I’m a perfectionist. I am a type-A, overachieving, people-pleasing, project-driven perfectionist. But my friends, family, and church already know that. When I sit in a counselor’s chair, dream vivid nightmares, or sit alone with my thoughts, I am haunted by one big fear: the fear of failure. If I’m guessing correctly, many of us in helping and service professions are preoccupied by perfectionism and the fear of not living up to the expectations we feel from our families, our coworkers, our parishioners, our friends, our clients, and our God. Our busy schedules and over-committing natures often outwit our urges to make a difference in our communities, churches, and created world. Sometimes we feel like failures.
This place of frustration led me to a book with a single word as its title: Fail. Of course, after seeing the title, I was immediately drawn to the book discovering a subtitle about finding hope and grace in the midst of ministry failure. The author is J.R. Briggs, an ex-megachurch associate pastor and student of the famous pastor and writer, Eugene Peterson. Briggs left a great ministry job to be the associate at a megachurch in Philadelphia. He is a people-pleasing perfectionist who invested his life and his family’s lives into his new position at the megachurch. After only one year at the church, the pastor resigned due to conflict with the leadership board. Briggs was fed lies and hurtful words from the leaders in the process of the transition. He wanted to resign and begin a new church in the same town but was told by the leadership that doing so would be a sin. Briggs did resign and was heartbroken that his call to ministry ended up being one of intense hurt and failure. He yearned to understand why God would call people, especially ministers, into churches where conflict would happen. He yearned to understand why God would call ministers to begin new church plants that would ultimately close their doors after a brief existence.
Briggs spent a couple of years doing consulting work and writing when he realized he wasn’t alone in his feelings of burnout because of a wrecked ministry calling. He knew many ministers had similar journeys but didn’t have a cathartic forum to release their pain and frustrations. With that in mind, Briggs created the Epic Fail Pastors Conference. Ministers from all of the country met in an old pub every year to unload and unleash their trauma and anger. He found that this type of conference became more life giving to ministers than the big box conferences led by pastors of huge churches with easy step-by-step solutions for church growth. Those conferences tended to make the floundering ministers feel like they were failing at their jobs. The Epic Fail Pastor events allowed a place for ministers to admit and accept their failures in a way that helped them heal and find the purpose of God within their callings.
In a world where ministry success is evaluated through buildings, bodies, and budgets, it is easy for clergy and parishioners alike to become weighted by the fear of failure. Briggs asks two important questions: What does it mean for a church to be truly healthy and where can leaders find hope and grace in the midst of ministry failure? According to Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in a recently retracted statement, the healthiest place for children and youth is in a megachurch. Although he readily admits his mistake and apologizes for his statement, Christians are often deceived by the myth of the megachurch. Churches over three hundred fifty in attendance are roughly ten percent of the churches in America. This means a majority of churches are under three hundred and fifty in attendance and might feel like failures if these congregations use megachurches as benchmarks for success. Did God call ninety percent of churches to feel like failures? Or do small churches find health in their own corners of the world by acting for justice, accompanying the sick and hurting, and loving a God who is faithful in all things. Yes, every church, both large and small, should not fear failure but realize the purposes and future of God in their unique communities.
If God is calling us as the people of God beyond failure, then Briggs thinks we need to choose a different approach to failure. For some of us the admission of failure is a home for forgiveness. We need to forgive others and ourselves for the guilt of comparison. For others of us, we need the challenge of faithfulness. Would we have decided not to follow God in planting a church, doing a project, or accepting a job even if we knew that particular endeavor would fail? We might need to be challenged to be faithful to God regardless of the outcome. And finally, many of us might need the hope of freedom. The negative whisperings in our souls are half-right: We are failures. We are broken. We are scroungers at the communion table. But we aren’t left there. Christ invites us to healing not only at the table of communion where all sinners sit, but also at the cross where he who didn’t sin was hung. Jesus changed the curse of failure to the beautiful mess of freedom.
Briggs ends his book with a blessing from Larry Hine, Brennan Manning’s spiritual director, who delivered this benediction at Manning’s ordination service:
May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child,
and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.