Last summer I began having thoughts that seemed counterintuitive and yet exhilarating: What if there were a conference that dealt with the issue that every pastor thinks about frequently -- failure? What if there were a safe place that allowed Christian leaders to talk about the aching feelings of failure? And what if those leaders were brought together, not to celebrate successes or bemoan failures, but to celebrate faithfulness, regardless of the outcome?

I was looking for a place like this, but I couldn’t find one. So a handful of us created the space ourselves.

We rented out a bar that occupies a (failed) church building and hosted the Epic Fail Pastors Conference the weekend before Easter in a suburb of Philadelphia. The conference gave pastors, former pastors and non-pastors -- especially those from small, obscure churches -- permission to share failures and, more importantly, to share how God showed up despite them.

As I heard the stories of wounded pastors, scarred by failure and scared to fail again, I thought, “We are on to something here. This is precious and formative.”

I also thought, “Now what? How do we encourage these courageous, grace-filled conversations to go beyond a weekend in a bar?”

Soul gardeners

Our job as pastors is to cultivate the soil of people’s souls so that spiritual growth can happen. As a pastor friend of mine in South Africa says, “We are soul gardeners.”

We cultivate the soil and then let the master gardener do his work. To do this we must have the courage to live out our calling honestly and vulnerably. The entrance exam of the Christian life, after all, begins with admitting our failure through confession of sin. But as Henri Nouwen wrote, pastors are the least confessing people in the church. We cannot expect our people to be courageously honest and vulnerable with one another if we ourselves are not willing to model confession and admit our brokenness.

Confessing our failures is messy and, at times, costly. But refusing to admit our failures can cause incredible damage to our souls. It’s only when we do confess -- when we are vulnerable -- that we grow. This requires all the humility, wisdom and courage we can muster, and it happens only when we acknowledge the destructive and lingering temptations that exist.

Buildings, bodies and budget

We must also question the current ministry score card. Many measure success with the three B’s: buildings, bodies and budget. Are we in the midst of -- or about to enter -- a building campaign for larger facilities? Is our weekly attendance growing? Is our giving up?

But the three B’s, borrowed from the business world, are skewed. They can be destructive to the soul, depersonalizing the very people whom we are called to serve and love.

At the conference, one of the speakers (whom we called “experts on failure”) asked a striking question: “Would Jesus be qualified to be hired at your church?”

If we were honest, most would admit that, by current standards, Jesus was an epic failure. He had no physical structure for his ministry, he whittled crowds of thousands down to just a handful, and he worked most of his life with his hands. It’s unlikely that Jesus would pass our tests.

We need a new ministry score card. A few years ago I heard someone describe success in ministry with three different components: faithfulness, fruitfulness and fulfillment.

Are people remaining faithful to Jesus and his mission? Is there evidence of fruit being borne in my life and the lives of those entrusted to my care? Are people feeling a sense of fulfillment in their purpose, calling and journey with Christ?

Of course, these measurements are subjective and difficult to quantify, but they are significant nonetheless. As another “expert on failure” at the conference said, we’ve become masters at measuring the large and the visible.

But what if we became masters at measuring the small and the invisible? What if we led, shepherded and taught people to notice what was really going on around us, as Jesus did?

When the stay-at-home mother of two in your church starts praying for every mother on her block -- daily and by name -- that needs to be noticed and celebrated. Nothing sensational, but significant kingdom work nonetheless. It’s essential that we soak in the healing waters of the good news.

Satan is half-right: we are failures. But it’s the depth of our failures that makes Christ that much more significant in our lives. “When we are weak, he is strong.” “His grace is sufficient for me.” “Christ has overcome.” We know this in our heads, but do we grasp it in our hearts? Has it made its way into our bloodstream, or has it managed to end up only in our language?

We must find our worth not in what we do but in who we are -- or, more importantly, to whom we belong.

God’s compost

We are stumbling friends of Jesus -- whom he loves anyway. We are the discarded scraps that somehow, in his deep and expansive grace, God uses to nurture and grow, to scatter and sprinkle over a broken world. We must rediscover our call and realize, as Eugene Peterson writes, that we are unnecessary pastors, but pastors that God, in his immense grace, nevertheless uses anyway.

I am reminded of a blessing Jean Vanier once delivered that sums up the power of embraced failure and why the Epic Fail Conference was worth trying:

May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in
the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

It’s only in our epic failures that we ever truly experience the good news. We are stumbling friends of Jesus, but we are friends nonetheless.