Failing as pastor hurts, talking about it is hard

March 7, 2011

Sometimes being a pastor is a real pain. But few pastors want to admit it. J. R. Briggs is trying to change that.

That's
why Briggs, a blogger and pastor of the Renew Community in Lans­dale,
Pennsylvania, is organizing the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, which is
set for April 14–16 at a church-turned-bar 25 minutes outside of
Philadelphia. Briggs hopes to make space for pastors to speak their
minds without fear.

The conference grew out of a blog post that
Briggs wrote last summer. Many ministers' conferences are flashy events
with rock bands and presentations from big church pastors, who take the
stage and talk about their great successes.

But those
presentations don't match the daily realities for pastors, especially at
small churches, Briggs said. "Most of the time, you feel like I'm never
going to be that guy on stage—I am preaching to 42 people, including
the noisy kids," he said. Briggs hopes the Epic Fail conference will
remind pastors that it's OK to be human and that failure is normal.

After
all, he said, most of the leaders in the Bible were failures. David was
an adulterer who betrayed a close friend. Moses was a murderer. Paul
persecuted Christians before his conversion. And the disciples spent a
lot of time bumbling around after Jesus.

"The entrance exam for
Christianity is admitting you are a failure," Briggs said. But pastors,
he said, are often expected to be perfect. That means they can't admit
their doubts or failings. If they do, they can be shamed by their peers
and parishioners.

"I am not afraid of failure," said Briggs. "I am afraid of the shame that comes from the rejection that comes from failure."

So
Briggs suggested a conference at which leaders could put their worst
foot forward. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of comments,
e-mails and phone calls flooded in, with tales of ministers' failings,
both personal and professional. That led to the blog post becoming
reality.

Fittingly the conference will be held at a church that
failed and became a bar. "The stained glass has been replaced by neon
Sam Adams signs and the pews have been replaced by pool tables," Briggs
said.

The conference is relatively cheap at $79, not including
lodging, and will be low key. Several pastors will talk about their
failures and lessons they've learned from them, and there will be time
for discussion. Briggs said he's not revealing the names of speakers
ahead of time. But he is insisting that those speakers hang around for
the whole event, rather than popping in and then leaving. On the last
day, participants will share communion. Already ministers from as far
away as Australia have signed up.

Adam McHugh isn't surprised. A
former pastor who is now an author, Mc­Hugh said he tried being honest
about his struggles as pastor when he was in ministry.

His
parishioners were not thrilled. Some said he was not fit to be a pastor
after ad­mitting he'd been to see counselors. Others tried to undermine
his leadership role.

"I think we all feel a real tension as
pastors—we want to be spiritual role models, but we also want to be
ourselves and acknowledge that we fail," he said. "This is why pastoral
ministry can be hazardous to our spiritual lives."

The recession
has made things worse. In some denominations there are more ministers
looking for work than there are jobs. Church budgets are tight, meaning
that many small churches have trouble keeping a full-time pastor.
Admitting failure isn't good for job security. "The job can be brutal
enough already, and the pay is already low, so the financial, emotional
and relational costs, on top of those other costs, for sharing honestly
are often not worth it," said McHugh.

Scot McKnight, blogger and
professor of New Testament at North Park Univer­sity in Chicago, isn't
surprised that the issue of failure has struck a nerve with ministers.
He said that ministry can be especially difficult for pastors of
nondenominational churches who don't have the support structure or a
network of peers that a denomination can provide.

McKnight sees
signs for hope, though.  He said that older church members expected
their pastors to be perfect. That's not always the case with younger
churchgoers.

"In the previous generation, there was a lot of
emphasis that the pastor had to be distant, apart from the congregation,
and holy," he said. "Failure was seen as a sign of betrayal. For this
generation, admitting failure is part of the pastoral task."  —RNS