Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Review: Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

Why on earth you ask am I reviewing a book called Fail? Sounds strange, huh? Yes, you're right. It sounds more than strange it sounds crazy, insane, downright dumb even! Yet when I saw this new book on the InterVarsity Press website I couldn't wait to read it. Couldn't wait to read a book on failure? Yep. That's right, could-not-wait. 

You're probably thinking that I should review a book on success, on growing bigger and better parishes, on budgets, bucks, and more backsides in the pew. Been there, done that. In the early years in ministry I thought that I had to be slick and savvy, do anything to get the folks in the door. The more folks in the congregation the bigger the collection. The bigger the collection, the bigger the budget. The bigger the budget the bigger and better buildings we can have, and on and on and on. Unfortunately this is the primary passion of many pastors these days. They focus on coffee and donuts, on good music, and on slick advertising and social media sites. However, the main reason for being a pastor is gone: Jesus. 

JR Briggs knows a lot about failure because as many of us he did fail. He didn't have one of those huge fall from grace failures like some big name pastors have done, but he did fail. Not only did he fail in his parish but he felt like a failure on the home front too since he and his wife could not have children. I don't to give too much away about the book but I'll leave it to the reader to figure out the reset. 

Fail (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014) is a must read for all graduating seminary students and for young pastors. When I was reading I kept saying to myself, "Where was this book twenty years ago?" However I probably wouldn't have read it then anyway, I was too busy trying to succeed. But like Briggs I failed and failed and failed yet again, but I'm still in the saddle. Failure hurts as he says and many pastors can't take the pain and hurt that comes with failure. Pastors forget that in the eyes of the Romans Jesus was a big fat failure. He only had about twelve followers and even most of them were incompetent. Jesus requires us to be faithful not successful. Unfortunately we pastors got in wrong. Briggs tries to remind us that we shouldn't be afraid of failure, we actually should embrace it.

Briggs isn't preaching in the sense that he tells you what you should or should not do but he does guide the reader through the strange and mysterious labyrinth of when things go wrong in the pulpit. He weaves personal vignettes from his own ministry and from other pastors as well as biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments to show the reader where he's headed. I really enjoyed the easy to read writing style combined with the biblical material. In many ways Fail is both a good read for experienced pastors like myself as well as a sort of text for a course in ministry or pastoral theology. The end of the book includes a very thorough resource section for further reading as well as a bunch of questions for reflection or small group discussion or for journaling. One of my tasks in the next two weeks is to go to a local cafe, order a large coffee, and do some journaling based on the questions that he includes in the end. 

Many pastors get caught in the early days to prove oneself to the congregation, to the local district or judicatory, and to God. We do everything to show others how wonderful we are in the pulpit and the counseling room, in the hospital and the hospice. If we're lucky we'll fail along the way, if we're really lucky we'll fail big time so that we can learn to follow Jesus and embrace the cross. It is only the crucifixion of our egos that we can finally become the pastors that we were called to become in the first place. 

I could go on and on about this book but I won't. I want to re-read portions of it and do some journaling when I have the time. 

Do yourself a favor and buy yourself a copy of Fail. No. Better yet, by two copies and give one to a clergy friend. You won't be disappointed.