Church Planting Failures (2003)

First appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, Jan. 2003

When we got together as Circle of Hope we had high hopes, and so many of our hopes have been realized that it is easy to take the grace of God for granted. One hope we continue to have is to be a congregation-planting church. Our vision is to be one church bridging the divided neighborhoods of Philly through a network of cells and congregations, enjoying the benefits of being many people unified in one purpose while also enjoying the benefits of being uniquely present to a neighborhood. We’re trying to maximize our ability to give the witness Jesus called us to give: “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Being non-territorial in a territorial town is a sign of hope. Even harder, being multiracial in a racialized city is an even greater example of being a reconciled and reconciling people. One of our basic convictions can be summarized with a John Perkins quote: “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”

In meeting after meeting, we have said, “We may fail again and again, but we are going to die trying” to do what we need to do to realize this vision. We have had a lot of experience with failing and it tests our ability to keep trying. Some people might even say they already died trying! But as recently as our last Council meeting in January, we reaffirmed our determination.

I have experienced a sinking feeling at times when someone launched into a new version of the “Circle of Hope Church-planting Failure Myth” as evidence that we are inadequate. You know how these stories get started. It is like when you are mad at your spouse or old friend and you string together various events of your common history to make the case for how your loved one is ALWAYS some terrible way. This often happens when you’re about dead from trying or some other terrible thing has happened in your life that needs an outlet for feeling. So the epic story of our failures has been embellished and retold until some people who were not even around can recite “Gerry, Joe, Tim, now Mike.” We placed our hope and trust in several leaders, as a launch point for our church-planting efforts. So now their names title the myth’s chapters.

It is true, we have risked and we have failed. Sometimes this failure feels like we tried to get to the North Pole by dog sled and just couldn’t make it (“But great effort, folks! What courage!). Other times it feels like we held Enron stock (“Boy did you get hoodwinked! Get a clue!”). Other times it feels like the Eagles vs. Bucs (“Bad game plan, poor coaching, no-show players!”). I’d say that most of the time, when the failures get lumped together it feels like a big lump on the head or even a lump in the throat. I don’t think anyone doubts our good intentions, but most everything else is up for scrutiny.

There is no doubt that we have failed, repeatedly. First, we got a grant from the Mustard Seed Foundation that helped us hire a bright, energetic, brave, musically talented man, part time, to be a partner pastor for me in Center City. The idea was that we would eventually multiply the congregation with Gerry as pastor. As it turned out, he did not want to be a pastor, he really wanted to be my associate, and he ended up not even fulfilling his part-time hours. I remember being in South Africa with a multiethnic team of mediators, sweating over using our grant up without realizing our goals. My friends of color heard my story and reflected about five seconds: “If he is not doing what he was hired to do, he should be asked to move on.” Failure #1.

Then we made a country-wide, year-long search for another brave person. This time we were clearer about our expectations. We were not going to move the person into our congregation, we were going to give him or her “hunting rights” for people they could take with them as a formation team to plant a new congregation in another territory. We thought, “Less competition, more autonomy, the Brethren in Christ will help support a ‘mothering’ approach.” So we went for it. I remember meeting Joe in Washington DC. He looked spiffy, had his bright smile, had all the credentials, the references loved him. He wanted a lot of support in his endeavor, but we like to support and help leaders grow. So we took a risk, balancing out the pros and cons and emphasizing that he was willing to try a very hard thing. He really got the method we were trying because he came from a big church that was basically doing the same thing. He improved us. But personally, the responsibilities of church planting about killed him. He left us with a small congregation, and a great building. Failure #2.

At this point one has to wonder. Are we experiencing the adage, “There are no successes without failure?” The fact is, we have done a lot of maturing by this time, and we have learned things that we would never have learned had we not made the attempts. We do have that proverb in our collection, you know: Accepting failure and moving on in hope is basic to living in the grace of God. Plus, we did gain a toehold in Germantown and made a new relationships through Circle Venture and Brotherly Love Urban Youth Services.

At the same time Joe was struggling, we accepted Tim into our network as a gift from the BIC. They tested him, funded him and gave him the assignment to plant a church from scratch. This was not even a mothering situation for us, although many of the people who ended up in the small congregation were from the network. Tim is still with us, so he can tell you his own story. But in the myth, this is failure #3.

Then we connected with Mike and New Dimensions. We thought we heard, “We are a cell church and we will marry you.” Mike is bright, entrepreneurial, experienced, from the Germantown area and was pastor of a cell church needing a building while we were a cell church in the same neighborhood needing a pastor. Mike made the same agreements we all do as cell leaders and covenant members. But as it turns out he didn’t hear how serious we were about what we are doing. He saw us as so flexible that he didn’t need to be one church spanning two neighborhoods at all. He met a lot of resistance to this, since he was unilaterally changing course after years of investment in time, heart and money (the money amounting to about $80,000 in grants and offerings). Before we could work it all out, his financial and physical problems, as well as the stress of disagreement, forced him to resign. This is failure #4. We’re in the throes of it.

I am an optimist by faith and nature. So it is not too hard for me to wipe the dust off and say, “We’ll get’em next time.” I can definitely envision how God is going to pick us up and build on what he has done. I still believe he gave us the vision we are going for; he needs us to succeed and show his glory in how we reconcile, love and extend the kingdom. But it is also easy to feel hurt with those who feel the failure deepest. I, for one,  have been intimately connected with each church planter and have suffered with them and because of them. Many people who have been lead to take risks for the vision feel let down and burned out. It is tempting to quit and agree with people who think our ideas are grandiose, foolish, narrow, racist, inadequate, fill in the blank. A lot has been said about our attempts, rarely in public, and feelings of failure have a way of seeping into a body, just like they do to us personally; they are depressing. Risk breeds both unity and division. And you don’t always know what is behind the door on when you knock on it.

So now we have plans for restarting our Northwest mission in ways that learn from our reservoir of failing. I’m excited over what could be. I am heartsick over how many people feel betrayed and bitter over the last round. If we can keep going, it will surely be another sign of God’s grace. I think tackling impossible dreams gives us an opportunity to prove his grace. At the same time we are gearing up to “hive” the Center City congregation and plant another congregation. This includes another unknown experience to enter. We have never really done this, even though it was our preferred method from the beginning. We never had a congregation get to hiving size until now. For years we wondered if we would even survive to the next season. So we are looking for a pastor from among us (another innovation born of experience) and imagining what God will make of us.

Honestly, a lot of people don’t have any interest in this risk. They are barely believers or barely able to connect with us as a body. What’s more, some people suspect we should not even bother. They like us as we are or they would like us bigger, and less face -to-face. Some people feel like they have been through the ringer already, or their lives are too busy or they are too weak for more big efforts at extending our mission. We may fail again. I hope not. I’m going with the apostle Paul on this. I got saturated with something as I was reading through Philippians: “I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Christ, what has happened will turn out for [our] deliverance. I eagerly expect that [we] will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now and as always Christ will be exalted in [our] body, whether by life or by death.”

One Response to Church Planting Failures (2003)

  1. Jonathan Ziegler says:

    Thanks Rod, I know this is a few years old, but quite applicable at this moment in our history. I am ready to take the next risk in church planting! I, too, am an optimist… it will work if we make room for the Spirit to work.

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