Are we setting pastors up to fail? Epic Fail – an initiative from J.R. Briggs

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

Nobody likes to talk about it, but our church systems are setting pastors up for failure.

Most of our churches operate from a model where one man or woman is employed to be the “professional Christian”, the ultimate spiritual role model, the expert and example for the whole community. Sure, there may be a support team around them – but it’s easy for the people in the pews to see who they are expected to follow (and critique, and blame if anything goes wrong).

The emotional and spiritual burden on pastors is huge. And absurd. And unbiblical. One person is positioned to be the paid Apostle / Prophet / Evangelist / Shepherd / Teacher (all at the same time), while the rest of God’s people sit passively in pews like a critical audience, unable to give input or contribute even if they wanted to. The typical Sunday format of singing and a sermon places a spotlight on the stage, and a disproportionate emphasis on the sermon as the main vehicle of change, and discipleship, and transformation. In the eyes of the congregation (which is literally the employer as well as the client), the pastor bears responsibility for the spiritual growth and wellbeing of the entire community, as well as the perceived measures of “success” – the numerical growth and financial sustainability of church as an organisation. No wonder pastors are burning out, breaking down, screwing up, and abandoning ministry in droves.

A few years ago, J.R. Briggs wrote a brief blog post, imagining an unusual kind of pastor’s conference, where pastors could gather as equals to share their failure, their shame, their disappointment, grief and despair (instead of listening to a superstar give a pep-talk on how to “succeed” in ministry). To his surprise, the post went viral, resonating with hurting and wounded Christian leaders everywhere. Soon after, he organised the first “Epic Fail” conference (“for failures, screw-ups and losers”). Pastors drove halfway across America to attend the three day event. They met in a bar. They shared brutally honest stories of failure, and fear, and frustration. They opened their hearts to total strangers and found the love and acceptance of brothers and sisters in Christ. They gathered around tables, broke bread together, worshiped together, and ministered to one another.

I’m really excited about the format of these conferences – because this is what church should look like. A place for broken people to extend grace to one another. A place of honesty and acceptance. A place where we don’t strain for success, but live in faith out of our weakness and failure. A place where no individual human is expected to shoulder responsibility for the community, and Jesus is allowed to be the head of his body.

J.R. continues to host Epic Fail Pastor’s Events across the U.S. (contact him if you’re interested in organising one in your city). In this 2 minute video, he shares some sobering statistics, and talks about his new book “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which comes out in just a few days. I pray his work brings great comfort and healing to pastors in pain. I also pray that our churches re-examine the success-seeking, pastor-centric model of ministry, and move towards a grace-filled, empowering expression of church life which values honesty, authenticity – and even failure.

10 thoughts on “Are we setting pastors up to fail? Epic Fail – an initiative from J.R. Briggs

  1. I’d suggest the real problem begins earlier. Bible colleges, Universities & the para church sub culture set men & women up to be pastors, & other forms of ‘leaders’, who have no calling or real qualifications. Instead of the gift of pastor showing up in the life of a young church member as they live & grow where they are planted, the factory supply chain of credentialed self appointed pastors feeds the monster industry of top down, sheeple controlling, fleecing farms, that we call church. The entire system is one verticle large circle of failure that resembles a hamster wheel rather than a horizontal circle of loving, healing fellowship, a body comprised of child like brethren who are the bride of Christ and Gods immediate and blood kin family. Like Israel in Jesus day, the whole system, once pure, is now corrupt & beyond reform. Rather it should be abandoned in favour of following Jesus outside the camp, outside the temples. But anyone who tries that won’t have more than a dozen followers, including some Judas’ s and ultimately the gang they try to lead back to simple Jesus centric church will probably crucify them. Form follows function in all of nature, & church is no different. We have what we really, truly want and the day we finally give up trying to prop up the corpse is the day God will open the heavens with Life abundant & His resurrection power.

    • Thanks Greg. I can always tell from your comments that you deeply long for God to restore and reconcile the world to himself – including the church. May it be so, Lord.

      – Kathleen

  2. I agree with everything you say here. You may be interested in this blog post about JR Briggs by one of my favourite bloggers, Peter Enns, and this interview with Briggs on the same blog. On one of the posts I made a comment I’ll repeat here:

    I can’t help feeling we have set them up to “fail”. We have wrong models of leadership and wrong expectations. We have wrong models of communication (studies show sermons are one of the worst means of teaching and changing people) and poor models of discipleship. And we have wrong models of the mission of the church, or we don’t try to live up to the “right” models. Meanwhile congregations have under-used skills and underwhelming expectations of what they are capable and allowed to do.

    We train pastors according to these wrong models and then expect them to use wrong methods to achieve impossible goals. Somewhere we need to re-think and start again. And relieve good people of the burden of impossible expectations, and help them to a better and more life-giving way.

    • Great comment, Eric. A few of the other commenters are also pointing out how the system contributes to failure. I’m seeing more and more comments along these lines on Christian blogs, compared to a few years ago. I think there’s an increasing discontent with consumer models, which is partly just a global culture shift (reflected in the “hipster” movement among young people).


      – Kathleen

  3. “I’m really excited… because this is what church should look like. A place for broken people to extend grace to one another. A place of honesty and acceptance. A place where we don’t strain for success, but live in faith out of our weakness and failure.”

    What a beautiful picture – one I suspect we all yearn to experience.

  4. Thanks for posting this.There is such great need for these outlets. After preparing at university in Bible, Ministry and New Testament Greek, I took an associate minister’s job at a dying church. I went to a ministers position 9 months later in a church where I was it. I wrote and printed the bulletin, preached two sermons and taught one or two adult Bible classes a week. I visited the sick and new members, did youth ministry, even vacuumed the building sometimes. I never felt comfortable with my time, believing I was always either neglecting the work or neglecting my family. We had no benefits and couldn’t afford health insurance. I knew a great deal about Bible study but little about prayer. I secretly struggled with pornography and could not stop for more than a few months at a time. So after 5 years I got out.

    Now, over thirty years later God has me back in full time ministry. I give a seminar urging men to get in the battle against lust, other sin in their lives and find victory through a closer relationship with God and their brothers. No real support yet, but am loving what I do.

    It is definitely time for the church to realize ministers are just people and need help like everyone else.

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing some of your story, Kent. I pray God uses you in your new ministry, and blesses you and the men you are working with. This kind of ministry is so very valuable.


      – Kathleen

  5. Pingback: Recovering from ministry – one pastor’s journey after closing a dying church. | Church in a Circle

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