My Review of Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure by J.R. Briggs

One of the books I enjoyed reading over the summer was Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure by J.R. Briggs. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book exclusively about failure. I have read leadership books that discuss  aspects of failure and how to overcome it. I’ve read book about discovering success in the midst of various circumstances including failure but again, I’m not sure I’ve read anything exclusively on failure. After all, who would want to voluntarily remember, dissect and process the nature of their many personal failures? Well, it turns out I would. And you might want to also. 

Here’s what I found helpful: 

J.R’s voice. Authentic, raw, bordering on over-sharing, wounded with a hope of over-coming (A nod to the editors for letting him go). He’s bold but not rude. It’s the true North-easterners’ mentality – Honest, mostly-polite, a bit sarcastic and articulate. Is there really any other way to talk?)

His story of failure. It’s not scandalous, it’s not contrived, it’s not exaggerated. I resonate with certain aspects of it and it may be similar to yours. Here’s an exert:

“I am hopeful and disillusioned about the future of the church. I’ve asked dozens of pastors and church leaders to describe the lowest point in their ministry. Too often the answer is “Right now.” … As I survey the landscape of churches, I see an overwhelming amount of lonely, wounded and discouraged pastors who’s souls seem to be on life support. The thought jolts me, Is this what Jesus had in mind for pastors – a life absent of joy and peace, and with omnipresent stress and emotional hardship?

A few years ago I was deeply frustrated about being a pastor. More specifically, I was discouraged by the assumed requirements of becoming a “successful” pastor …”

The ridiculous amount of encouragement that doesn’t come across as trite. I’m still not sure how J.R. did this.

While my life is not perfect/whole, I was not sure if I would be able to connect with concept enough. Though some might disagree, I don’t actually think I have committed any galactic failures, (comment section is open:). I don’t walk around thinking myself as a failure and with God’s help and solid accountability, I’m confident my career will be scandal-free. But as mentioned in the previous post, I walk around more with a fear of failure and the nagging of what feels like a million little failures and moments I wish I could have back. This book gets that too.

If you liked Leading with a Limp by Dan Allender, I think you’d like this. They have different objectives but the authors’ posture of vulnerability is similar. Further, if I remember correctly Allender’s pain is a bit further in his rear view mirror than J.R.’s and they writing at different life stages. Franky I would recommend that if you are leading (and place a high value on authenticity/vulnerability) that you buy/read both.

Who I Think This Book is For:

Of course, I think everyone can read this but those in their 20’s and 30’s (early 40’s) will appreciate J.R.’s voice the most. It’s similar to the difference between Mumford/Macklemore processing their pain and Bob Dylan/Jonny Cash (they’re all great, but proximity feels to make a difference).

He’s a reader of Eugene Peterson (who wrote the foreword), DWillard, SMcKnight, Bonhoeffer, and all the missional types. As mentioned, his voice is raw and fresh yet shaped by these great minds.

Those who have not found enough closure to their past ministry pain. I found Fail  to give me more scar tissue.

The person who is in pain right now. In addition to prayer, supportive friends, let this book be part of your grieving process.

As one who hosts Reading Circles (book clubs that are more focused on the people than the books), I was struck by the thought of hosting one that read and discuss Fail here in the Greater Boston area. If you’re interested, let me know, I have a few ideas in terms of venue, format, duration, etc. Let me know, I can really see this happening in the cold, bitter months of winter.

 

—-

A bit of a disclaimer. I know J.R. a bit. We’re really acquaintances that social media has pushed to friendship. But we’re not that close because he didn’t ask me to read/review his book. Further, we have a lot of mutual friends and I believe they like me much more than him, but that could have shifted recently ;) Still, I sincerely look forward to our paths crossing again. Even more sincere, know that I’m not posting this as a favor, I truly appreciated this book and really believe his words are needed and  timely for many.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first Epic Fail Conference that J.R. put on and discusses at length in the book. At first, I had planned on going to support J.R. and my friends of the Ecclessia Network. While I have always kept my frustrations/pain nearby in some sense, that event came at a time in my life and ministry where things were on the rise, change was in the air for me and my family and we were grateful for the trajectory we were on. But the time leading up to it and the gathering itself gave me a deeper understanding of my pain caused by failure and what I needed to release. It’s all a process, a worthwhile one, hope you find it so as well. Here were my posts from the Epic Fail Conference – Post 1 and Post 2.

You can buy Fail via Amazon, and InterVarsity Press

Read his blog www.J.R. Biggs.com and follow him on Twitter @jrbriggs.

On Failing

One of the books I read this summer was called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure by J.R Briggs. I still need to write my review of how much I enjoyed this book but failure, success and the fears and trappings connected and everything in between is always on my mind – and likely on yours too. It’s safe to make the assumption that everyone has felt the fear of failure at some point. For many of us, it’s a relevant, in and out thing. Maybe right now you are doing exactly what you want to be doing, maybe you’re doing the opposite, whatever and wherever, the fear of failure always lurks.

On good days, we know we will experience failure and success and we’ll live and learn. On the not so great days, we over-fixate, we grieve the loss of something prized, we let it consume and we let it spill-over in other aspects of our lives.

I’m sure you have read countless quotes on failure and have read numerous insights about overcoming it.

“Everything you want is on the other side of failure.” – Jack Canfield

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” – C.S. Lewis

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy

and of course, an obligatory Winston Churchill quote:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.”

Sometimes the words make you want to fail so you can experience the joy of triumphing over the failure. But if I’m being honest, if I have to fail, I only want to fail at the things that are inconsequential or reserved in front of an audience of those who will support/forgive/encourage me the fastest. Yes, “safe failure.” But there is no such thing and it feels needed to consider what is so awful about failure.

There’s the public nature of failing. Everyone will see it and this will confirm their deep-seated suspicion of you. They always knew you were unqualified, unintelligent, and were over-rated in whatever was considered a potential strength. Ever have the thought “I’m horrible at the only thing I thought I was good at?” The only thing worse than this is being considered mediocre. At least when someone says you’re horrible, there’s the very likely possibility that they are over-stating your incapability. We might even reason they are simply angry with us. But being accused of mediocrity feels like a more objective statement, it comes across as less personal, more dismissive, I tell you it feels like bitter failure.

Failure also brings the private confirmations that you have always harbored in fear. Related to the above, there’s this very intimate, personal nature of failing. It’s the stuff you’re not good at it, that’s why you keep covering it up, and when it all breaks loose, you utter the words to yourself, “I knew I shouldn’t have ________.” Sometimes no one knows about it but you and we let ourselves be tortured by it. It’s demonic in that sense.

Like others, I fear that I will fail in countless ways. I fear that I will fail at the responsibilities I am charged with. I fear that I will fail at my strengths. I also have a deep fear that I will fail people relationally.
“He’s just like all the others.”; “He doesn’t really care about me.”; “I wish I hadn’t met him.”; and “I knew I couldn’t really do this.” It can be even more over-whelming when considering my role as a husband, father, and a son/brother and close friend. Failing in our relationships is a deep fear and it feels warranted.

Living with the fear of potential failure and the pain of past failure can crush our ambition and our daily pursuit of peace and fulfillment. It can also limit our relationships and again push us to isolate ourselves. It’s not a stretch to believe that many of us walk in and out of this funk all the time. So what do we do?

This is where I find Christian identity helpful. No doubt about it, the people who love us the most and the least have truthful sentiments about us. But their vantage point is always incomplete and so is our own perspective. If you’ve ever been guilty of under-estimating yourself, then we know our view of self is also incomplete. Therefore finding our identity in who God created us to be is a helpful starting point. We are not going to create our own persona nor be held prisoner in thought of others. Instead, we will seek who were were created to be.

From here, everyone from friend to critic is a potential ally. Their opinion is informing and helpful but not defining. In an emotionally healthy moment, this keeps in check the potential sting of public failure. It’s also a strong response to our self-doubt monologue. While failure will be inevitable, in this healthier mindset, it has the potential to strengthen us instead of beat us down.

It’s in prayer and community that we can find both anchoring and guidance in our identity and mission. It’s in the seeking-giving of forgiveness that we find release. We also have to forgive ourselves when we fail. It’s natural to want to avoid the possibility again, to resolve to never take a risk again and to let it eat away at you. Forgiving ourselves helps us to avoid these reactions.

We might start off again limping a bit, and soon we find our stride as we seek wisdom, feedback, accountability and encouragement. In this way failure actually can be a teacher, a motivator, serve as a turning point toward redemption.

Unrealistic? Maybe but would it help you to know that this is part of my response to myself (and maybe to others) as I recover and move on from a very regretful moment of failure. These words are not merely therapeutic, I find them to be life-giving, I find God’s goodness in them. In failing, I’m finding a bit more redemption. 

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” Chris Hardback

“Though those pursing God’s goodness fall seven times, they get back up …” (a paraphrase of Prov. 24:16)

A New Ministry Year, “Here We Go Again …”

For us ministry types not following the liturgical church calendar, these are a different type of intense days as the new church ministry year begins. The over-all vision has been worked on and prayed on for months, the supporting themes/ministries need to move from ideation to practice and among the many other pieces to move into motion, there is the volunteer search (Please read last year’s post “There Aren’t Enough Volunteers This Year and There Never Will Be”). In addition to all that, there is still the need and your own personal desire to meet with people in the hopes of listening, counseling and serving. As you know, no one goes into the ministry because they love Excel and calendaring.

It can be easy to lose track of the original reason of serving others during this ramp up as often you hear the phrase “Here we go again” with a sarcastic grin. I’ve heard it and said this countless times over the years and it feels like a statement worth unpacking.

“Here we go again” is likely asked by a broad spectrum of people in a variety of contexts. In the church world, staff, lay-leaders, and volunteers of all kinds.

“Here we go again” can be another of way of asking, “Will any of this matter?” We all have limited time and energy and it’s logical [Read more...]

What We Learned From Mark Driscoll and What We Can Pray For Next

Image from Mars Hill Church

On Sunday Pastor Mark Driscoll announced to his Mars Hill congregation that he will be stepping back for six weeks as the elders examine the charges against Mark and determine the appropriate next steps. It’s hard for me not to see this as a good thing as I’ve discussed him on this blog a few times and he’s come up in countless conversations over the years. Too much has gone on for too long and Mark needs to be held accountable.

Being a pastor and in this space, an amateur blogger, I know how this can look. I’m another kicking a guy when he’s down, another example of the church eating their own and clearly motivated by jealousy, etc. I am also well aware of Jesus’ warning of judging others as you will be judged by the same measure (Matt 7:1-2). May the Lord judge my heart here but I hope to communicate as “Christianly” as possible of where I am coming from.

It’s actually healthy to talk about this in loving and restorative ways. It’s not only ok, it’s actually necessary because this scene in Mark Driscoll’s life is a cautionary tale for all of us. Further, hopefully some goodness can be found in the mess of all this. And lastly, should the day come when my personal behavior has become such a distraction to the Christian mission, I hope my faith community would be courageous enough to ask me to step down. May God give the Church the wisdom to discern between judging, rebuking and enabling.

In the meantime, here are three lessons learned.

Good, acceptable, conservative orthodox doctrine does not give you license to do whatever you want. In so many words, Mark has acted like a jerk. Like many, I had heard of Driscoll more than ten years ago. He was the “cussing pastor” out of Don Miller’s soul-worthy [Read more...]

A Christian Response to the Death of Michael Brown

I echo the words and spirit of John Perkins when he was interviewed by Christianity Today.

“As Christians, we know that our problem always is sin. In the case of the shooting in Ferguson, I don’t know who is right because I don’t know who initiated  this. But I know that the sin of racism, which goes back to the sin of enslavement, is what makes it escalate so quickly.” (I encourage you to read the rest of the piece, remains among the most helpful of the week).

After reading, I too wondered about the Christian response to the death of Michael Brown. After a few days of reflection, here’s where I am today: Lament – Pray – Listen to What the Lord Leads You to Do Next.

Lament

I lament the death of Michael Brown and all that it represents.

I lament what is meant by “… another unarmed black man …”

I lament for Officer Darren Wilson.

I lament for what will get lost in the moment.

I lament the sin of racism.

I lament all the pain that everyone in Ferguson  is  going through.

I lament that so many throughout our country and our world can relate to this scene.

I lament all the stories this connects us to: violence towards minorities, violence towards law enforcement, violence in between, blatant racism, abuses of authority, intentional criminal behavior and the carnage this leaves behind.

I lament that there is so much to lament.

When you start adding up all the laments, you find yourself a bit irrational. I am sure everyone, especially those involved, wish they could go back in time and somehow take action to avoid this tragic scene. Another loss of life, a lot of damage that is either nearly or completely irreparable. Some will say that we can learn from this so it never happens again but unfortunately, that’s part of the irrationality. Part of the pain of these laments goes beyond regret but also found in the mourning of a terrible reality that a similar scene will happen again.

Enter the hopelessness.

For some, this is where they like to insert the line that all hell is breaking loose, society is spiraling further out of control into moral decadence, [Read more...]

Reflecting on the Complicated Middle East

The black lettering reads “We are all Christians.”

Israel, Gaza, Isis, Iraq and all things Middle East are on many of our minds these days.

In respect to the Israeli-Palestianian conflict, we often ask, “Why is this conflict so complicated ? Among the reasons is its long history and each party telling its own version of it. We also know Iraq carries with its own complication. While the moral atrocities conducted by Isis are obviously evil, we again find the long-term solution to be weighty. Today we see a persecution that is bordering on holocaust that must be stopped.

The Middle East is certainly a topic that punishes you emotionally the more you read and learn. Sheer brutality, beheadings, sexual violence, children used as shields, missiles fired from churches, broken cease-fires, the perception of no mercy and brutal retaliation, and countless human rights abuses leave us extremely angry and frustrated. What is going on here? How do we stop it? How can we make things better? How can do it now?

Easy questions to ask, extremely difficult to answer and deliver. Our anger takes another step forward. What most of us want is to understand what’s what. When you don’t have access to the classified information and lack the power to mobilize an army or a peace delegation to stop the pain one way or another, you just feel powerless.

In the meantime, we try to read/scan/pick through all the content. There’s a lot of rehash, a lot of bias, and personally, I find more frustration. Frankly, I don’t really know what’s going on, there’s a lot of eye-witness accounts, a lot of opinion – some much better than others. There are images taken from other scenes and used for support, and all these other “snapshots” that don’t quite fill out the big picture. I even find some of the good guys and villains switching roles and it’s difficult to figure out who we can trust.Then because no one really knows, we attach the word “allegedly” to everything.

Then like with everything, there’s our own bias and perspective. This informs not just our starting points but our potential emotional investments, among other things. We could continue comparing perspectives but the point really is everyone has a different one. Further, no one can or should assume too much of the other perspective. Like we said, it’s complicated.

So what can we do?

Today, I’m feeling practical, strategic and spiritual and frankly, none of this seems that complicated. They may not lead to the short-term results we want today, but if enough people did them, it feels like things would change for the better.

[Read more...]

Reflecting on the Tough Weeks

Last week was one of those tough weeks. It wasn’t necessarily a bad week but definitely challenging, definitely intense, definitely fulfilling, and definitely hoping this one isn’t the same. Maybe you’ve had a similar one recently too.

We all know these days well: something happens in the midst of the regular craziness, all the unresolved issues compound, anything that was trivial becomes relevant, everything minor is now significant and everything that was already major is now epic. Often during these weeks, strong points are challenged, weak spots are revealed, even the imaginary ones, and the gaps feel like black holes. Time is critical, we’ll never get it done, we should pull the plug now or go full steam ahead now, get out of the tension and preserve whatever sanity we have left. Relationships are strained, prayers seemingly don’t work, does God really care, does any of this really matter – yeah it was a bit of that.

But this post is actually not about moving through those weeks – this one is about the week after. I moved through the weekend with something of an emotional hangover and began yesterday in a haze. All the things that had to get out of the way are back in line, and they are anxious. And that To-Do list that got set aside, well, there are some items that are frankly pissed. As we all know, there are no holidays given [Read more...]

Review of The Church and Postmodern Culture Series (7 Volumes via Logos Bible Software)

I was thrilled to have been asked to review the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series. Having previously read one of the titles of the series already, I was pleasantly surprised to see Logos offer a seven volume set and personally excited to read more of the series. I have two more titles to go and coming up for air here. I feel as though I am nearing the end of an extremely affordable seminary class in terms of emotional energy and the pressure of the deadline (It turns out I skim a lot less when there is no syllabus telling me the required reading is due on Tuesday). Grade or not, what I am confident in is since beginning the series in early June, I feel like I have taken a course on postmodernity and church practice.

What Is It? From the Logos site:

“The seven-volume Church and Postmodern Culture Series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church. This collection is assembled by a variety of contemporary theorists and uses insights from Deleuze, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Augustine, Irenaeus, Aquinas, and others to bring different angles to answer the many questions dealing with [Read more...]

“Do I Need a Seminary Degree to Understand the Bible?”

I heard a form of this question a few times this year. In some way this is very good as it reminds us that we’ve been talking about Scripture in our community. In another way, it’s not as good, as the statement implies frustration and perhaps a growing disunity between those who hold different convictions, different interpretations and most obviously an “us versus them” when it comes to seminary education. As one who is sensitive to disunity, I keep thinking about this.

The simple answer to the question is no, you do not need a seminary degree to “understand the Bible.” Everyone should read the Scriptures as this is one of the great maxims from the Protestant Reformation, “Sola Scriptura”, and making the Bible available to everyone was another one of the greater convictions and benefit that came out of the Reformation.

Everyone should read the Scripture but no one fully understands the Bible either. No one. 

Yes, I am keenly aware of the great stories of those who have memorized chapters and books of inspired text, they’ve read the Bible every day for hours for decades, and someone has identified them as one who “knows the Bible inside and out.” We can presume this individual is clearly well-versed in Scripture, loves the Lord and is doing amazing work for the Kingdom of God but no mortal can fathom the ways of God, no can know the mind of God, no one can comprehensively understand the Bible.

We all like to think that if we were alone on a desert island that we could master the Bible. Well, we definitely couldn’t if we were reading it English. it’s not simply that word meanings are lost in the translation so the solution becomes learning Hebrew and Greek while alone on this island. No and ask anyone who has taken Greek/Hebrew and they will tell you, we’re not even sure we’re using the right words. How often do you hear the line form a professor, “Perhaps a better word for this particular translation to have used was ….”? This is one of the reasons why we have so many translations and no shortage of new ones. The more we understand of the original language and historical context and the more our own languages change, the more translations we’ll have and need so make sure that island has a P.O. Box.

We can learn this truth from Scripture, we can learn it from experience, we can also learn it in places like seminaries. There have been books written about why to go to seminary and it’s been my observation that some are helpful and some over-promise. There are many excellent reasons to go to seminary, particularly vocationally, but among the reasons for me is that seminary gave me access and a measure of formal training in a conversation about Scripture, theology and mission that I really craved.

It was eight years between my first master’s and second and I clearly remember during my first year at Biblical Seminary reading the Drama of Scripture and thinking to myself, “Thank God I signed up for this crazy, intense cohort program, I need this.” In those in-between years, I was trying to read nerdy books, trying to keep up, but I had no real academic community around me that offered the conversation, encouragement, frustration and refinement around me.

One of the best moments of any seminary education is when the professor leads an intelligent room full of people in a discussion on something that seems initially solvable and as we explore contrasting passages, interpretations, traditions, and practical ramifications, we come to a moment of complete frustration and collectively say, “Wait, so what do we do this??” There are some moments when you literally say to the professor, “I can’t leave this room not knowing the answer.” And the prof responds, “I’ll make some coffee for you because you’re never leaving here then.” We stare at the text, shrug our shoulders and the education is learning the history, complexity, and beauty of Scripture.

It’s a humbling experience. One that moves the student of Scripture to prayer, to be Spirit-led, to seek God’s wisdom until we are given the complete answer on the other side of this life. The reality is you actually do learn quite a bit of the historical context and nuances found in our holy text. But that education and humility gives you sense of self-awareness of how great God is and how rich these sacred words are.

So where does that leave us especially those of us who are not seminary-bound? Should we not bother reading Scrpture? Of course not, the best thing we can do is keep reading.Then should we stop forming opinions, convictions and doctrinal statements? Of course not, there’s a place for all of that.

It’s our spiritual and hermeneutic posture that needs forming. My opinions, convictions and doctrinal conclusions will be in conflict with another and that’s ok. What’s not ok, is the arrogance and superiority we assume over the other. We can receive Biblical education in different forms: personal study, academic education, sermons/podcasts, communal learning with fellow believers, etc. and all of this will make a difference in the quality of our informed positions but none of us, from the newbie to the PhD can actually know the mind of God.

To be sure, I’d rather have the understanding of the PhD, unless it’s stripped me from the love of God, Scripture and neighbor. But for all of us, we learn the power of Scripture by sitting at our Lord’s feet and living by word and deed and you don’t need a degree for that.

For some practical resources for study, consider the following:

Use different translations in whatever passage you are reading that day. Biblegateway is very helpful.

The New Testament for Everyone Series by N.T. Wright

The NIV Application Commentary Set

Reading/discussing Scripture with friends.

Too Busy to Keep the Ridiculous Notion of the Sabbath

Everyone I know is busy. And if you read the previous post, I don’t know anyone that is really happy. Are these observations linked? Would we be happier if we were less busy? Some might say so but I know plenty of bored people who are not happy either.

We’re busy people. There’s a lot we want to do these days and there’s a lot we want to do before we die. We want to enjoy life, laugh with our family and friends, experience happiness and love, find discover new things and contribute to the good of this world. We want to find meaning, find God (if there really is one), and figure out our place in this world.

As we search the answers to these big questions, we have schedules to keep, bills to pay, people to take care of, demands, responsibilities, and all the whatevers of life that keep us busy. At the end of a long day we sit down to catch our breath, turn on “Love It or List It” and two hours later, dozens of houses, and a few annoying home-buyers, you’re even more tired, more frustrated and already bogged down by the busyness forecast for the next day.

Exhausted by the never-ending to-do list, and frustrated that our aspirations move further beyond our grasp someone inevitably comes along and asks, “Do you ever practice keeping the Sabbath?”

Ahh yes, the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Umm, no I don’t keep the Sabbath, I’m busy, I have a lot going on, so if you don’t mind, please either move along or quickly unload the guilt on me and I’ll add it to my to-do list of dealing with it later but whatever you decide, just make it fast because I have stuff to do and watch more “Love It or List It” and then Sportscenter.

Is there anything more ridiculous than the keeping of the Sabbath? All decent people will understand the other commandments that forbid murdering, theft, adultery, even the worship of idols (that can’t be good, right?). But a mandatory off day? Why does God care so much and why put it on the same scale as these other commands?

Sabbath-keeping feels like a luxury for rich, spiritual people. Or for the Jetsons. But you don’t understand, I have people relying on [Read more...]