Though different from last year’s conference, this year was rich, emotional, raw-yet-hopeful — an experience that left a deeply transformative mark on the lives of wounded pastors.
The conference was held in Mansfield, OH – an intentionally out-of-the-way location off the beaten path of
most all ministry conferences. Over the past year, we looked into holding the event in some places that carried significant symbolism and meaning.
First, we thought about hosting it in the Ohio State Reformatory, a beautiful (and eerie) former prison in Mansfield that has since been closed down (as a prison) but is now used for rentals of banquets, wedding receptions and tours. It is also the location where Shawshank Redemption was filmed (we thought that was somewhat fitting). We would have loved the opportunity to hold it at that location, but the price was cost prohibitive.
Then, we looked into getting approval to host a portion of the conference inside of the Richland Prison (in my humble opinion, prison is the ultimate Epic Fail). We initially received approval, where the inmates were going to share their stories with us, but due to some personnel issues at the facility, that offer was rescinded.
We also looked into a closed down General Motors assembly plant (also fitting), but we were unable to gain permission due to liability issues.
But where we ended up holding the conference worked well. We met in a building that was originally a Methodist church. After a few decades the building was sold to a guy who turned it into a bingo hall. A few years ago, it was sold to an African-American church planter who leads a beautiful, multi-cultural church. The round tables we sat around for the event were painted different shades of bright, funky colors with hand-painted images across the top. We learned from the pastor the tables came from a Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant – that went out of business. Fitting.
I opened the event by asking, “How many of you in the room are feeling anxious and/or scared to be here?” About 2/3 of the hands in the room went up. (Failure is a tough topic to talk about. It is especially tough when it involves pastors).
Then I told my story. I opened up a vein and bled into the microphone. (I think I am suffering from a ‘vulnerability hangover.’)
As I learned the stories of courageous pastors in the room I was overwhelmed by the pain they had experienced and were still carrying. I heard stories of pastors who had received death threats, experienced physical violence from an elder, went through burnout, were terminated unexpectedly and without reason, received a vote of no confidence, were fired for having porn on their computer, had sexual affairs, experienced the death of a loved one and had chosen to numb the pain because their heart just couldn’t handle it all.
My heart broke. I haven’t cried on behalf of others so consistently over a three-day period of time as I did this past weekend. Truthfully, right now I am emotionally and mentally exhausted. Read more from one of the presenters from this year’s event here and here.
- No wonder 40% of pastors in North America considered leaving the ministry in the past three months.
- No wonder that for every 20 pastors who goes into the ministry, only one retires from the ministry.
- No wonder that 1,500 pastors leave ministry for good every month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure.
If this isn’t enough to break your heart, I don’t know what will. It’s one of the reasons that I started Kairos Partnerships. The sobbing and the grimaces and the tears when you are patiently dressing the wounds of pastors who’ve suffered relational smoke inhalation and third-degree burns on their souls is hard to stomach.
Throughout the conference there were two types of presenters: Experts on Failure and Storytellers. Through the Experts and Storytellers, we talked a great deal about failure, rejection and shame – and how each can tempt us to deep, dark levels of feeling unworthy and unloved. We explored ambition, contentment and comparison. We discussed identity and worth, legitimacy and inadequacy. We looked at the lie that is communicated (clearly, though not overtly) in many of our churches: grace is for everyone – except pastors. We explored the stages of grief for a pastor who has failed and the carryover of anger that results in many cases for several years. We talked about the need for pastors to have emotional space, ample grace and healthy pace. And we heard from one Expert on Failure who talked about God’s gift of failure – what he gained from losing it all.
Telling stories, sitting in silence, discussing around tables, worshipping, watching videos and writing letters to process the pain – each of these elements provided the groundwork for healing to occur. As heart-wrenching as the stories were, they were also full of redemptive hope. In fact, without hope I have no interest in hosting a failure conference like this. Despite my heart being broken for these pastors, I took comfort in the fact that it was not my job – or the conference’s job – to fix them or heal them. That is the job of Jesus. And the Spirit showed up and began the healing process.
Pastors afterward told me:
The anchor passage for the conference was Psalm 77 - a raw and blunt psalm of lament that lets it all hang out, but ends with an acknowledgement that it is God who gets us out of the mess. And like last year, we ended the conference with communion – a powerfully hopeful reminder of the sacred mystery that in Jesus – who broke his body and spilled his blood for us broken people – is what ultimately makes us whole again. A perfect reminder during this season of Lent. Jesus, whom the world considered to be the greatest Epic Failure in history, was – and is – the author and founder of our hope. The prayers, the hugs, the laughter, the tears and the conversation seasoned with Jesus around the communion elements was so incredibly sacred.
Ultimately, the Epic Fail Pastors Conference is not about failure – and its not really about success either. It’s a conference about grace. It’s a counter-intuitive way to enter through the backdoor of grace with a roomful of professional Christians paid to love Jesus who can easily talk about it and preach about it but rarely ever experience it firsthand. For most of us pastors, grace is in our heads, but its rarely in our bloodstream.
A special thanks to Jason Sheffield, Michael Smith and Steve Burrell for all the ways they served behind the scenes. Without their leadership and involvement, this conference never would have come to fruition and would have remained as some crazy idea in a folder in my desk drawer collecting dust.
Of course, several asked “so when is the conference next year?” Truth be told, the Epic Fail vision will continue, but with a very different expression. We don’t have all the details worked out yet, but our team is very excited about these changes and is working diligently to bring shape and form to this new vision. From the beginning, we’ve said that we want to steward this unique vision wisely, courageously and faithfully – in whatever direction it took. We’re excited about this new direction. We’re more convinced than before that providing a safe space to allow pastors to courageously talk about and process failures healthily – and seeing God showed up in the midst of it – is absolutely vital. There is incredible need for such a conversation. How that happens though will look different.
I’ll share this change of vision in the not-too-distant future.