I’m reading a new book by J. R. Briggs called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure and enjoying the author’s insights on matters like shame, loneliness, wounds, and recovery for pastors in church ministry.
The author tells his own story of (perceived) ministry failure, and it’s worth recounting for a moment.
After graduating from a Christian college, J. R. and his wife moved to Colorado Springs – the evangelical Vatican, he calls it – and eventually was hired to pastor a group of young adults at the second largest church in the city. Not only did J. R. see numerical growth under his leadership … he had also written three books before he turned 28.
Several years later, a senior pastor named Gary from a megachurch in the Philadelphia area asked J. R. if he might have an interest in starting an alternative service for younger adults like he was doing in Colorado Springs. Pastor Gary told J. R. that he was planning on retiring in a few years and was looking to groom a younger pastor to replace him.
So J. R. and his wife Megan left Colorado and moved to Philadelphia. J. R.’s ministry in the church of 3,000 members went very well. He received opportunities to preach on occasion, and did so well that some on the staff called him “Golden Boy.”
But J. R. and his wife came to believe that God did not want him to become the senior pastor of a megachurch.
Several months later, Pastor Gary and the elders engaged in a “messy struggle.” J. R. writes, “After twenty years of ministry he left, causing confusion, anger and hurt within the congregation.”
J. R. was invited to attend the next elder meeting, and in the process, he told the elders that “I knew that Gary was grooming me to become his successor, but I was not interested in taking the position.”
But the elders claimed they knew nothing about this succession plan … and said that if it were up to church leaders, they never would have hired J. R. at all.
That knowledge pushed J. R. and his wife “over the edge.” Megan stopped attending services.
Because they didn’t feel they fit with the vision of the church, J. R. felt that God was releasing him to leave and plant a church in the Philadelphia area. He approached the elders who disagreed and said “that we were not to do this and that it would be sin to pursue church planting in the region.”
J. R. adds, “Accusations, misunderstandings, threats and ultimatums were made, further solidifying and affirming the fact that we could not stay.” The elders then told J. R. that if he planted a church in the region, they would terminate his employment within the week.
J. R. and his wife still believed that God wanted them to plant a church in the Philadelphia area.
The senior leaders then declared publicly that J. R. was leading a church split even though he just wanted to leave quietly without stealing any sheep.
Two years to the day after he was hired, J. R. and his wife left their church home for good. J. R. and his wife lost a dream … trust in church leadership … local friends … their home (which they were forced to sell) … his salary … and financial security.
He writes, “My soul was bludgeoned, dumped in the back alley and left in the dark.”
While raising support and assembling a core group, J. R. and his wife received anonymous hate mail from people at his former church for over a year … including non-anonymous letters from one elder’s wife.
Two years after he left, J. R. believed that he was healthy enough to reach out and try and reconcile with the former leaders of the church. He wanted to talk through what happened … and the elders accepted his invitation.
J. R. asked if each party could share how they truly felt. He writes:
“The anger had not been tempered. One of the pastors told me that leaving the church and starting ours was sinful – and that God would, as a result, continue to limit my small ministry, possibly for decades into the future. He said my ministry and our church were illegitimate and dishonoring to God.”
After all the hurt J. R. and his wife had endured in that church, how wise was it for him to call a meeting and attempt reconciliation with that church’s former leaders?
I’m going to address this particular issue in my next blog post, but I’d like to ask you to think about the answer to this one question … maybe this weekend:
Why is it nearly impossible for former pastors and church boards to reconcile either personally or professionally?