I was inspired to write today after reading an article on CT’s The Exchange called Reflecting on Church Planting in the Aftermath of Being on the Startup Podcast, Part 2. In the article, A.J. Smith, pastor and church planter, is responding and reflecting to some of the feedback he has received after being on a podcast called “Startup.” Apparently their latest season was all about church planting, and as you might expect, Smith received a wide range of responses after his episodes aired to the 1,000,000 viewers (the podcast is secular and reaches a diverse audience). I appreciated his reflections because it reminded me of some of the important lessons that I have learned along the way. In fact, I immediately shared the link with my brother, who is at the very beginning of planting a church and recently told me that he welcomes any advice I might have. While I plan to listen to the podcast, I have not done so yet. I suspect that will lead to some more reflections once I do. I did read “part 1,” and I’ll likely write an entry around that soon.
The three areas that Smith is addressing specifically come from the three areas he identified as getting the most responses from the podcast. Those are vulnerability, money, and identity. I’m also going to reflect on these, using a quote from the article on each of these areas as a primer.
Regardless of the reasons, I came to a point in professional ministry where I decided that I was only going to do this if I could do it while truly maintaining my integrity. If I couldn’t be honest about my issues, doubts, and struggles, then why would I be a spiritual leader for others?
Growing up in the church, the pastor was someone that I put on a pedestal. I realize that sounds cliché, but that phrasing has always worked well for me since the pastor was often up front and above everyone else on Sunday morning, and usually standing behind something very pedestal-like! And because of this, I had a real hard time ever considering myself a serious candidate for “pastor.” While I won’t share that journey here, it took an immense amount of grace, a strong and unavoidable calling from God, and some minor miracles for me to accept that I could, in fact, be a pastor. Nevertheless, venerability and pastoral ministry were two things that I didn’t readily associate with each other.
Throughout my undergraduate work in theology and my time in seminary, the message I received over and over again was a message about setting healthy “boundaries” in ministry. And while I still think that is good advice, I now realize how often setting boundaries is actually just code for protecting yourself. And lets be honest here, it is hard to both be vulnerable and protect yourself at the same time! And in fact, it is hard to find Biblical support for this kind of language. Rather, we often find the opposite. If we are going to truly love others, then we are going to have to risk injury to ourself, and injury to our family. Jesus is our leadership model and the cross is our standard.
So I came to a similar conclusion early in church planting that A.J. Smith did. I was either going to be honest about my own life, failings, doubts, etc., or I wasn’t going to do this work. We knew that we could not open our home week after week to those both inside and outside the church and somehow put on a show that our life was somehow perfect. That would be exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. And while I still struggle with where those boundaries need to be drawn (because they do), I have tried to err on the side of vulnerabiblity.
“We’re nothing like Silicon Valley startups” is a funny thing to say when we use demographic studies, marketing tools, social media, websites, merchandise, and investors to start churches. Moreover, we run churches like businesses with budgets, salaries, and insurance packages. The parallels are striking!
During my life I have had a strongly negative reaction to churches that smack of the corporate world. Whether it be the pastor as CEO mindset or the church growth movement strategies. I’ve discovered that this is, in general, a common reaction among my “Gen X” peers. And yet, starting a church has made me realize just how much business knowledge is needed to get things off the ground!
Beyond budgets, salaries, and insurance, when you are starting a new church you have to figure out things like incorporation, non-profit law, worker’s compensation, taxes, land use restrictions, building codes, opening business banking accounts, etc. And starting out in a denomination like the PC(USA) has both advantages and disadvantages in this regard. On the one hand, I had plenty of people to go to for advice and help, and we were able to wrap ourselves under the protective umbrella of our Presbytery and parent church when we needed to for insurance and non-profit purposes. On the other hand, this also means we had to navigate our denomination’s Book of Order, Board of Pensions, and Presbytery councils.
I can now say unequivocally that if you want to be a church planter and have no desire to ever run a business you are probably in trouble. While the church is not a business, it often requires many of the same skills and work on a day to day basis. Either that, or you need to be willing to find others who will do that work for you from the beginning and be prepared to still spend a lot of your time having conversations about these business-like issues. And surprise, surprise… seminary does nothing to train you for this!
Unfortunately, before [church planters] know it, their happiness is directly connected to the success of their church. I’ve learned that in order for me to stay sane, my role as a pastor cannot be my identity. If the church is doing great, it shouldn’t mean that I’m necessarily doing great. Likewise, if the church is failing, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.
This is hard. Whenever you create something, you have a bit of yourself tied up in it. If people dislike it, you feel a bit disliked. If people love it, you feel a bit loved. Theologically, I think it is safe to say that nobody every really starts a “church.” All we are doing is participating in a new expression of the Church started by Jesus. And yet, it is hard not to blur the lines and begin to have your self-worth wrapped up in the success or failure of your new expression! This is especially problematic when some of the statistics list church plant “failures” as high as 2 out of every 3 (failure being defined as a congregation/organization that doesn’t continue).
Early on in my work with Tidelands I was fortunate to attend the “Soma School” in Tacoma with one of our other leaders. Jeff Vanderstelt was doing a lot of the teaching, and he reminded all of us that there is a temptation in pastoral ministry to try to justify and prove ourselves through our preaching and work in ministry. We don’t think of it this way, of course, but we may find ourselves feeling miserably spent after a morning preaching. Or we my find our spirit in the dumps when we work hard all week and only a handful of people show up at the worship gathering or small group meeting. I have been there a thousand times! And it may just be that we were expecting that doing this great work would somehow prove us worthy of God’s love and acceptance. But if we truly believe that God is gracious, then we do not have to prove ourselves (thank you Jeff and Tim Chesterton for the reminder). Our worth is not based on the perceived success or failure of our church plant, but rather on the unconditional grace of Jesus and the unconditional acceptance of the Father. I have to rely on the Holy Spirit to remind me of this daily.
A wonderful thing has happened in my ministry as I have learned to trust my identity in Christ more: I am less concerned about what others think of me, I am less anxious and busy in my ministry, and I am more present with those around me. Of course, this runs the risk that others may feel that things are moving too slow, or that we are not “driven” enough. But ultimately I want to know that I am being faithful to my calling and obedient to the Holy Spirit.
I’m grateful to A.J. Smith for his article and I look forward to listening to his podcast. These reflections have been helpful for me to put into writing and I hope that they just might help others out there at some point as well.