Fail – An Interview with J.R. Briggs

“J.R. Briggs goes beyond giving us a robust theology of failure, he opens his veins and shares his life. He calls us to be faithful not efficient, to live vulnerably without shame. He gives us grace-filled opportunities to be our true selves. If you are a pastor, you need this book!”

That was my endorsement of J.R. Briggs recent book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. When I read Briggs book I kept saying to myself, “It’s about time that someone has written a solid book on something that we all experience – failure”. A robust theology of failure leads to a robust understanding of grace. As you read through my interview with Briggs, I trust that you will be encouraged.  If you find what you read in this interview helpful, you should pick up his book, because it is filled with practical wisdom that you can carry with you, and that will carry you through a lifetime of ministry.

Woodward: Tell us a little about yourself, what you do, some of your passions and hobbies.

My name is J.R. Briggs. I’m married to Megan and we have two sons, Carter (7) and Bennett (4). I am the Cultural Cultivator and Founder of The Renew Community in Lansdale, PA on the north side of Philadelphia. I also am the Founder of Kairos Partnerships an organization committed to serving pastors, church planters and ministry leaders through consulting, coaching, speaking, writing and training. I also work for the Ecclesia Network helping churches grow into and remain on mission through training, equipping and healthy relationships with other planters.

I love spending time with my family, canoeing, skiing, hiking, going to the gym, reading and rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Michigan Wolverines.

Woodward: Why did you decide to write Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure?

I like to tell people the book came about by accident. I was trying to steward my own wounds from ministry failure in a way that was redemptive, hopeful and meaningful. What resulted was a counter-intuitive conference we hosted called The Epic Fail Pastors Conference to help pastors process failure in raw, truthful and hopeful ways. The Conference idea continued to grow – and a book came out of what we learned in this events.

Woodward: In your book, you develop a theology of failure. Can you summarize for us what it means to learn and embrace failure?

How you define failure defines you. Unfortunately, many churches in North America have adopted the business principles of “success” into their ministry contexts. What has resulted in a  confusion of what “success” really looks like. The Scriptures have a lot to talk about when it comes to failure…but it has gone largely unaddressed in recent years. The entire Christian story is rooted in failure. Confession and repentance is an admission that we are failures – and yet confession is the entrance exam to the Christian life. When we understand failure appropriately we actually begin to understand the depth of grace.

Woodward:  What would you say are the most common failures that church planters experience?

We think that we are the center of our church plant. We believe that “success” is entirely dependent upon us. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure we place upon ourselves. The wisest piece of advice I received with church planting when we were first starting out was from my former youth pastor (who is also a church planter). He said, “J.R., if you are the head of your church, you better get busy because there is too much for you to do. But if Christ is the head of the church, then you better slow down and listen to what he wants.” If every church planter could hear that, I think we would avoid a lot of failures in the church planting process.

Woodward: In learning to understand failure, you take a chapter to talk about shame, why is it important to understand and work through our shame?

Shame is so universal. We all understand have felt it – and many of us are controlled by shame. As ministry leaders, if we don’t deal with shame ourselves, we not only inflict pain and damage ourselves, but also inflict pain and can potentially hurt the people we are entrusted to lead. If we don’t deal with shame we go into hiding, we put on masks and we live a live of deceit. If we are seeking to model life with Christ, we can’t wear masks. If we pick up masks, we put down the cross – thus, abandoning our primary calling as pastors.

Woodward: In your chapter on loneliness, you talk about the temptation to wear different masks, what are common masks church planters wear, and what can we do to be more real?

As I mentioned above, yes, there are a lot of masks readily available to pastors – and readily available specifically to planters. There are a lot of masks that relate to the “I have to be the strong one” appearance. We think we have to be the most charismatic, the most charming, the most articulate visionary out there. But the main one is allowing our identity to be wrapped up into how successful our church plant actually is. This is incredibly dangerous and must be ruthlessly addressed in the early stages of planting.

Woodward: When it comes to church planting, some planters have attempted to plant a church and “failed”. What advice would you have for them?

I’m really glad you put the word “failed” in quotes. If we shut our doors, does that automatically mean that we “failed”? If we are “only” a church of 40 people have we “failed”? Regardless of how we define failure, its important that we realize that we are not defined by what we do, but by who we are – and more importantly, to Whom we belong. If we can get that to run wild in our bloodstream, then we’re beginning to grasp the gospel that we have been called to proclaim. Finally, I would say this: if we don’t learn from our failures, then we truly have failed.

Woodward: How have you experienced failure in your own life, and what was your biggest lesson that you learned?

Well, I talk about my ministry failure in the beginning of the book. That experience really opened up my life to the idea of grace in a way I hadn’t experienced before. But I learned it truly was a kairos moment. Failure is always a kairos moment. Failure is a beautiful gift wrapped in an ugly package. But if I could have the courage and faith to commit to unwrapping the box, the gift was well worth it.

Woodward: If you had one last word to give to church planters in particular, what word would you leave us with?

Church planting can be a daunting, wonderful, discouraging, lonely, exhausting, exhilarating, faith-building calling. Few things are more character-shaping and faith-developing than church planting. Don’t go at it alone. The Evil One loves to isolate planters, convincing them they are all alone. Don’t allow the Evil One to win that battle. Find other church planters who will pray with you and for you, challenge you, encourage you, celebrate with you and confront you when need be. You’ll need them – and they will need you – through your calling.

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JR Woodward
JR Woodward is a church planter, activist, missiologist and author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012). He co-founded the Ecclesia Network and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK).
JR Woodward

3 Comments

  1. Arlene Rauen Oct 13, 2014 Reply

    Awesome write up…sounds like the book is a must read…To the church planter who has closed their doors, I would say “WOW do you know what a great thing you have done to even attempt to lead God’s people….sheep are hard to lead, trust me I am a sheep…use this as an opportunity as training for the next step of faith…I am intensely proud of the work you have done in His name and it was not done in vain. May I pray for you in your next step of faith?”

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