I never thought I would be one of “those” people: a “failed church planter.” I was certain that within 2 years we’d have this large church with an amazing, large staff doing tremendous things that make a huge difference in the city. Bigger! Better! Faster! Those idealistic dreams were almost an after-thought. I had built the church’s success in my mind before the church had actually come to fruition!
And if you’re honest, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We all go into church planting with these grand dreams and visions, with idealism oozing from our being, all the while stuffing realism into the trunk! This isn’t always a bad thing… in fact, it’s what makes us the crazy ones with a sort of entrepreneurial spirit that drives us to try, experiment, and start new things! This is one of the ingredients of a church planter: an unshakable desire to pioneer and start something new with Jesus at the center. (Alan Hirsch calls this the “Apostolic Genius”.)
All of this idealism we experience at the beginning doesn’t always come to fruition at the end. Inevitably, some of us will walk down a road we never thought possible staring at the difficult and gut wrenching decision to close the doors of the plant for good. I never thought that would be me… and some of you, right now think the exact same thing: “That will never be me.” (I want to take a sidestep for a moment and recommend a podcast called Start Up. It’s a great podcast about the ups and downs of starting a company, documentary style. The similarities between their experiences and the experience of a church planter are startling. Give it a listen!)
While my hope and prayer is that you would never have to join the fraternity/sorority of the “failed” church planter—honestly it feels too much like a secret society filled with shame, but that’s a different post for a different time—I do, however think there are some things one can do to prepare on the front side for what may become a reality. I believe this series of posts (Prepare for the end) are vitally important for the church planter. Too often I have seen church planters leave ministry after the closing of a church plant and I’m tired of seeing that happen. I want to help mitigate some of that by getting us thinking and preparing for that possibility. Over the next couple of posts I want share some of these ways. These posts aren’t comprehensive and so I want to invite you to add to them as well–especially if you’re a “failed” church planter like me.
Live with the fragile nature of the church.
As with any start-up (again check out the Start Up Podcast!), it doesn’t take a lot to see it all come crumbling down. We typically hear the stories of moral failure bringing down a church plant, and usually when a church shuts down we’ve been conditioned to think: “Oh, he must have been caught with hookers while snorting coke!” And yes, unfortunately these stories do happen–perhaps too frequently–but I’ve been surprised at just how little it can take to end the life of a church.
In my case it was burnout. Burnout led the dominoes to start falling. It led to how I treated my staff, how I treated my leaders, my volunteers, how I treated people within the congregation. My burnout led to me placing greater and greater expectations on everyone that they simply could not meet–and then I’d get angry at what I perceived as their lack of commitment. It was a vicious cycle that continued until I had dug a hole so deep, I couldn’t get out of by myself. Other stories of “failure” have been purely financial: the new church simply could not support itself independently. Others revolve around an inability for the new church to gain any traction with the vision and values. Regardless, there are a myriad of ways in which a new church does not make it. New churches are fragile.
It is important for you, as a church planter, to live with the understanding that the new church is fragile. This brings about a greater sense of perspective, a perspective of appreciation, a healthy temperance to taking ill advised risk, a greater appreciation for the work you are engaging in, and ultimately a perspective that helps you realize that this is Jesus’ church, not yours. Remember, this can all be gone in an instant. Own the fragility of the church.
(At the risk of sounding contradictory, I also want to say a new church is also rather resilient. One or two, even 10 missteps will not doom a church. You’d be amazed at what it can handle.)
Owning the fragility of the church is a way of preparing you for the end. This nugget helps to bring about a sense of perspective not only in the throws of planting, but on the other side of “failure” as well. This perspective helps to create space in your heart and mind so that you can get back up, heal, and continue in ministry in some capacity. It also gives you the head and heart space to effectively evaluate what went wrong on the other side. (In all honesty, that is the space from where all of these posts–10 of them now–have been borne.)
[In the next edition of “Prepare for the end” I want to talk about having a financial contingency plan.]