On the last day during the final session, Richard raised his hand and said, “Thanks so much for providing a space like this. It was totally worth the time, energy and effort to be here. I hope you do it again. If you do, I’ll be back.” The statement was affirming. But what made the statement significant is that Richard lives in Australia.
When we ventured out and decided to host such a unique conference like this in order to help develop a more robust theology of failure, we knew it was a risk. “Who hosts a conference on failure?” I remember someone asking me a few months ago. I confess: I was absolutely scared to death to try this (Can you imagine the headline: “Epic Fail Pastors Conference cancelled due to low registration”? I wondered if I could ever recover from such irony). A first-time, low-budget conference on failure in a suburb of Philadelphia that is anything but a tourist destination seemed like a large enough risk – but the response took me by surprise. We thought it would be a small, regional event. But people flew in from 15 different states – some not knowing many of the details, but knowing deep down they had to attend.
I first wrote about this idea last August on my blog. Never have I received more hits or comments on something I’d written. Since writing about the idea, I’ve done radio, print and online interviews. The conference was picked up by the Huffington Post, Christianity Today and the St Louis newspaper. To date, our conference website has received over 10,000 unique hits. Someone asked if I might be interested in leading a similar conference in Eastern Europe. Last week a pastor in India contacted us and told us that he heard about our conference on the radio and wanted us to know that he was committing to praying for us.
This buzz was encouraging – and yet, it grieved me deeply. It was evident that there is a void and a desperate need for pastors to talk about failure. (What would inspire someone to fly half way across the globe for this? Why would a pastor drive 1200 miles by himself to talk about failure for three days in a bar?) There should be dozens of these types of conferences for pastors across the country. No, I take that back. There should be dozens of these types of conferences for people across the country.
Truthfully, I wasn’t hoping for all the attention. All I was trying to do was to find a place to appropriately process my fear of failure with other courageous people – and I couldn’t find one. So we decided to create one ourselves.
We started Thursday night with a brief welcome, a time of worship and discussion around our round tables answering two questions:  Why are you here?  What are your expectations?
I was slated to open the event as the first ‘expert on failure’ (what we called our speakers during the conference). But before I began I asked, “So tell me what you all shared around your tables regarding those two questions? Why would you give up a few days to come to a bar and spend time with pastors talking about failure?”
And people began to share. Really share.
About their battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
About their terror of failure.
About their broken hearts of a failed church.
About how dry they felt.
About the fact that they feel lost and alone.
I looked at my watch. We were seventeen minutes in and people are standing up telling absolute strangers stories of pain and fear and deep wounds. Seventeen minutes. And all I could think of was: we’re on to something here.
It’s a maddening process to try to plan a conference on failure. It’s a conundrum. The second-guessing, the questioning of our own motives, the seemingly endless Catch-22. What if we plan this conference on failure and four people sign up? Did we succeed because we failed at an epic failure conference? Or what if 1500 people signed up? Would I be a sellout and a hypocrite by pulling off an extremely successful conference on failure? It’s almost enough to make you lose your mind. But hey, if we failed at this conference the pressure’s off, right? Yes. The pressure was off.
More than four people (but less than 1500) showed up for the event upstairs at Third and Walnut Bar. The bar used to be a church – in fact, it was the first church in the borough of Lansdale, PA built in 1861. Around 70 men and women showed up.
No impressive videos.
No vendors or book tables to purchase conference resources.
No one left impressed that we put on a stellar performance during the conference (we started every session late, there was feedback in the sound system at the start of a handful of sessions, people regularly stepped in front of the projector and caused momentary blackouts of the slides on the screen and my favorite: you could hear the toilet flush from the men’s bathroom during the presentations). Fortunately nobody felt like being impressed to begin with. However, people left having felt the undeniable presence of God in the room. It was a sacred space.
Times of worship.
Raw stories from up front.
Raw stories in the hallway during break.
Lingering lunches (the question “So, how big is your church?” was never asked even once).
Spontaneous times of prayer for people overcome by emotion as they shared something with the group.
Those realizing that their talents are worth far more than merely being a successful pastor as others define it.
People standing up and making raw admissions (comments like “I realize I need to grieve a deep failure that happened 11 years ago that I haven’t dealt with yet” and “I’m growing to see failure as a beautiful gift” and “I’m seeing that shame is a powerful and manipulative motivator in my life” and “On my best day, I am a really lousy lover of God and people” and “I realize I’ve not failed at pastoring my church but in pastoring my family”).
Dinners that were two and a half hours long – and still nobody wanted to leave.
And I loved the presentations:
- A pastor who felt God calling him to plant a church but ended up working at Target for the past eighteen months. The church plant died before it even started.
- A pastor admitting that his church of 15 people would probably have to shut its doors in the next few months around the same time when he’ll be graduating from seminary.
- A former pastor in his late 50s/early 60s who admitted he no longer goes to church and who apologized for the way his generation has treated the younger generation of pastors.
- A former pastor presenting his doctoral dissertation research on Amoral Ministry Failure and the stages of grieving. (Many people commented it was their favorite session of the entire conference).
- A non-pastor/author – successful enough (you’d recognized his name) to speak regularly at all the big conferences we’ve all heard of – who shared he felt inadequate to stand in front of such a courageous group of pastors.
- A pastor sharing what he’d learned through months of meeting with his counselor.
- A life coach facilitating discussion around a presentation from a researcher who studied the effects of shame on people.
In the back of the room was a table with a giant question mark on it with an index card that read “What is impacting you?” We encouraged people throughout the event to take index cards that were provided and write down what they were learning, what they were hearing, what they were experiencing. Here are a few of the responses:
My resistance to vulnerability is feeding my deepest shame.
God is showing me I’m actually, truly not alone in this… which I’ve never really believed
It is time to let my guard down once again even though it was very painful last time I did so
Epic Failures make for good Pastors
I am only enough because He is more than enough.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, love – this scares me.
There is a place for you at the table…
After 17 years as a pastor, I have experienced the last 16 years as NOT a pastor. Being here is part of putting the pieces together. I’m beginning to accept that I’m a “pastor” even without a church– without shame for spurning my calling at age 12.
Facing and embracing failure is the most successful thing I can do.
I want to count things that really matter.
The gospel is enough…
I have been feeling for days that I need to have a real conversation with my wife. About my failures, about my fears, about me. I have wanted to be/or at least look like a perfect husband, but in that, completely hidden the true me from her. Two years into our marriage, I don’t want to miss any more time to be known by her, and know her.
I see him in my shame, identifying with me.
I’m not giving up on vulnerability
He is perhaps redirecting
My understanding of the gospel is growing tonight. Thank you God!
I am not alone.
I like that this is the anti-conference
I thought I wanted to plant a church…I think I really want to be a part of a Jesus movement.
This is the beginning…
We broke bread and poured wine and reveled in the mysterious power of the Eucharist: the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus so that a broken world may be made whole again. Yes, we are failures! But we are stumbling friends of Jesus nonetheless. Stumbling friends of Jesus who are loved anyway.
And so we communed – with God and each other – handing out loaves of bread and glasses of wine. We invited people into extended sacred conversations with those around their tables about what God was doing in their journey through their brokenness as pastors.
Finish the loaves, we told them. Bottoms up on the communion wine.
Linger and talk and pray until its all gone.
There was laughter and prayer and tears and refills. I could just imagine the angels in heaven sitting in stunned silence, leaning in to hear even just a few sentences of the conversation. It was sacred – a beautiful way to enter Holy Week. It was, as one person put it, “a kiss of God on our bruises.”
A time of healing. Renewal. Restoration. There is no denying that the Spirit was present. Henri Nouwen wrote, “no minister can keep his own experience of life hidden from those he wants to help.” It seemed that intuitively we knew this to be true.
I’m so proud of the pastors and leaders who courageously attended and stepped out to talk about the issue of failure and leaned into the discomfort of excruciating vulnerability when – most of the time – it is not welcome in our culture and, sadly enough, in our churches. They shared their stories with their whole hearts.
It’s more dangerous than you think for pastors to go to a conference on the topic of failure. I had several pastors contact me saying, “I’d love to come but I’m too nervous. If people found out I’m attending a conference like this they would really be suspicious.” Some admitted to me over dinner that they told their church they were on vacation, but didn’t tell them they were at this conference. They told me it was just too risky to let on to the fact.
And I’m also proud of and extremely grateful for Jason Sheffield, the director of the conference. Without Jason this conference would have remained a cool idea on a blog post last summer. Jason approached me and said he believed in the idea and wanted to see this become a reality. And so, he became the director of the conference, working numerous hours each week for the past several months at great sacrifice, handling all emails and purchases and details and issues that arose. Thank you, Jason.
The question that dozens of people have asked in the past few days is, “Was it a success?” It’s certainly an understandable question due the topic of the conference. But I think it’s the wrong one to ask. There are other more significant questions to be asked regarding a unique event like this, but I’ll try to answer the success question anyway:
I’m satisfied by the time together.
We were faithful to the vision that we originally had for the event.
The space was sacred, filled with kairos moments.
The stories of impact were everywhere.
There were tears and laughter and hugs and times of prayer and lots of listening.
There were extended conversations.
All that being said, I’d have to say, yes – it was, by the grace of God, a success.