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.