Last week I wrote a post with the title; “Are we setting pastors up to fail?“. It was a question that came out of our personal experience pastoring a local church for six years, with all the shame, guilt, frustration and confusion we carried. It was a question that resonated with readers and pastors around the world, including a friend of ours, Gareth Williams, who is currently involved in humanitarian work in Kenya. Gareth wrote this post to share some of the grief, doubt and sense of failure he has struggled with after pastoring a dying church.
Churches aren’t meant to close; they are to stay open, add new people and grow. Yet what do we do when a local expression of the body of Christ is no longer viable or fruitful? That was the choice I was faced with whilst leading a church through the process of closing last year.
This particular church started dramatically in 1925 with a tent mission that led to a property being donated and a building erected in a single day. Depending on whom you spoke to within the church, it had either struggled for most of its history or had its heyday in the 1970’s. However, by the time I arrived on the scene in 2008, the church consisted of 25 people with an average age of 85 years old. I tried my hardest, my wife supported me, we recruited some younger people who gave their all – but ultimately we had to close the church.
As part of our tradition and constitution we needed to hold a vote. Our board had come to an agreement that closing was the best course of action – not a unanimous decision (these things rarely are). Between the vote and the final service some interesting and difficult times ensued. One elder disappeared and has never fully explained why, a deacon disappeared but later resurfaced, we had to call the Police to escort one church member away from our house (one of the downsides of living in the church manse), and we were continually dealing with the sadness and grief from long standing members.
Through this time I was grappling with what I’d done, the emotion from the church (including incredible anger and abuse from said member above) and what my family and I would do next. I was also dealing with my own thoughts and feelings regarding failure. Could I have done more? What if I’d done things differently? What if I were better? These questions struck me hard, and have reappeared at different times in the year since we closed. Many people affirmed me saying that no-one could have done any better -comments that helped but did not fully expunge the feelings of guilt and shame.
There is a great deal of pressure on Pastors to “win” – to grow big churches and become a celebrity. Many of us fall into this trap; I know I did. However I failed spectacularly at these goals. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about success; at least what we normally associate with success. It speaks of faithfulness, something I find hard to define.
Was our church faithful? In some ways yes; people attended services and gave of themselves, yet we weren’t able to produce enough fruit. In order to become a fully-laden tree we needed to change beyond what many could handle – trust me, I tried.
For me, I am learning from this to redefine what failure and success are. I want to be successful, I long to be the Christian guru, the one asked to speak at big events. I struggle going to conferences or events where someone else is the speaker. I want to be the chosen one – I could do so much better than whoever has been picked! But am I the only one who wants that? Do I get a better seat in heaven based on how many events I speak at? Pardon me, you mean I don’t? So why do I want it so bad? Dare I say pride?
I don’t know if I’ll return to pastoring. I don’t know if I can deal with the expectations – those from others, but more importantly my own. I desperately want to abide in Christ more and listen to people’s opinions less. I want to be okay with failing the deadly “ABC test of church success” – Attendances, Buildings and Cash. But I want to live in God’s grace that tells me I am loved as I am.
Gareth has been reading J.R. Brigg’s latest book, “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which is helping to bring some healing and closure. Do you have any words of encouragement to share with Gareth and his wife at this time? Do you relate to their experience in any way?