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Transforming Failure

How God used a painful season of ministry to change my life.
Transforming Failure

Several years ago, the senior pastor of a megachurch in the Philadelphia area introduced himself to me. He said he planned to retire in a few years and was looking to groom a young pastor to replace him. Was I interested? I was honored, but unsure if I was. Yet he persisted and eventually my wife and I moved from Colorado to Philadelphia to come on staff at his church. My job would be to start a new alternative ministry for young adults within the church. Meanwhile, he would train and mentor me with an eye toward having me succeed him.

My perceived ministry failures had created a virtual prison that left me living in a cramped cell. I was suffering from spiritual claustrophobia.

During my first year on staff, I was asked to preach three or four times. I had never preached to 3,000 people before (not even to 300) but the response from the church was affirming. Then, due to some severe health issues the senior pastor was experiencing, I was asked to preach more regularly, often two to three Sundays per month. Many started to see me as the heir apparent. Although I enjoyed teaching, I was under immense pressure to succeed.

One Sunday morning between services, I walked back to my office to collect my thoughts before preaching again. A couple stopped me in the hallway and gushed about my teaching. They seemed sincere and sweet, but what they said didn't sit well. "We just know you are going to be the next Andy Stanley."

I respect Andy Stanley greatly. I am grateful for his ministry. But I was stunned. Is that what people expect me to be? I could never live up to that! Can't I just be me?

I thanked them, quickly headed to my office, and shut the door. My mind and heart raced. Suddenly I had an acute awareness of the expectations others were placing on me. If I don't become the next Andy Stanley, will people be disappointed? I was terrified.

Left Turn

Over the next several months, my wife and I came to a clear decision: becoming a senior pastor of a megachurch was not the calling God had on my life. Shortly thereafter, things got messy at the church, and the senior pastor left.

Suddenly there wasn't much of a future for me there. The man who had hired me was gone. The church's vision had shifted, and trust between the remaining leaders and me had eroded. Before coming on staff, my wife and I had always dreamed of planting a church. Now, with the future in jeopardy, we began to sense we were being released to plant a church in the region.

I felt like my soul was bludgeoned, dumped in a back alley, and left to die.

We approached the leadership hopeful that, despite some hurt and misunderstanding, they would send us out to plant a church with their blessing. We felt strongly this was God's next assignment for us. The leadership of the church, however, was certain it was not. They told us—quite adamantly—that we were not to plant a church and that to disobey their order would be a sin.

I explained to them that this church plant would be extremely different in philosophy and expression. It would not be "competition," but I didn't persuade them. Accusations, misunderstandings, and ultimatums followed, further affirming the fact that we could not stay. After much prayer and reflection, we concluded that God was calling us to plant a church in the region, so we did.

I left the church staff two years to the day of my hiring. That season of our lives could be summed up with one word: loss. I was wrestled to the ground by loneliness and despair. I felt like my soul was bludgeoned, dumped in a back alley, and left to die.

We call that season of our lives "the dark years." My wife (who is a counselor) believes I had dipped into depression. I lost 15 pounds in a matter of weeks due to stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep.

Over the next several months we raised our own support, which amounted to about half of what my salary had been. People told me that I was wasting my talents. After all, I had gone from preaching to 3,000 to teaching a core team of about 40 adults. They told me it was "bad stewardship." Anonymous hate mail from people at the former church continued to appear in our mailbox for well over a year.

Deeper Than Failure

My story may not seem like a dramatic ministry failure. It did not involve scandalous headlines or sexual impropriety. There was no arrest or dark addiction. Others have certainly fallen harder. And yet everything I felt was consistent with what failure traditionally feels like: betrayal, hurt, hopelessness, grief, loss, disillusionment, bitterness, doubt, anger, and the gripping anxiety of wondering how we would make it. I had failed to live up to the expectations others had placed on me, and as a people pleaser, what's worse than that? I had lost trust in leadership and in ministry. On top of my vocational woes, my wife and I were struggling with infertility—which turned out to be my "fault." A narrative of failure haunted me.

I was not experiencing a failure I would never recover from. I was experiencing an invitation to become a child again.

I knew my worth was not tied to my failure. I preached this aspect of the gospel to others, but I was poor at preaching it to myself. My mind grasped the truth, but not my heart. I cared far too much about what people thought of me. (Sadly, in many ways I still do.) My perceived ministry failures had created a virtual prison that left me living in a cramped cell. I was suffering from spiritual claustrophobia.

As I began to understand the depth of my hurt and pain, I knew it was time to see a Christian counselor. I can be stubborn, but I did not allow my pride to prohibit me from seeking help. If I didn't do something to heal, I knew I would end up wounding those closest to me. I finally had to come clean and own up to my kakorrhaphiophobia—the abnormal fear of failure. I needed to face failure head-on or it would ruin me.

After several sessions with a Christian counselor, the fog began to clear. I remember walking into his low-lit office, sitting on his couch and declaring, "I've figured it out! I know what my deepest fear in life is—and it's not failure."

"Oh, really? What is it then?" he asked.

"Rejection," I said. "I fear rejection from others, from myself, and even rejection from God."

Several sessions later I walked into his office again. "I was wrong," I told him. "My greatest fear isn't failure or rejection. It's shame. Shame consumes me when I've been rejected, which happens after I've failed. That's the root of my problem." I was making progress.

Fight, Flight, or Yield

Psychologists tell us we are wired to respond to crisis with a "fight or flight" response. We either fight—retaliate with a harsh word, an angry email, or literally, a violent blow. Or we flee—we laugh at the joke made at our expense so others will not know we are hurt, we pretend we didn't notice the sarcastic comment, or we literally flee conflict to avoid being hurt again.

I began to wonder what the gospel had to say about this fight-or-flight process. I wondered if there might be a third way to respond. As followers of Jesus, we're not immune to failure. We certainly can't expect freedom from pain or suffering. It comes with the territory of our calling to follow Jesus' radical call to pick up a gruesome instrument of execution—the cross. In fact, Jesus guarantees we will experience failure. The gospel doesn't keep us from failing. Rather it transforms it into deeper meaning and a more hopeful purpose.

True freedom in Christ is when we have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, and nothing to prove.

So what was I to do when I failed? How might the gospel interrupt the failure-rejection-shame cycle? Was there a response other than fight or flight? I sensed that in those times of rejection, the Lord was calling me to abide, to remain, to yield. Instead of retaliating and attempting to take justice into my own hands, and instead of running away, I saw that trusting God in the midst of failure would cause my faith to grow. What if I had the faith and courage to trust God's presence in the conflict? What if I yielded to his direction? Might this be what Jesus meant when he said we should turn the other cheek? What if yielding is the manifestation of trusting in Jesus and his Word in the midst of crisis?

This yielding to God is similar to how I approach a yield sign on the road. When I yield to another car, I put my foot on the brake, acknowledging someone else has the right-of-way. In the same way, I'm learning to apply the brake to my life, and acknowledge that God has the right to do as he pleases. Should the road be clear, I can proceed. When I choose this third way—yielding—the Father moves me from a posture of rejection to acceptance, and from a place of shame to honor. Despite my failure to live up to some standard (which invariably leads to being rejected by others), God did not reject me. I belong to him. And regardless of how I perform, he still loves me.

A New Freedom

I had to move from thinking like an orphan to thinking like an heir. Despite my perception of ministry failure, the Lord had not rejected me. I was not experiencing a failure I would never recover from. I was experiencing an invitation to become a child again. God's desire was to treat me like an heir. Those precious and too-rare moments in my life when I actually do yield to God's purposes is when I am ultimately free.

The crisis of failure is a fork in the road: it has the potential to transform or destroy. I was beginning to see my failure as an invitation to strengthen my faith in the Father and be called into a deeper, more intimate relationship with him. The only question was, would I accept that invitation? When I did, I began to experience a new freedom.

It's been said that true freedom in Christ is when we have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, and nothing to prove. We have nothing to hide because Jesus has already covered our sin. We have nothing to lose because we are already committed to denying ourselves and picking up our cross in our pursuit of Christ. And we have nothing to prove because Christ has already taken care of it—all our sin and selfish ambitions, vain desires and self-glorifying dreams.

Today, our church plant hovers just under 200 people. I love my role, calling to love and serve this messy, broken, and lively group of skeptics and dreamers in pursuit of the heart of Jesus. Yet every now and then, the questions, comments, or inferences come: look where you were, look at what you are doing now—and imagine what could have been. When my heart whispers these questions, I remind myself of the truth of the gospel: my identity and worth—as a pastor and as a person—is not wrapped around what I do or how large my congregation is. It's not tied to how much clout or influence others think I possess. It is only based on one thing. I am a cherished child of the King.

—Article, statistics, and Wabi-Sabi story adapted from Fail: Finding Hope and Failure in the Midst of Ministry Failure (IVP, 2014). Used by permission. www.ivpress.com

J.R. Briggs leads The Renew Community in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and is founder of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference.

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