Arriving scared and hopeless. Leaving excited and hopeful.

Last week we hosted another Epic Fail Pastors Roundtable – this time in Denver. Epic Fail Pastors events are safe spaces to talk about the dangerous F word. Failure is difficult, but failure in ministry can oftentimes be excruciating.

It was rich. It was sacred. It was heartbreaking. And it was hopeful. 

Though this was our smallest event we’ve hosted, the stories were probably the most intense we’ve heard:

  • divorce
  • abortion
  • a former pastor told me two years prior he had been arrested in a prostitution sting
  • one leader had a sex addiction so strong it led him to getting fired from three separate jobs
  • $60,000 in debt from a failed business
  • depression
  • one pastor told me he and his family were homeless – until three weeks ago.
  • one who struggled with suicidal thoughts in years past
  • rampant workaholism
  • a pastor who was broke and bankrupt
  • a serial adulterer
  • a pastor who served at a church of 2,600 people – and saw the church’s weekly attendance fall to 150.
  • a young church planter four months in to planting and he is already experiencing burnout.
  • one woman was in an honest and radically transformative small group – so radical, in fact, her small group got kicked out of the church. She left that church of 4,000 to start a church. The church plant was about 200 people – within 3 months, it was down to 100 – and her former church grew to 12,000 weekly attendees.
  • a church planter of two failed church plants in the Pacific Northwest had loaded up his stuff and drove to Denver. He showed up three hours before our event started with all of his earthly possessions in the back of his SUV.

Before the event started and pastors were beginning to walk in the door, on three occasions I introduced myself to a pastor and said “tell me your story.” Within minutes, all three times I was in tears. These stories wreck me every time.

At the end of the opening night, one pastor admitted to the entire room,

“You know, this may be way off topic, but we sing these songs about Jesus, but I don’t even know who Jesus is anymore or what I believe about him. Can someone actually tell me – and everyone else – the gospel? I need to hear it.” 

Another pastor spoke up and presented the good news of the cross to this hurting pastor. I will never forget that moment.

We grieved and processed our failure, rejection and shame together. We talked about connection, identity and forgiveness. We talked about health and healing.

There are a handful of quotes from pastors that stuck out to me. I share these with you to give you a small taste of the types of processing that goes on in these spaces:

“The best thing that happened to me was getting the s*** beat out of me.” 

“Shame is my middle name.” 

“The Church is supposed to be the most honest and most real place on the planet but it seems that oftentimes its just the opposite.” 

“I wish I could take away the incredible pain my sin inflicted on others, but in my own life it was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me, because it brought me to the end of myself and the beginning of Christ.” 

“Four years ago God called me to ministry. But all it’s felt like is a desert.”

“If you want to shrink a church, I can be your consultant. I’m an expert at this…” 

“I see myself as a missionary for honesty and grace.” 

“I am realizing if I haven’t dealt with my own shame I will use it as a veiled form of control on others. I am good at being a shame manipulator.”

One of the presenters (a well-known figure in the world of church leadership) said, “Working with church planters and those trying to revitalize their local church the past ten years I would summarize them in one word: misery.” He later said, “Cherish your story of failure…don’t lament your story. It will just turn into anger. Be proud of the things you’ve failed at in the name of God.” 

Though heartbreaking, the event ended  as it always does: with hope – and at a large table where we sat and took communion together. We reveled in the mystery of how the broken body and poured our blood met us in our brokenness to make us whole again. We ate and drank together, prayed, sang, laughed and shared where and how Jesus intersected with our journeys the past day and a half together. Jesus showed up.

In many ways these events help pastors become people again. In the midst of the pain, the failures and the wounds, it helps us become Christians again, too. I was reminded again why we do these events when the twice-failed church planter with all his possessions in the back of his car said to me after the event: “I came scared and hopeless. I’m leaving excited and hopeful.” 

If I can encourage you with anything from these events, it’s this: pray for your pastor. Pastors need you to commit to prayer on their behalf. Their work is significant and costly – and your prayers are essential to their journey.