Reflection: Four Years Into Planting a Church

boat-and-reflection-2-1450160In October of 2012 my job transitioned from the Youth Director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church to the Organizing Pastor of a New Church Development or “church plant” (also now called a “New Worshipping Community” in the Presbyterian Church). Next week our Presbytery will be voting to approve the chartering of Tidelands as an official congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, we will ordain and installed our first elders, and I will be called and installed as the first teaching elder (pastor).

What took so long?

Four years is a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has been a long time. Maybe time just seems to go faster because I am getting older. Or maybe, it has something to do with the old saying “time flies when you are having fun!” It has been fun! Some might say it has been “hard,” but in my experience some of the most fun things are hard! In truth, this process has taken even longer than four years. The planning and discernment phase took over a year as well. Welcome to the world of thoughtful, intentional Presbyterian mission! I had a good friend jokingly say early on, “If we Pentecostals were planting a church in Stanwood the city would all be converted by now!”

The Model Determines the Pace

There are many models for planting a church. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pick the model that fits the mission, and not the other way around. Many church plants start with a “bang!” They first get facilities, staff, musicians, lots of advertising, lots of lay leaders, and then do a grand opening. This works well for reaching a certain group of people and probably is the correct model for some. However, this would not have worked well for us, and quite honestly, I doubt that I would be the right pastor for that church. You see, we knew that God was calling us to reach out to monaco-yacht-show-6-1560327those that either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a Sunday morning church worship service. So while we could’ve leveraged a large group of people from Mountain View to launch our Sunday services off with big numbers, that would’ve done little to help us connect with those that would not come to our worship service. Besides, there are some really great churches in this community that do amazing Sunday morning services already and appeal to a wide range of believers. So we started slow and small with a focus on missional communities and an emphasis on going to where people are at, rather than trying to get them to come to us.

Slower Than Expected?

Without a doubt, using a model based on missional community is much slower than we anticipated. Multiplication takes time if you are going to do a good job of raising capable leaders and discipling new believers. Could we have gone faster? Probably. But the real question is should we have? And I still don’t know the answer to that question yet, and I hope to do some more reflection on that in the near future. I probably need to do a blog post about the things that we would do differently if we had a “do over.” But overall, I am happy with where we are at. There is some wisdom in the statement: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” (Apparently this comes from the tactical training world, but I find that it works in many different situations, including church development).

Some things certainly have happened much faster than we anticipated! The biggest one by far is that we actually have our own building! That wasn’t in the plans. And the truth is that every time we take a step in one direction it closes some doors and opens some others. The essential element is to be both intentional and discerning about every decision and how it lines up with the vision for the church and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have said “no” to many things that, when looking back, would’ve taken us into directions that we are glad that we didn’t follow.

Organic Growth – Where We Go From Here

I know, I know… “organic” is one of those trendy words that is almost as popular as “missional” right now! I first heard this concept being applied to the church at a conference at Regent Seminary where someone was talking about church worship styles, and I’ve used it in my ministry ever since. The basic idea is that if you want something to orange-flower-1393625grow and be healthy you have to use the ingredients that are there. As it applies to worship music, this means that you shouldn’t try to force in musical styles that you are copying from other churches when you don’t have the people to accomplish it. Use what you have. This also goes with the leading-from-strengths idea.

What this means for us is that we will likely have some times of rapid growth, and some times anemic growth. It will all depend on the people that are part of community and what they are ready, willing, and equipped to do. To take the organic analogy one step further, I want our church to be a perennial, not an annual. When the time is right, and the resources are there, I hope that we create brilliant, beautiful growth. When resources are scarce, and times are hard, I hope that we will take advantage of it to prepare for spring – deepening our roots, rather than simply giving up and dying.

Freedom to Fail Because Jesus Has Succeeded

No matter what happens, I know that we would not have gotten this far if we had not stayed grounded in the Gospel message. Jesus has already accomplished all that we need. Now we have the freedom to live in faithfulness, knowing that our failures and our successes do nothing to affect God’s love and acceptance of us. I remind myself of this every day. I could not do this work without that ongoing assurance. Whether Tidelands grows into our vision of a church that has missional communities all over our area and plants new churches in other regions, or whether our circle of influence remains small and we are deemed insignificant, I know that God is pleased with faithfulness and patient endurance and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38f)!

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I Want to be a Pastor When I Grow Up

Bailey BoysRecently my youngest son, Calvin (8 years old), made a comment about wanting to be a pastor someday. I don’t exactly remember how the conversation began, but it had to do with something at school where he had to answer that dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The conversation happened with both my wife and I present. With a mixture of pride and concern I asked, “WHY do you want to be a pastor?” His response: “It doesn’t take much energy.” My wife and I tried to hide our reaction as we both looked at each other wide-eyed.

My wife’s look said it all, because she knows exactly how much “energy” being a pastor requires of me. She sees me lying on the couch in a gelatinous pool of emptied humanity every Sunday after worship. She gets woken up on those nights when I can’t sleep because an important issue with a certain person is keeping me awake. She sees all the hidden hours of work that will never make it onto a timesheet – and so much more! Fortunately, I was able to keep my thoughts to myself and give him a generic response equivalent to: “That’s nice honey.”

Not much energy!? Where did that come from? I could’ve taken his meaning to be: you don’t work very much or very hard. But I have a sense that there is more to it than that. Let me explain.

Recently I was with some other pastors and we were talking about this very issue of “energy.” One woman shared a story about how her young children once explained her work as a pastor to others as “going to a bunch of meetings.” Another person shared that their child once described themselves as “living” at the church building. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t that uncommon.

When my wife and I were newlyweds, I took a job as a youth director at a church. It was our first time being exposed to what full-time paid ministry work looked like from the inside. Like many people we naively assumed that it would be a somewhat “easy” job. After all, I had spent seven years working in wildland firefighting where it wasn’t uncommon for me to put in over 1000 hours of overtime between June and September! 21 days on, 2 days off during the busiest times. How hard could ministry be in comparison?

I quickly discovered that not only was I putting in hours that well exceeded my expectations (including stretches extending at times to multiple weeks without a full day off), but many of those I knew in ministry were even busier. So busy, in fact, that my wife and I made a vow to each other that we would never allow our life to get out-of-control busy for the sake of ministry. Not that we weren’t willing to make any sacrifice to follow Jesus, but we didn’t believe that God desired for us to be burned-out casualties, with neglected children and a broken marriage, all for the sake of running church programs.

That brings me back to my son’s comment about wanting to be a pastor because it doesn’t “take much energy.” Does he think that my job is easy? I hope so! When we started Tidelands we had people questioning the wisdom of starting a church with a core team consisting of families with young children (I’ve questioned the wisdom of that myself many times in the past year as well). But we believed, and still believe, that if we couldn’t start a church while as the same time practicing self-care and raising our children well, then we were starting something that we didn’t want to be a part of anyway!

The truth is, I do work from home a lot right now since we don’t yet have an office in the community (we have a room in our shop that I use that is separate from the house). Even as I type this I am working from home with my kids around (they have a half day today from school and my wife is still working). So part of this probably has to do with perception: my kids see me a lot. I drop them off at school every morning. I pick them up from school every afternoon. But I also coach their soccer and help with their baseball – and that is intentionally part of our mission. Also as part of our mission, we have our missional community at our house every Sunday night for dinner and a meeting where all the kids are included. Last Sunday we went and worked as a missional community at a neighbor’s house that needed some yard work done with the kids’ help. Tonight we will be doing our monthly dinner out at a restaurant with our MC (including kids). So I believe that part of what my son means by, “it doesn’t take much energy,” is that he knows that I am very much a part of his life and the life of our family. I’m not locked away in an office somewhere running off to meetings every night of the week in order to keep programs up and running. I hope that is what he means.

I also hope that part of what he is trying to express is that he can see just how much joy is in my life because of Jesus. Despite being physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained at times, I hope that he is noticing that because I am doing what I am called to do by God that I still have joy and energy left for him! I have peace rather than exhaustion when the day is done.

I recognize that all of this may come across as unnecessarily sanctimonious. I hope that it doesn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago my kids were complaining about me being at too many meetings because I had two nights in row when I had to be gone. So for them, even one meeting a week is too much! But I do hope that we as pastors (and parents in general) take the time to question whether we are modeling what life in Christ and life in the church community is supposed to be about. Are we converting people to Jesus’ way of living or something else?

Follow Up: 

The conversation came up again, and this time my youngest son told me again that he wanted to be a pastor. He said that my job was better than “mom’s” (she is an elementary school teacher). When my older son challenged him, he explained that my job was best because it was so important. It was important, he said, because I get to go out and tell people about Jesus that don’t know him yet. I was driving them home from school at the time, and I was so overjoyed that this was how he defined my work as pastor that I had tears in my eyes and almost had to pull over! I didn’t have the heart to argue with him, because I actually believe that telling people about Jesus is the job of every person in the church. For the record: I also believe that, in terms of impact for God’s kingdom, my wife’s job is much more important than mine. Someday, I hope he’ll understand that as well. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove to myself that all that I’ve written here is valid by taking the time to blog in the midst of a day when my “todo” list is long enough to justify 1,000 hours of overtime!

Church Programs

Here is a thought-provoking video about church programs. Of course, it easy for me to share since we are not yet a church that has a lot of programs. But I share this as someone who recognizes the tension being described in this discussion between wanting to maintain “space” for God’s work and wanting to be responsive and permissive to those seeking to respond to a need in the congregation/community.

Tim Keller Talks About Missional Church

Video

I just heard this interview for the first time, even though it has apparently been around for a long time. When I think of “missional church” I don’t immediately think about what Keller is describing here. Nevertheless, being conversant and engaged with the culture where you live is certainly a very important part of being missional. I think that what Keller is describing is primarily focused on those of us that spend most of our time in professional ministry. The problem for those that don’t work in the church is that so often they ARE “just like everyone else” when they are away from the church building and the church community gatherings. They are also just like “church people” when they are around them. The key is to reorienting oneself so that all of life is under the authority of Jesus, and then living all of life on the mission that Jesus has given us. To me, this becomes the key difference between being a “seeker sensitive” church and being a missional church. It is one thing to be sure that we talk in a way that those who have never heard the good news can understand what we are talking about in our groups and in our worship, but it is another thing to begin live out the gospel in a way that permeates and informs all of our life and conversations.

New Communion Ware Pictures

It’s one of those things that I took for granted – vessels for the Lord’s Supper. We always had them around at the churches I had worshiped at in the past. It never really occurred to me that there was a Sunday when someone said: “What are we going to use for the Lord’s Supper?” and then went out and bought them. I decided that since that task fell to me that I would seek out a local artist to make something for us. If you don’t know, Stanwood and Camano Island are known for the local art community. It just made sense. Here are some pictures of the vessels made for us by Leslie Whaley at Moonswept Studio:

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You may be curious about the choice of design for the plate/platter. I’ll tell you about the salmon, but first you need to understand the writing. The Greek is from John 6:51 that is translated: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” I chose to have it in Greek because for me it adds to the sense of mystery, tradition, and ancient roots of the Lord’s Supper. John 6 has intrigued me for years ever since I discovered the connections in the story. Jesus wants to take his disciples away to be alone for awhile after days of serving and teaching. Instead, crowds follow him into the middle of nowhere. He has compassion, teaches them, and then miraculously feeds them with FISH and broken bread. After that, he sends the disciples across the lake by boat and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

The crowds decide that they are going to create a violent uprising against Rome and make Jesus king. Jesus knows their plans and secretly walks across the surface of the lake in the middle of the night. In a dramatic meeting in a storm on the lake the disciples take Jesus into their boat and reach their destination. In the morning the crowds figure out that Jesus has given them the slip, and in need of more food they follow him across the lake. When they find him they try to convince him to give them more food. Jesus does not do it, but instead tells them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. He teaches them that he is the bread from heaven and that anyone who eats him will never go hungry again and will have eternal life.The teaching is so hard (should we say “repulsive”) that many of his followers, and presumably the entire hungry crowd, desert him. I could write a lot more here about this, but I think I’ll save it for a future sermon. My main point here is that this passage is where we get the best glimpse into Jesus’ early teaching about what the Lord’s Supper really is all about.

So why the salmon? Well, first of all, fish have always played an important role in Christian symbolism and often in early Christianity it is associated with the eucharist (Lord’s Supper). If you want to to read a good article that explains this connection take a look at “Symbolism of the Fish” from the Catholic Encyclopedia.  The one thing that this article doesn’t mention is that many of Jesus’ early disciples were fishermen and they were told by Jesus that they had a greater calling – that they were to “fish for people” (Matt. 4:19).

As for choosing a salmon, I would hope that it would be obvious. We have a lot of salmon around Stanwood and Camano Island! Maybe not as much as there once was, but you will still hear people from all walks of life talking about salmon. Our newspapers always seem to have articles about the connection between salmon and the health of Puget Sound, our rivers, the Native American culture, sport fishing, etc. In the Stanwood/Camano Island area there is some conflict and debate about the “tidelands” and their importance for both the salmon and local agriculture. Since the type of fish has never seemed to be especially important in Christian symbolism it just made sense to have a salmon for Tidelands Church. Beyond that, for me, it will always connect me back to that story from John 6. So many people ate from the miraculous fish, but so few were willing to follow Jesus when his teaching was less palatable.

“So you’re a church planter…”

I met a guy recently and we were talking about our ministry roles. I told him that I was beginning to transition from my position as youth director into the position of leading a team to start a “daughter church.” He responded, “Oh… so you’re a church planter.” It wasn’t really a question, but more of a statement – a statement that left me wondering if that was a good thing or a bad thing in his mind. Then I began to wonder if it was a good thing or a bad thing in my mind.

“Church Planter.” The label was like trying on some new clothes. My initial thought was, “wow, this is new and stylish!” But then I realized that it felt a little uncomfortable. The reality is that we are living through a time when we are tying to be careful and intentional about our language when it comes to the “church.” I’m not so sure that when people hear about church planting they think in terms of what we are trying to do with the Mountain View “daughter church” (I’m not sure I like that term either – I’m too picky!).

For starters, if I am a “church planter” then everyone else that I am working with is too. Our discernment team members are “church planters,” our session elders at Mountain View are “church planters,” our Presbytery leaders are “church planters,” and on it goes. Secondly, I’m concerned that when people think of a “church planter” they think of someone going in, getting a building, putting out advertising, and creating the next slick Sunday morning experience. In some ways, it is not unlike starting a new small business. But in this sense a “church planter” becomes a sort of “church supplanter” because they are simply pulling in people from the existing churches. Or, as I heard a speaker say recently, “circulating the saints.”

I’m also aware that I’m reacting a bit to the idea that when I hear of “church planter” I think of someone going to a place where the Church (I use that capital “C” on purpose) does not yet exist in an organized form. Take, for example, some parts of Senegal where our church and other are trying to reach “unreached people groups”. The truth is, God has been at work ahead of us, and the “Church” already exists and is active in Stanwood and on Camano Island. However, there does seem to be the need for some new expressions of the Body of Christ in those communities. There definitely seems to be the need for “more workers.” (Luke 10:2).

In some ways, what we are doing is like planting something new in a garden and nurturing it to see what kind of “fruit” it produces. I’m ok with being a type of “gardener” – watering, feeding, tending and working to allow new growth. All the while knowing that we are working with the mystery that the life created is the work of God alone. So how about you? What comes to your mind when you hear “church planter?”

Workshop Complete!

Sign Showing Businesses on CamanoWe had a great time at the “Planting New Churches” workshop this last week. We spent three evenings with Craig Williams talking about how the process works and getting a glimpse of what the work ahead will look like. Saturday we went out in small groups to various locations in Stanwood and Camano Island and engaged people in conversation in order to gather more information about the area and some of the neighborhoods. This is something that we will do in more depth as a discernment team later, but already we gained some valuable insights. Personally, I am ready to move to Stanwood! Now we just have to pray that God will open the right doors for that to happen in the near future.

Here are some of the highlights of the workshop for me:

  • I was able to get a better feel of what our “gatherings” will be like as a discernment team and how I might facilitate the process as the “point person.” I also had a number of questions answered about the process itself.
  • All of the current session elders of Mountain View  made an appearance at least once during our workshop. I value their insights and I am glad that they had a chance to get a better sense of the process. It was encouraging for me and our discernment team to have them participate!
  • We had fun! Seriously! The small group times and the trips into the community were marked by authentic moments of laughter, prayer, excitement, and lively discussion. This despite that fact that many of us were tired after long days at work and even struggling with illness. For me, this is a clear sign that we are currently on the right track.
Falling Can Be Deadly

In case you were wondering...

Now we move on to the next step and will begin gathering together with the discernment team on a regular basis. We are aiming to have our first gathering the third week of January and go from there. It is exciting to be moving forward!

What’s the difference? | Verge Network

In this video Jeff Vanderstelt and Caesar Kalinowski explain the differences between a Missional Community and other groups like Bible Studies, Small Groups, Support Groups, or Social Activist Groups. It is pretty long, but if you are interested in knowing more about what a “missional community” looks like, there is some great instruction here:

via What’s the difference? | Verge Network.

Goal: 1001 New Missional Communities

Apparently the desire to begin new “missional communities” within the PC(USA) is not limited to the local or even Presbytery level. Now, at the national level God has seen fit to put people in place who are also sensing this call. If you ask me, when something like this grabs hold of so many different people within the church at the same time it is a clear indication that the Spirit is moving!

There is an interesting article pointing to this move at the National level in the most recent issue of The Presbyterian Outlook. The article, written by Erin Dunigan, is called “Rekindling the Spirit Needed for Mission to Flourish.” I would provide a link, but I cannot find it on their website yet. Here are some excerpts.

“The PC(USA) is ____________ .” What would you use to fill in the blank? The hope of Roger Dermody, deputy executive director for the General Assembly Mission Council, is that the answer would be “people who are changing lives.” Dermody’s vision, fleshed out as 1001 new missional communities in 10 years, is an ambitious challenge for a denomination that has faced struggles of political and theological controversy as its membership declines. Dermody came to the GAMC after nearly two decades of ministry at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. “By God’s grace I was part of some ministries that, even though circumstances looked bleak, they turned around,” he said. His current call, he said, is to be a catalyst for new life. “We in the Presbyterian Church used to have this incredible entrepreneurial spirit that created hospitals (and) amazing schools, as well as churches. So what I began to wonder was: How can we help inspire people to get back to that?” It was from that wondering that “1001 in 10” was born…

…Dermody said “1001 in 10” is also not meant to discount the mission and ministry of existing congregations, but rather to engage those communities in thinking of new experiments. The term missional communities rather than churches or congregations is intentional. “The minute you call something a ‘church’ we have so many rules that it almost chokes something out before it even starts,”…

Although I would agree that changing the language may create some freedom from regulation, a more positive reason for using the term “missional community” is to reinforce that idea the a gathering of believers is supposed to be identified by their common mission in Christ rather than a shared denominational membership, church building, etc. However, I recognize that the language is very important when you are talking about finding a place for something new within an existing denominational structure and polity. The article goes on to explain that there is a desire to support the grassroots movements (like the one we are beginning, I hope) rather than legislate it top-down.

[Dermody’s] hope, … is to create a movement where the church rediscovers its role in giving birth to new worshipping communities. Dermody said the initiative is not an attempt to bypass the role of middle governing bodies in new church development. “It doesn’t have to come through us,” he said. “Our role is connecting and inspiring the church and using our balcony view to see what is going on and connect that.” Dermody said he would “love this to be something that we all take on together.” He already has commitments from organizations within the PC(USA) for close to half the target number of new missional communities.

Sometimes, timing is everything. Often people want to look at attempts at New Church Development in the past and figure out how to make it work “this time around.” But if this is truly Spirit-initiated then we won’t have to “try,” we just have to respond faithfully.