Planting a church sounds like a thrilling and exhilarating challenge to the seminary graduate fresh out of school or to a pastor ready to make his mark on the world. Reality is a far cry from the dreams of youth and fantasy.
Next month, December 6th will mark the one-year anniversary of the church my husband and I planted in South Orange County, California. Ironically, the thing I will celebrate most is that both my family and the church are still standing.
Only a church planter who has walked through the fire can understand the depth of mind-numbing paralysis that sets in after a solid year of working 80-100 hours per week. While church planting books, boot camps and Web sites can do much to inform you of the challenges involved when starting out, few seem to capture the true essence of the church planter’s journey, which tests every faculty of the human condition. Here is my best effort to share the biggest surprises we encountered during church planting and to inform and prepare the weary sojourners who will inevitably follow in our path as they heed God’s call.
The Sacrifice of Time
I knew going in to the church plant that we would be sacrificing time, both as a family and individually, but I didn’t realize exactly how much time that would equate to. Now I know it involves “All” time.
We live, breathe and do life in the church. I am writing this on the church sofa that has become my living room. So, on any given day, working from sun up to the wee dark hours, eating pizza for the 100th time, and even laboring for 10 hours in the church office with my third baby, I can always find comfort in our shared commitment to God’s call.
Our entire family accepted this Mission Impossible, and to the best of our ability, we counted the cost of the journey. My husband and I have been so blessed that our kids, an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, are on board and adore our church and its vision of spreading the Gospel to our community. Without their buy-in, I don’t think we would have made it as a cohesive family unit. While we sacrificed time, we were not willing to sacrifice our family.
The Sacrifice of Friends
Holding on to my family was a non-negotiable; but maintaining my close friendships was another story.
First of all, we moved about 30 minutes away to live closer to the new church, so proximity was already a challenge. About six months into the church plant I realized I hadn’t had any contact with my old friends in ages and they weren’t exactly reaching out to me after being neglected for so long. The demands of getting the church off the ground completely consumed our family and it required us to attend every Bible study, church program, kid’s event, tree lighting, men’s and women’s events, couples group, and outreach event, etc. It meant most weeks we spent only a few hours at home, despite having a baby and two children with busy sports schedules.
And when we were home, we often sat catatonic in front of the TV like zombies, too tired to talk, and ordering more pizza because we were too exhausted to cook. As our church has grown now to about 800 congregants, we have experienced many growing pains, and one of them has been experiencing loneliness amidst a crowd. While I may know many people, I haven’t yet had the time to invest in deep relationships. This isn’t a static situation as relationships change with seasons in life, but it was a sacrifice I did not anticipate, and in hindsight, I might have made a stronger effort to stay connected to my close friends.
When you start a church there is an initial period of time when the congregation will give you grace, the honeymoon phase. It is a brief and blissful time when everyone loves you and brings you gifts. People volunteer without being cajoled and everyone has a smile on their face. The excitement about starting something new for the Kingdom seems to bring out the best in people.
During our very first service, the fire alarm in our building was triggered by a little boy and we had to end the service early because it killed the electricity. My husband, the pastor, brilliantly improvised and we sang a few worship songs in the candlelight, between the blaring alarms encouraging us to flee. People thought the mishap was endearing and it built a communal buzz around a shared experience.
A year later, we probably would not garner the same sympathy.
After a few months, the honeymoon wears off and people generally expect you to get your act together. The opinions come out and some of the smiles grow thin. So, enjoy the honeymoon phase because it doesn’t last nearly long enough!
Ultimately it’s God’s Church
As we round up on the first year, I am surprised at the amount of spiritual ownership I feel towards the church plant. As the pastor’s wife, it’s not even my full-time job, but sometimes I operate as if the church were mine. I like my front row seat and revel in my cute little office filled with books on theology and ministry.
But, when I look around to assess the attendance numbers on a Sunday morning, anxious to see if we have done well, I am reminded, sometimes gently and other times rather harshly, that I am in sin. It is God’s responsibility and His alone, and I am pretty sure he doesn’t need help counting. So, when I claim success for a well-attended event or Bible study, I am merely fooling myself because I have only done the job I was supposed to do. God directs our steps and His plans will be lived out whether the service is full or no one shows up. Surrendering this control to God has been one of the bigger challenges in this endeavor, but placing my trust in God’s hands has been the sweetest gift of relinquishment and subsequent peace.
Proverbs 16:9 – In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.