A Feature Review of
Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure
Paperback: IVP Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Micheal Hickerson
Earlier this summer, my wife and I visited about ten unfamiliar churches around Cincinnati. For every healthy community we encountered, there was another that was slowly dying, with a small group of survivors still meeting in a mostly empty sanctuary. At several, we were among their few visitors all year. One church, itself in the midst of a long pastor search, had recently merged with another that had been forced to sell its building, producing the strange scene of a pastor without a church attending a church without a pastor. Even flourishing churches bore scars of recent wounds, such as the wealthy and well-attended church whose lobby featured protraits of every pastor since the 1920s. Every pastor, that is, except for the most recently departed.
Fail grew out of Briggs’s own failures and his subsequent launch of the Epic Fail conferences, a series of intimate gatherings around the country unlike any church conference I’ve ever attended.
We wanted pastors and former pastors to tell stories, reflect, pray, listen, eat meals slowly, connect with others and take Communion together. The goal was not to celebrate success, yet we were not lookin to celebrate failure either. Our goal was simply to celebrate faithfulness in ministry (regardless of the outcome), to highlight our needs for grace and to acknowledge Jesus as the foundation of all we do in ministry and in life. (18)
Failed ministers and failing ministries can be found everywhere. Well-known pastors lead massive churches with multimillion dollar budgets, but that tells only part of the story of Christianity in America. According to the National Congregations Study,
the median church had seventy-five regular attendees in worship on a Sunday morning. Other studies report average weekly church attendance attendance to be as low as fifty-eight people, and almost 180,000 churches in America (9 million worshipers) have fewer than 100 people each Sunday. That’s almost 60% of all churches in North America. Simply put we are a country of small churches. The problem is that we elevate a few large and spectacular churches, believing they are the norm. They aren’t. (53)
Early in the book, Briggs shares his own painful story. He and his wife moved across the country filled with hope at starting a new ministry at a large and successful church, only to see everything unravel through a mix of false expectations, hidden agendas, and broken relationships. In the midst of this, they discovered they couldn’t have children. Briggs left the church after only two years, amid the anger and rejection of his former colleagues. At his lowest points, Briggs found himself literally shouting:
This is not what I signed up for, God! You are messing with my life, and I will not have any of it! How can you be a good God when this is what you do to those you call to do what you ask? I am giving up everything to follow you, God! (34)
Applying wisdom gained during his own recovery process and from conversations with other failed pastors, Briggs deconstructs the American concept of “success” in ministry and seeks to replace it with a more Biblical concept of faithfulness. He draws on spiritual writings from Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen, as well as the research of Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability, to explore the burdens placed on pastors and the wounds they suffer. Briggs draws on the stories of Biblical figures like Joseph, David, and Jeremiah to demonstrate that emotional damage, anger, and grief are common experiences among the people of God. As painful as our failures may be, we can be honest with God and rest in his grace.
When we hear about failure in the context of ministry, we’re likely to think of scandals – sexual, financial, political – that bring down ministers in a sudden crash. Several times, Briggs recounts anonymous stories of ministers engaged in terrible deceptions. Many failures, however, don’t involve moral failings or public scandal. Some pastors experience tragedy outside of their control, such as the death of a spouse or the betrayal of close friends. Others experience years of “slow leaks:” shrinking congregations, ongoing financial shortfalls, relentlessly negative elders. For yet others, the combination of extremely high expectations and the lack of spiritual refreshment leads to burn out.
This final category is perhaps the most disturbing, because so many pastors live on the brink of exhaustion. Fully half of all pastors “are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.” (47) Reading the stories and statistics that Briggs brings to light, I felt as if I were seeing a hidden world of pain and frustration. How many of my friends in ministry are numbered in this group?