Hope For ‘Failing’ Pastors

All sorts of jobs have particular pressures today. My work as a minister certainly has. There is all sorts of pressure against whatever might be regarded as failure:

* In the light of numerical church decline, many churches are looking for a hero to ride over the horizon and come to their rescue. I have seen Methodist profiles where circuits explicitly seek a minister ‘with a proven record of church growth’.

* In a culture where we are increasingly regarded as employees in principle, even if not (yet?) legally – appraisals and reviews, ‘letters of understanding’ about new appointments – people think they can have their say, and if they don’t think ministers are meeting their expectations – whether they are reasonable or not – they turn the screw.

* It is seen in other professions. Politicians think they can harvest extra votes by more quickly dismissing ‘failing’ teachers.

* Alongside the above reasons, there are cases where a minister has behaved in a manner unbecoming of their calling, and the church authorities have glossed it over.

* The opposite has happened: a congregation has been allowed to get away with bullying its minister, and the church hierarchy has been more interested in preserving a fictional facade of niceness that a wounded minister limps off elsewhere, or maybe is lost to the ministry.

* As implied in the last point, there is a culture of ‘pretend’, if not of outright dishonesty, that pervades too many churches, which makes it difficult for people, ministers especially, to be open and vulnerable about their fears.

In the light of all this and more, an American pastor called J R Briggs organised a conference last year called the Epic Fail Pastors’ Conference, and he’s doing the same again this year. It’s in the USA, so my expenses won’t quite stretch, so I won’t be there (although apparently last year one delegate flew from Australia). They are deliberately not meeting in a flash convention centre in a fashionable city. They aren’t announcing any big names. Much of the schedule is taken up with ‘time together’.

I nearly typed that I wished them a ‘successful’ conference, but that would open up an interesting conversation about what truly constitutes success. But I do wish all the participants healing, hope and peace.


  1. A thoughtful post Dave.

    Not so long ago our congregation went through the process of seeking a new minister. At our AGMs we select ‘nominators’ to fulfil the role of selecting a new minister and this seemed to work very well for us. But there are dysfunctional churches for sure and responsibility for this needs to be acknowledged by the hierarchy of the particular church.
    In the teaching profession I believe there are teachers (in every school) who need assistance from time to time to perform to the expectations of Principal and parents – this is a good thing as an incompetent, or abusive, teacher can do a lot of harm. Likewise, as the true scale of the Catholic clergy abuse has come to light, how easily this can happen in a church. I’m sure the victims of abuse within a church don’t have quite the same perspective as some of the church hierarchy. Having said that, healing, hope and peace should be the desired outcome -but I doubt if those on the receiving end of abuse ever forget.


    1. Pam,

      Thanks for this. I wouldn’t doubt for one minute the existence of truly failing pastors, so your example of teachers is valid, it’s just that this gets extended without warrant, in my opinion.


  2. Dave…..an interesting and thoughtful post.

    Got me thinking, in light of some of my experiences, why is it, that in the church that we have to see things in terms of ‘success’ or ‘failure’? Is it a case of well………thats what society does, its human nature!

    Perhaps the church and people in that particular church who consider ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in terms of people……whether it be the minister or anyone else for that matter, will, experience loss! The extent of that loss will differ from church to church depending on their experience.

    What is success? what is failure? Who defined/defines what they are? What is used to measure such? how is it measured? for who? and for what purposes? Why?

    If we are involved in ‘success’ and ‘failure’……..then fine if its a particular programme or project that needs monitoring, reviewing and evaluating. But to attempt to do such with ‘people’…..hmmmmmmm, well, thats an entirely different ball game!

    Perhaps there’s the need to move more away from the ‘success’ and ‘failure’ mentality thinking!! Why…..perhaps ditch the words, particularly in the church!


    1. Jay,

      Thanks. Exactly. How do you define success and failure? I know of certain circles (not in my tradition) where a pastor is expected to deliver a certain amount of numerical growth within a specified time. That leads them to using manipulative techniques in order to bring more people into the church, and that brings its own set of problems. I know the old saying that we’re not meant to be successful, we’re meant to be faithful can be a cop-out (when they say ‘faithful’ they probably only mean ‘regular’) but there is an important truth there.


  3. Jay’s comment got me thinking in terms of my current seminary course on Christian leadership. The question was what we thought the most important aspect of a Christian leader was, and I proposed success. I was outnumbered by servant-leadership…go figure. The usual questions came up of course about how to define success and would Jesus have been successful. The interesting thing about success and its definition is that the men of old didn’t worry about it. It’s only those of us in the modern church who wonder if a person is successful or not. Peter wrote letters and he wrote them as a successful man, regardless of the definition because he viewed himself as successful. He was a wise old man who had made him mistakes. Same goes with Paul and Luke. They didn’t question their own success. Now if only we moderns would stop it.


  4. Its soooooooooo sad Dave! We are called to be ‘servants’…….are we not!?! (as well as being faithful).

    Its unfortunate that there are those who do get caught up in the ‘numbers’ game. More = success. The more the number = the greater the success. Its very shallow!! Tiny minded too!Our God is sooooooooooooooo much bigger and better than that!

    Oh for some bigger and better thinking than the ‘number game’ type!

    Hey……if ‘success’ and ‘failure’ thinking mentality is to be used to ‘assess’ how the individual is doing, then let it be each of using it as we consider and assess one’s self. And, at best…. we’re ‘ill equiped’ to do that.

    Let God! Afterall, HE is well equiped!


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