I am a failed church planter.

From 2008-2012, my wife and I and a group of friends started a new church in New York City. It was, in many ways, a wonderful time. We gathered a young, vibrant congregation and formed life-long relationships but, in the end, we could not reach the proverbial, and dreaded, “financial self-sustainability.” After four years of pouring ourselves into the church, we had to shut down and move on, and the last year was the hardest of our lives.

Since that time I have often thought back on the experience. What went wrong? What could I have done differently, if anything? What mistakes did I make? What lessons can I glean for the future? Questions abound; answers have been scarce. All of which has made the most recent season of Gimlet’s popular podcast StartUp, entitled “Church Planting”, both fascinating, cathartic and, at least so far, deeply comforting. You may have heard something about it on a recent episode of This American Life.

This season focuses on church planter AJ Smith, and his wife Leah, who take over a three-year-old church in Philadelphia after his co-founder burns out and moves to a large church in a city far, far away (a turn of events to which I can relate). The questions, anxieties and ambiguities with which AJ wrestles are all terribly familiar to me, as they may be to anyone who is in Christian ministry, whether paid or volunteer. Here are a few.

What does it mean to be “called” by God? And what do you do when the “calling” doesn’t seem to be panning out in the way you expected?

My sense of calling to plant a church in New York could not have been clearer. It made sense on so many levels, was affirmed by people I trusted and admired and, seemingly, confirmed by God through a series of (what I thought to be) small miracles. Within a few months of sensing the call to plant, I had been offered a church-planting fellowship, which came with training and money, found a church and denominational organization willing to sponsor me spiritually, relationally and financially, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and been offered admission to great schools for my 2 young sons, along with scholarships. Furthermore, at the same time that I was moving to New York, two of my three brothers were doing the same, and one of my best friends had recently started a ministry there (wink, wink:) and wanted to help me. Perhaps most importantly, my wife and I knew and loved New York. We had previously spent five years there growing a successful youth ministry. Our sons had been born in Manhattan, and we had all the “relational capital” we thought we needed. Plus, I had really great theology, obvi.

As I was beginning to plant, I sometimes joked about how clear the call was, how God was either calling us to “succeed” or to “crash and burn” so that we could be content moving somewhere else. That turned out to be prophetic, although not in the way I had hoped.

AJ struggles with the same questions. Everyone and everything in his life is telling him that he is meant to plant a church, but it is really, really hard, and he wonders whether or not he has heard clearly, or if he’s just fooling himself. Where is God when our best, most “Christian” plans do not come to fruition? Does God sometimes call us into “failure”? Which leads to the next question.

How do I deal with the paradox that, in order to be a successful church planter, I may need to assume a persona that feels contradictory to my Christian convictions?

AJ is a humble, honest, very human guy. He struggles openly with anxiety, and his preaching on this subject is a big part of what makes his ministry appealing. And yet, he has received the message that to be truly successful, he needs to be the type of highly confident, unabashedly self-promotional, completely self-assured, almost super-human leader that so many famous church-planters seem to be. Of course, this ego-driven model of church leadership has its dark side, but it does seem to “work.” How can AJ be a human being and a church planter at the same time? Is it possible to be “poor in spirit” and grow an institution at the same time? AJ’s wife confesses that she really wants the plant to be a “win” for her, while also recognizing how profoundly un-Jesus that sentiment is. I felt exactly the same conflict in my own plant, and it led both AJ and I to the next question.

How much is up to me, and how much is up to God?

In many ways, starting a church is like starting a business, as the excellent host of this season Eric Mennel (who is himself a Christian and “comes out” to his boss in episode 19 of StartUp) observes. You need a leader, partners, funding and a plan. Furthermore, each endeavor puts you on a strangely similar emotional roller coaster. StartUp episode 12 is entitled “Burnout.” In Season 2 (“Dating Ring”), a good deal of episodes 3 & 4 is devoted to the so-called “trough of sorrow” through which every entrepreneur must travel (Psalm 23). In perhaps the most emotionally raw episode of the podcast, “Shadowed Qualities,” the founder of the company, Alex Blumberg, bares his tortured soul to his family, therapist and us. For all of these reasons, I found StartUp to be highly therapeutic as I began to recover from the pain of my own endeavor. However, as Mennel also notes, there is one big difference between a company and a church: a church is supposed to be God’s work.

AJ recognizes this ambiguity. He knows in his heart and mind that the success of the church depends entirely on God, but he also works his butt off. He often wonders how he should spend his time. Praying? Sermon prep? Building relationships? He questions how much faith in God he actually has, and how he would act differently if he had more. For an entrepreneur, there is no ambiguity – it’s all on you(even if that’s not actually true) – but for a church planter, there is an uncomfortable mix of purported trust in the Divine and Gospel-phobic bootstrapping.

I could write a lot more on this topic, and I may. I am fascinated to see how things turn out for AJ and his church. At the moment (episode 3) it’s not looking especially good, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that at least part of me wants him to fail, wants to feel validated that we were both tasked with a mission:impossible, that my failure wasn’t my fault. I am also comforted to know that I am not alone, that my suffering is not unique.

But if I could talk to AJ and Leah, I would tell them that, come what may, God is with them and there is life on the other side of planting; there is resurrection even after the most painful of professional and vocational deaths. I would tell them that these two songs kept me going and still bring me to tears. Two days after arriving in Houston to start a new job at an amazing church – a place we never thought we’d be – my wife turned to me and said, “thank God we’re here.”

 

Cover image recognition: By Ikiwaner – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8133109