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How Much “Failure” Can We Tolerate in a Pastor?

I’m an ex-pastor.

Ugh. I hate that term.

No, I didn’t have an affair with the church secretary or get caught pilfering funds from the ice cream social. I was a young, untrained, inexperienced Christian who was launched, probably prematurely, into the ministry. As a five year-old Christian, father of four, with zero trade skills, I started my own church. I was forced to learn theology on the fly, as well as preaching, counseling, administration, accounting, property management, vision casting, leadership training, community outreach, missions, and officiating funerals.

After eleven years, I was fried. The experiment came to an end and the church was disbanded. Some applauded my years of faithful service. Others gave me the finger. They were probably both right.

Fail-bookI slunk back into the secular workforce, scratching my head. Grieving. Second guessing. Lost. Was I the victim or the cause? Had the devil won, or was God still in control? Was I ever really “called” in the first place? What could I have done to prevent this humiliation?

Either way, I failed at ministry.

Because of this, I’ve been quite fascinated in a relatively new movement for pastors entitled Epic Fail. The purpose of the group is to create a place of honesty and vulnerability, where pastors can confess their struggles and be challenged with God’s idea of “success.” Unlike traditional pastor’s conferences, Epic Fail is not about the latest church growth model or celebrity pastor, but rather humbly admitting that there is no Super Pastor. It’s founder, J.H. Briggs, recently released a book on the subject entitled Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. The back cover copy reads:

What do we do when we’ve failed? Some ministries are shipwrecked by moral failures like affairs or embezzlement. But for most of us, the sense of failure is more ordinary: disillusionment, inadequacy, declining budgets, poor decisions, opposition, depression, burnout. Many pastors are deeply broken and wounded, and we come to doubt that God has any use for us. J.R. Briggs, founder of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, knows what failure feels like. He has listened to pastors who were busted in a prostitution sting or found themselves homeless when ejected from ministry. With candid vulnerability, Briggs explores the landscape of failure, how it devastates us and how it transforms us. Without offering pat answers or quick fixes, he challenges our cultural expectations of success and gives us permission to grieve our losses. Somehow, in the midst of our pain, we are better positioned to receive the grace of healing and restoration.

It’s no surprise, I guess, that this resonates with me. I’ve come to see my own ministry failure as a gateway to grace. I’ve learned so much about God, myself, and the Church through it. Not to mention, I probably would not be writing this, or be a writer at all, if I’d not left the ministry. All that to say, I like the idea behind the Epic Fail conference.

Nevertheless, it still makes me wonder how much “failure” the average pastor and congregant can really tolerate.

If the ministry scandals of the past have taught us anything, it’s that congregations deserve a full disclosure from those at the helm. But how honest about weakness and failure should your pastor be? Some say they want a pastor who is totally honest, accountable, transparent, willing to admit his faults and be up front about his failures. It is common nowadays for people to leave a church because of the charge of hypocrisy. The church is full of phonies, they say. We need pastors who are transparent and church members who are more open and honest about themselves, their struggles, and their doubts. But do we really want this? Especially of our leaders?

I sometimes doubt it.

One of the dumbest things I ever did during my years in ministry was to publicly admit I was burning out. Really, it changed the course of my pastorate. One Sunday after worship, I took the pulpit, closed my Bible, pulled up a stool and sat down. I told the people assembled there that I felt incapable of preaching; and so instead of “going through the motions” I confessed how burned out I was, how inadequate I was to lead the church, and how flawed I was as a man, a husband and a father. It was an awkward time, as you can imagine, but it ended with the congregation gathering around me in tearful, heartfelt prayer. We closed in worship and the service ended.

Neat, huh? Wrong!

Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from a member of the church. We don’t need to hear all the gory details about our pastor, he wrote. What we want is a good sermon, someone who can lead the church with confidence, not a weak, shamelessly transparent man. Mike, save your confessions for another time and place. With that, he announced his family, and several others, would be leaving the church.

So much for honesty and transparency.

In a way, I don’t blame them. If I showed up at a church expecting to hear God’s Word preached only to have the pastor sniveling about his struggles, I probably wouldn’t be back either. But it creates a genuine dilemma for church-goers. On the one hand, we say we want openness and honesty from the pulpit. On the other hand, when the dirty laundry is aired, we cringe and run for cover. We want pastors who are human, but not human enough to air their doubts, foibles, and failures. Of course, no one would advocate for a lack of openness or genuineness from spiritual leaders. However, the opposite may be just as unhealthy.

Anyway, I’m not surprised that my confession caught some people off guard that day. It was the wrong thing to do, something I should have shared only with the elders. Then again, maybe that was the price of having a young untrained Christian at the helm of a church.

It seems fitting that Christ would not enlist supermen, but paradoxical followers, full of quirks and frailties, as his spokespeople. But as much as I appreciate the heart of the pastors at Epic Fail, it begs the question of how much vulnerability and weakness the average church-goer is willing to tolerate in their pastor.

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Randy Streu July 22, 2014, 6:00 AM

    I don’t know. Whether the timing was wrong or not, the letter sender was and is in the wrong on this. Pastors AREN’T these aren’t these extra-Godly superhumans with any more a direct line to God than the rest of us. Pastors need prayer, and they need support.

    As someone who’s lost a beloved pastor to burnout and family stress (lost in the leadership sense – he’s still a good friend of mine), this sort of callous selfishness on the part of a congregant angers me.

    Being a pastor doesn’t remove you from the pool of those needing the love of his church, and certainly doesn’t remove from you the right — and need — to be transparent. Scripture tells us to bear one another’s burdens. I don’t believe for a second that it doesn’t apply to pastors.

  • Alan R Joiner July 22, 2014, 6:18 AM

    Mike, once again, you’ve hit on an important point in the church. It’s a dilemma, to be sure.

    I think it’s important for a pastor–any leader for that matter, but especially a pastor–to find a healthy level of vulnerability with the congregation. They don’t need a hypocritical, self-professed superman. An unhealthy facade is dangerous and self-defeating. It sets up too much internal pressure, and it proposes and unhealthy, false standard that congregants think they should be able to attain, and invariably won’t. Besides, it can get pretty sweaty and grimy under a mask.

    I don’t think a congregation needs to know every ordeal and trial of a pastor. They need leaders.

    I think the balance is that they need an approachable person that they know they can trust. Someone that they know is seeking Jesus with everything they have. Someone vulnerable enough to be honest, strong enough to apologize, moral/ethical/spiritual enough to profess the standard that we are ALL striving for.

    I find that it is beneficial, as a pastor, to have pastors and to pastor pastors. There is something beautiful about the encouragement and accountability involved in a circle of people who are seeking the same prize, and who can understand the particular struggles of ministry.

    Blessings to you, brother. You are not and were not a failure. You are and were a vessel that God chose, knowing full well the cracks, flaws, gifts and talents that He was choosing. You were pressed down, but not crushed. Amen, and amen. 🙂

  • Matthew Sample II July 22, 2014, 6:36 AM

    This is one of the reasons why I like the multiple pastor model, even though that’s not an option in every situation. Paul, after all, mostly went around accompanied by fellow believers. (But I think he found himself alone in Athens… I think.)

    • Mike Duran July 22, 2014, 8:50 AM

      I agree with the plurality of elders concept, Matthew. In fact, it was something we were moving towards before the church disbanded. The problem was moving from theory to practice. Investing equal authority in a group of leaders works when those who weild that authority are mature. If not, it can be a recipe for disaster.

  • Scott July 22, 2014, 6:47 AM

    I really don’t think this is an either/or question. Vulnerability is nearly part of every one of my Pastor’s sermons, as he admits to struggling with what the particular passage has been speeking to in his life. We just finished James. He nearly admitted how beat up he was by the particular passage every week. This is a practice. He is real, then the Body is real. Yet, we don’t question the qualifications. As the Word speaks it’s not about the pastor, or even us congregates, and especially not about our individual qualifications. Aside from Jesus and His work there are none. When those ideas are infused into the pastor and the congregation realness, humility, and failings are shared to and by the body. We lift each other up and fill in each other’s gaps, including the pastor.
    If the pastor is never vulnerable, then a dump like the one you described may shock a congregation. At the same time congregants who expect that pastors are some kind of super Christian, who never have failings, doubts, and fears lack an understanding of the workings of the Spirit. There are always people who will find an excuse to leave churches.
    Pastors are men, who are saved just like the laymen, who are qualified to serve just like the laymen. I have never been a pastor to experience the solitude of the position, though I know it’s there.

    • D.M. Dutcher July 22, 2014, 5:31 PM

      I think though there’s the problem of the pastor being the “professional Christian” and the congregation being passive consumers. Like a cashier. When you go to the store, you don’t care whether or not your cashier is struggling with issues or hardships, you go in, get what you need, and go out with little real interaction. You’re right in that they are men too, but the culture sets them up as Christian delivery systems more than that.

      I think this is why we have issues lifting each other up and filling in the gaps.

      • Kristen Stieffel July 22, 2014, 5:52 PM

        Yes, D.M. That right there is a big big part of the problem. “Christian delivery systems” ? the church.

  • Morgan L. Busse July 22, 2014, 6:47 AM

    Thank you for sharing this, Mike. It struck a chord with me. My husband and I have been in ministry for fifteen years and in and out of a couple churches during that time. Sometimes even the church leadership/elders are not ready to hear that their pastor is struggling, or worse, tell him to suck it up and keep going.

    It is hard for a pastor to find a safe place to share his struggles and find counseling/encouragement. As much as I love my husband and try to be there for him, I’m not always the best person for him to share with, partly because I’m going through the same struggles and facing the same discouragements.

    • Mike Duran July 22, 2014, 8:57 AM

      Morgan, totally agree with you about the church leadership sometimes being complicit in dysfunction. It’s an odd symbiosis, a sort of “enabling” that occurs between pastor and elders wherein they agree to maintain the status quo while sweeping issues under the rug.

  • Kristen Stieffel July 22, 2014, 6:48 AM

    Most of us would use “shamelessly transparent” as a compliment. There’s probably a fine balance between transparency and discretion. Randy is right that the letter-writer was out of line. And yes, pastors should probably keep burnout and other issues to their fellow pastors and elders. But you can’t entirely shield the congregation, either. They do need to know and accept that a pastor is a person diong a job and will have all of the same struggles any of us have in our work, and more besides, because pastoral work so often involves ministering to people in their worst or most broken moments.

  • Frank Turk (@Frank_Turk) July 22, 2014, 7:04 AM

    Mike — I think one thing that doesn’t get accounted for often enough is that immature and under-prepared pastors create immature and under-prepared churches and disciples. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a person launched into ministry with less preparation than is usually given to any mid-level manager in the secular workplace (and let’s be clear: ministry is harder work with higher qualifications than mid-level management) will burn out, disaffect others, create unstable “believers,” and will hurt themselves and their families in significant ways.

    • Mike Duran July 22, 2014, 9:03 AM

      Frank, that’s definitely one of my takeaways from the whole experience. Not coincidentally, our church had come into contact with the church growth movement, which led us to start actively planting more churches. We were all young men, with little training, and minimal networking. No wonder only one of our five churches remains.

  • billgncs July 22, 2014, 7:33 AM

    Many years ago I felt called to be a pastor, reading this I am so glad I didn’t follow that path.

    I think within the church a group of elders should really act as the buffer for the pastor, to support and lift him up. But I think that we expect the pastor to do everything instead of just shepard us while we do the work.

    The church is a community that we have turned into a couple hours per week commitment while watching 2-5 hours of TV per day.

  • Shay West July 22, 2014, 7:37 AM

    I don’t think you did anything wrong in being honest with your congregation. I can see the people getting annoyed if ALL their pastor did was talk about his shortcomings. But being honest while preaching about a relevant passage is very powerful and helpful, for both the pastor and congregation. Many of the sermons I remember are the ones where the pastors (we had several that preached depending on the time of day) shared something personal that was relevant to the sermon that day, hearing them speak of how they prayed about the passage, and how God revealed to them that it was time to share. It helped us all to realize that pastors aren’t sinless and that they struggle with the same things we ALL do. And that they made it through the trials by praying and seeking guidance and help from others.

  • Dawn Wessel July 22, 2014, 8:01 AM

    You made no mention of delegating jobs to others and I wonder if you had tried that? Many people in churches want to be babysat and when you can no longer do that (because you tried to be superman) they will show their baby-ish-ness (because you encouraged dependency). Think of your own children; I presume that you want them to grow up (in a healthy fashion) and become independent human beings ? To do otherwise would be bad parenting.

    Jesus said:
    “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.” (Matthew 23:8-10 KJV)

    It clearly says:
    – ‘you’ shall not be called Rabbi, Master, father (Pastor Reverend, Cardinal, Bishop, etc.)
    – call ‘no man’ Rabbi (Pastor, Father, etc.)
    – neither be ‘you’ called master (Pastor, Bishop, etc.)
    – ‘all’ you are brethren (all you are the same)

    You are not the problem. Granted a good delegator can make things work (somewhat well) simply because churches are a corporate/political entity (top on down form of leadership). Nevertheless, that is not the Biblical way.

    My thoughts are in ‘Redefining Bible Interpretation’ at authonomy.com if you care to read further.

  • D.M. Dutcher July 22, 2014, 8:31 AM

    I think one would argue why we need to continue with a model that puts so much burden on a single pastor. Both emotional and financial, too. One thing I dislike about Christianity’s expression these days is how much it seems to be rooted in things that made sense in the nineteenth century but not now. Like only meeting on Sundays in a dedicated building for it.

    Maybe we should take a hard look at the structure of church and start to change it. It would be easier not to burn out if you had a staff of pastors instead of one, maybe; we don’t need fifteen churches in the same city each ministering to twenty-thirty people each. Or if pastoring is increasingly a part time or volunteer position, maybe its time to ditch the church building. I don’t know, man; I hate how this shows a pastor can never show weakness or has to “perform” a role of the faultless and strong spiritual adviser to his own hurt.

  • John Robinson July 22, 2014, 2:53 PM

    Mike, I really wish our former pastor would have been as transparent as you. Instead we got the “got-it-all-together” man, and woe betide anyone who didn’t measure up to his standards.

    At that time my wife and I had been saved for over twenty years and were very active in the music ministry at the church, homeless outreach, children’s puppetry, and clowning. To him, it didn’t matter a lick: our efforts were never *quite* good enough. At the end he was finally was drummed out of the fellowship for simply being a lousy human being, but the damage was done. The church disbanded. In this supposed pastor’s wake he left a whole lot of confused and devastated people.

    Since then my wife and I have never again tried to be part of another church. That part of our lives apparently is done for good. We are so alone and toxic we’re damned near radioactive.

    A little transparency–and honesty–from that guy would have been appreciated.

  • Jill July 22, 2014, 6:16 PM

    I have always found church politics to be distasteful. In a situation like this, in which a pastor doesn’t confess a sin, but confesses to needing a break, the congregation should have erred on the side of compassion and given him what he needed–a break. The elders could have stepped up for a few weeks or months or however long you needed and given you a rest. It could have been a sabbatical, or whatever you want to call it. That churches often choose, due to politics, NOT to err on the side of compassion makes me very angry. I find the letter-writer’s actions to be wrong, lacking in the Christian mercy that we’re supposed to have. But at least you can rest assured that ultimately no man can thwart God’s plans for you.

  • Karen P. July 22, 2014, 6:45 PM

    Mike, thanks for sharing this. It is never easy to admit defeat, but at least you were honest, both then and now, and that is admirable. I belonged to a church years ago where not only was the pastor a liar but also a crook. He fooled many and caused such division in the church it never recovered. I would much rather have a compassionate and honest man like you on the pulpit – a sincere and humble man deserves my trust and that is what I look for in a pastor. Blessings to you.

  • Gary Whittenberger July 23, 2014, 4:12 AM

    Mike, now as a writer you have a better opportunity to be honest and transparent in conveying your thoughts and feelings than you did as a pastor. That is a good thing.

    In my opinion, one reason that many pastors burn out is that they just can’t continue to promote a very flawed worldview day in and day out. It is stressful to tell people what they want to hear rather than what you think, deep down, is the truth.

    More and more pastors, priests, and other religious leaders are leaving religion altogether. There is new haven for them. Check out http://www.clergyproject.org/

  • Mark Luker July 23, 2014, 6:56 AM

    it’s kind of like when the Jews waited to see if Jesus was powerful enough to save himself from the cross…and when they saw him die…they just figured he wasn’t good enough to be a real savior…….people seem to do the same thing with Pastors….but one thing those Jews missed….was that Jesus was living and dying as they would…he related to them and their pain – even as he was being their savior….if a Pastor can’t relate to anyone in his church….he has failed them and so….the writer of that letter failed you…….good read!

  • Alan R Joiner July 24, 2014, 7:40 AM

    Hey Mike, I hope this isn’t spamming, but…

    I started a blog post early this week and just finished/published it. I’m sure it’s nothing new to you, but thought it fitting to share.

    Post title: The problem of pain… Is it really a problem?

    Blessings, brother.

  • Janet Ursel July 25, 2014, 2:08 PM

    Mike, I think the whole model of shoving young men out into a position of leadership with minimal qualifications (and no, Bible school is not anywhere near sufficient) is deeply flawed. And it leads to the kind of burn-out you experienced. That God walks with us through our corporate and individual foolishness is a testament to the depths of his grace. Our leaders need hands-on experience under senior leadership, training in leadership principles and deontology, not just theology and hermeneutics.

    And then there’s the whole issue, at least in small churches, of two for the price of one, when pastors’ wives are expected to be close to full-time workers. They can also burn out under the stress. Ask me how I know…

  • Andre July 25, 2014, 11:42 PM

    Hello Mike,

    I am so very sorry for the pain and the heartaches you suffered as a leader. May you continue to find solid ground and solid friendships as the Spirit leads… and thank you for being real. No shame there. It was necessary that you reached out to your congregation, but seemingly nobody was found to come alongside you during this trying time that shook you to the core…

    You wrote: “In a way, I don’t blame them. If I showed up at a church expecting to hear God’s Word preached only to have the pastor sniveling about his struggles, I probably wouldn’t be back either.”

    Makes me think if people have been used to a church model that is entirely predictable, maybe the predictability is needed for personal reasons, or due to their early stages of conversion. But at some point, I think what you did was the healthiest most loving thing you could for them: tell the truth, relate from a place of humanity. (Now if one did that all the time, I’d suggest they find a job and leave the church to someone able to carry the burden).

    Isn’t that how they would want the pastor to be if they came up front for prayer, they would want someone who has empathy and can connect. Someone who can help them frame their present season and find God’s promises and His presence with them, at all times.

    In my opinion, what’s missing are fathers. Youth is great, but we need milestones on the road to maturity, just like in real life. If you frame a young leader into a role that’s all scripted for him/her, and if you don’t expect him/her to break that mold, then you’re looking for Sunday school teachers, not Christ followers who lead people to maturity.

    It’s best for a pastor in this situation to leave to follow Christ and find Him in the dark night of the soul, rediscover Him in His grace and Fatherhood, than stay and perform religious rituals and not really know Him in the place of service as a pastor.

    The task description of a pastor should not be to be a jack of all trades. Peter did pass the baton to younger ones, filled with the Spirit, to take care of food distribution with all its headaches, while he would focus on prayer and teaching.

    What a church needs is to function relationally as a family, with elders who are good at what they do, and gifted at it, not just “called” to it. And by all means, don’t throw young ones in there alone to do it all, but raise them up little by little, and appoint adults who are gifted, don’t let pastors hug the podium and mic, something that happens too often due to the expectations put on them. It’s a two-edged sword: the more responsibility people put on a pastor, the harder it will be for that pastor to give room to others.

    Well, thanks for sharing your heart here, and for letting me rabble on a bit… 🙂



  • Lily July 26, 2014, 9:02 AM

    An initial response for this article is just that as a pastor, probably it’s all part of the caring for the flock to help stretch and grow them in their relationship with God. Most Christians aren’t going to be at that level to handle transparency even if they know it’s healthy and healing for the whole community to do so. We may all have times where we know what is the right thing to do but we can’t control ourselves to surrender to wholeheartedly embrace doing that. We can’t force other Christians to be at that maturity mentally, so the loving thing to do can be something like teach and guide them with love and God’s Truth toward not only head knowledge but also practical application of the Truth in life, one step at a time. There’s a reason it’s probably better to confess with elders and enlist their prayer and support first. Not all elders may be at that level of maturity too, but the elders are most likely going to be the men committed to obeying God and be godly leaders in the community that they won’t criticize and judge someone who confesses and admit they need Jesus, but instead will support him toward building his relationship with God (no one should assume a pastor doesn’t need to constantly work on his relationship with God, we all need Jesus).

  • Scott July 28, 2014, 10:12 AM

    I think it’s important to remember that you may have failed in a vocation, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed in ministry. Who’s keeping tabs on your vocation…other than your members who in many cases are expecting you to ‘do it for them’. Any minister would fail to live up in these circumstances. Your vocation is your vocation and your ministry is being a part of the great commission – sharing your faith and discipling those closest to you and those that God brings in your path who are motivated to grow on their own. That’s a ministry we cannot afford to quit on. So, let’s all go be a minister.

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