‘is the most commonly used term for a leader in the New Testament, while the word pastor occurs only once in the New Testament.’4 Often, the biblical writers use the term to refer to a person of old age or someone within a community that is tasked with decision-making or other official functions. In short, an elder is someone whom others look to: a leader.

But we aren’t talking about any old leader here. Briggs and Hyatt are concerned with leaders within the body of Christ. So we must ask: What are the responsibilities of an elder? Or, more specifically, What are the unique responsibilities of an elder that differentiate them from other leaders? In Chapter 3, the authors suggest that elders have five primary functions, according to Scripture. First, elders are to serve as overseers, exercising both spiritual and organizational oversight.5 Second, elders are to shepherd. Shepherding, according to the authors, is anything but glamorous. It’s messy. Shepherding necessitates being involved in the lives of those entrusted to the elder’s care. The defining quality of a shepherd is love. Love manifested in the form of protecting the flock, confonting those who stand against truth and engaging in intercessory prayer.6 Third, elders are to teach. A good teacher isn’t just someone who can convey knowledge. Rather, a good teacher is characterized by: a) a hunger for Scripture, b) a craving for knowledge of God’s heart and, c) a teachable spirit.7 Fourth, elders are to equip others. Equipping entails beginning ‘to address the issues of brokenness and healing in the world… [preparing] others for the journey, and [helping] restore people to their original condition of shalom.’8 Fifth, and finally, elders are to set an example for the flock.

Having outlined the five functions of an elder, Briggs and Hyatt turn their attention to the question: Who can serve as an elder? Utilizing Scripture, particularly 1 Tim 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9, the authors suggest that we should be more concerned with who elders are than what elders do. In short, we should be concerned with character more than ability and/or skill. As such, Briggs and Hyatt contend we should look at a person’s situational, family and moral qualifications when considering them for leadership.9

In other chapters, Briggs and Hyatt explore the process of selecting elders, the role of elders in decision making and whether or not women can serve as elders, among other matters. Rather than summarizing these chapters, I’d like to suggest you purchase a copy of the book Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church LeadershipIt’s an excellent book. A quick read. And a phenomenal resource.

My takeaway from the book is this: Leadership is important to the health and well-being of the church. In fact, without mission-oriented elders/leaders there will be a lack of alignment between God’s people and the heart and mission of God. For this reason, we need to carefully examine the role of elder/leader and select men and women to serve in these roles who won’t just fill a seat on a board, but will see themselves as stewards who ‘take what God has entrusted to them and care for it as best they can.’10

 

Footnotes

  1. J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 13.
  2. J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 19.
  3. Briggs and Hyatt argue that language is important, as language creates culture (J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 71).Thus, rather than using the terms leadership team, church board, etc., they suggest we consider utilizing a New Testament, relational term – e.g., ‘elder.
  4.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 41.
  5.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 42.
  6.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 44-45.
  7.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 46.
  8.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 47.
  9. Situational qualifications include such things as: a desire to serve, ability to teach, maturity in faith and reputation among those outside of the community (J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 57-58). Family qualifications include such things as a healthy marriage and one’s ability to manage one’s household (J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 59-60). Moral qualifications include such things as temperance, gentleness, hospitability, self-control and the like (J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 60–64).
  10.  J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt, Eldership and the Mission of God, 193.