An interesting thing happened to me on the way to church planting: I got offered a 70k a year job out of the blue.
In 2003, before we felt drawn (or pushed… pushed probably fits better!) to plant a new community in Portland, OR. I had been sending out a lot of resumes. I knew it was time to get out of the media job I had been doing at a large church and back into pastoral ministry, and to that end I was putting out the feelers far and wide. But… I kept being number 2. It came down time and again to me and someone else, and yet in the end- always someone else.
At about that time, God really grabbed my attention. I was told my media job would be ending, and I’d have 3 months to figure out what came next. We had just bought a house, gotten pregnant… mild panic began to set in.
I woke up one morning, and was laying in bed, resolving to redouble my efforts at resume-sending, when my beautiful wife opened her eyes and the first words out of her mouth were, “Well, we could sell the car, sell the house…”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I don’t think it will get that bad. I’m sure we’ll find something.”
“No,” she said, “I mean, so we can plant a church! It’s what you’ve always said you wanted to do.”
Always said, and never really had the nerve to do.
Until that day. That was the first of many conversations that day which God used to move me from “I need to send resumes out” to “We need to plant a church.” October 27th, 2003. It was a big day.
About a week later, I got a call, though. It was someone offering me a job. No thanks, I told him. We’re going to plant a church. 70k? Uh… no, no… we’re going to plant a church. Over the next couple of weeks I kept getting the same call, from the same guy. It was as though my resolve to plant just triggered something in him- “That’s EXACTLY the kind of person we want for this position!” he told me repeatedly.
I’ll confess- there were a few moments where I looked at my pregnant wife and thought- really? Wouldn’t the wise thing be to take this job instead of planting a church?
As I prayed it through, I felt God pretty clearly putting the question to me: Do you really want to plant a church? All this stuff you have been saying about the people who are missing from the standard evangelical churches in Portland, all this about My kingdom, about presenting the Good News of Jesus in ways that people who aren’t part of the church world can grab ahold of… Did you mean it? Because here’s a simple way out if you didn’t.”
I meant it. We turned down the offer, stepped out and planted a church community. But I’ve since seen that scenario played out time and again with new church planters. It seems to be something of a motif in the way God often (not always, but often) works.
I saw it again 7 years later in a very similar question I heard.
We were in year 7 of our community, the year I’ve been told marks something of a speed bump for church planters/new communities. The year it gets hard. The year you either endure or fold.
For us, it looked like a general season of churn, hard conversations, an uphill battle to flag some lagging enthusiasm, a need to refocus on mission… And lots of fun conversations about finances.
We had never missed a paycheck in 7 years or been unable to pay any of our other of our pastors. We all either did work on the side or raised support, so none of us looked to the community for 100% of our income, and yet- it was still the majority and very much needed. And then, one month in year 7, we looked at the bank account and giving trends and realized- we may not be able to make payroll. Further, our treasurer, the only one with a real detailed view into who gave (someone’s gotta do those tax statements!) let us know- so far that year, only 56% of community members had given anything at all. The conversation that came out of us letting the community know both of those facts was hard, but very good. In the end, people stepped up and a month later we were actually OVER what we asked for from the community for the first time that year.
All good? Not exactly. The next month we were back in the same position, wondering if we were going to get a paycheck, wondering why that month only 15% of our community had chipped in to pay the bills. I was seriously asking myself, “Are we really all in this together? Do we care? Or are we just playing church?”
I woke up one morning with a heavy heart, thinking about all of this- wondering what the answers to those questions were. As I lay there, I started praying “God, please… I want this thing we started to continue, to live on…”
And that’s when I heard the familiar Voice: “Really? Why?”
God was asking me- is this about building a church? An institution? Or is it about something, or Someone, else? All this stuff you have been saying about the people who are missing from the standard evangelical churches in Portland, all this about My kingdom, about presenting the Good News of Jesus in ways that people who aren’t part of the church world can grab ahold of… Do you mean it?
And that’s when I realized God had brought me full circle.
There in year seven, I feel God pretty clearly asking me- What do you really want? What’s it about for you?
I believe in church- but church isn’t an end to itself. I wanted a paycheck that month, and was occasionally tempted to start looking at the pastor porn of Ministry Job Boards and dreaming about other places where things might be more predictable. But…. For me, the church we planted was a means to an end, and the end was and is Jesus.
Here’s what I really want: I want Jesus. I know church comes with Him (it is His body and bride after all), but first and foremost, I want Jesus. I want the church we planted to go on, not for my sake, but for His– and for the sake of those He is loving into the kingdom through that community.
Working that out in my heart brought a lot of freedom.
Eventually I realized I’d probably never get to pastor the fully committed, already mature and financially stable community that, in my weaker moments I’ve always daydreamed about. More, I’ll always, to one extent or another, be dealing with questions like this, because I’ll always be working to move hearts and minds (including my own) from places of immaturity towards growth and greater depth of commitment to Jesus and one another.
But I’m okay with that. If Jesus is the end, and ministry (paid, volunteer, whatever) is just the means, I can be content whether ministry feels uphill or easy, a struggle or a breeze. I can be content knowing whether or not my church “makes it,” God used it and brought me and a good number of other people closer to Himself. And that’s enough.
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.