3 Lessons from the Trenches in my first 18 months

In May of 2013 my wife and I packed up our Indianapolis apartment after only seven months of marriage and moved across the country for our first church planting experience in rural Northwest Colorado. It has been an incredibly formative, challenging and joyful process. About five months ago I entered into DWELL Online Learning Track through Frontline Church Planting. The program has provided a space and community where I can process some of the tensions that have come with planting. I have had to navigate 3 tensions in this season of ministry. I also want to share some rhythms I have learned to incorporate in my life that have helped me walk through these tensions. My lessons have been learned through failure, experience and coaching and collaboration with Frontline.

Tension #1: Just because you are surrounded by people does not mean you are sharing life and being vulnerable.

A lot of planters experience loneliness; people in any realm of ministry experience loneliness. The pressures of ministry and life can cause you to shrink away from being vulnerable and open with others. A plant becomes a burden if any one person tries to carry it alone. As planters, we lighten the load when we let others in and find folks to share our struggles and failures with. This is a tension for planters because even if you build core teams, pour into leaders and form ministry teams, it doesn’t always equal sharing life with others. And if we don’t practice the rhythm of vulnerability, planting a church can quickly become a burden too big to bear because you can feel like you are carrying this thing alone.

Rhythm: Vulnerability
This doesn’t mean you open up for 45 minutes every Sunday morning. For me, it meant finding a small, tight-knit community where I could be honest about the struggles of planting. This could be a group of local pastors, a small group of close friends or a spouse. Frontline is one of the few support systems I have chosen to put into place to make sure I am not heading toward burn-out. It is a place where I hear from others, share difficulties I am dealing with, get coaching, and learn from other pastors and planters. This has been a needed life-giving space for me as I process all the normal stuff that comes from planting.

Tension #2: Our default can be to base our identity on unrealistic and unhealthy metrics for the successful ministry.

One of the healthiest perspective shifts I have learned through Frontline is “success vs. faithfulness.” Attendance, budget and buildings are typical measurements for success in our church culture. Whatever our metrics are, they are always geared toward a certain definition of growth and success. These are good things, but it is important to distinguish what is God’s role and what is ours. Thankfully, the great commission doesn’t include a quota for attendance, size of budget or buildings; it simply says, “go and make disciples.” That is what we are to be faithful to – to make disciples and equip the saints for ministry. Don’t mishear me, I am not down on certain metrics. They have their place and God can certainly works through them. But if we are not careful, we will seek our value in those metrics, and if we don’t find the kind of success we hoped for it can leave us bitter, burned out and cynical. All we can do is be faithful in the things He has called us to, the things we can control. The rest is up to God. We can cultivate the soil and put up structures that aid growth but we cannot manufacture authentic life-change.

Rhythm: Palms Up Living
I borrowed a concept from my sending church in Indianapolis called “palms up living.” It is simply a posture of praying where we intentionally surrender our desire to grasp for control in all areas of our life. Instead, we choose to give it all up to God, trusting in His goodness and sovereignty. There is something powerful in the physical reminder of unclenching my fists and opening my palms up to joyfully acknowledge that God has got this. This rhythm of prayer has been so freeing in my life as I seek to remind myself that my identity rests in the Gospel – that I am an adopted son of God and that I am a beloved friend of the King.

Tension #3: Personal Holiness is not the “sexy” part of planting, but it is crucial to your ministry.
I have experienced how our personal pursuit of God can be neglected because of all the things we are doing for God. A lot of planters (and pastors in general) are go-getters for the kingdom, constantly thinking of ways to develop, grow, disciple and reach others. These are great things but we have to be careful to not let them replace sitting at the feet of our king. It is the Mary/Martha tension. In Luke 10:38-42 where Martha is working in the kitchen preparing her house for Jesus and she is annoyed that her sister Mary is just sitting at Jesus’ feet while she does all the work. And so she calls Mary out and complains to Jesus, “I am doing all of this stuff for you and Mary is being a bum, why aren’t you telling her to help me?” (paraphrased, of course). And Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha isn’t wrong in “doing” for Jesus, but where she missed the boat is neglecting to pursue God in intimacy – to simply sit at His feet. From personal experience, I can say that I can have Martha’s tendency to do, do, do and neglect to just rest in my relationship with God. If we do not set up rhythms of resting in Jesus then we will be operating out of our own strength and, in my case that generally doesn’t help anybody. Frontline has been a great reminder of this tension that we face as ministry leaders.

Rhythm: “Shut the door”
When Jesus teaches us how to pray in the Sermon on the Mount, right before the Lord’s Prayer. Before He gets to the content He starts with the context; He tells us to go into our room and shut the door to talk with our Father in secret. Obviously He isn’t limiting us to our room since He prayed in boats, on mountainsides, in gardens and other “lonely places.” Instead, shutting the door means spending time alone with our Father. This gets harder and harder in the chaos of church planting, but I have slowly found how to actively fight for that time and space to sit at the feet of Jesus and rest in His presence. We cannot neglect our personal pursuit of God for the sake of Kingdom work, we must first start with our intimacy with God before we pour ourselves out to others.

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