By Steve Pike, Founder of Urban Islands Project
Uh oh. I failed as a church planter.
Recently, I had an amazing conversation with a courageous leader who attempted to start a church in a city neighborhood and failed. I characterize the conversation as amazing because of how the failed starter has responded to the terribly difficult circumstances surrounding his failure.
Here’s the short version of his story. He and his wife sensed a definite call to start a church in the heart of the city. Following the guidance of his sending organization, he rented a fantastic venue in one of the most rapidly growing neighborhoods in the city. He recruited an enthusiastic team of young adults and spared no expense in creating logos, banners, signage, websites and swag to give the church a vibe of excellence and relevance. He himself is an outstanding communicator and he recruited a worship band that was off-the-charts good. According to the guidance of his sending organization, he did everything exactly right. This should have been an out-of-the-park home run.
Instead, less than two years after their launch Sunday, they made the painful decision to close the church. Here are some of the factors that contributed to their decision:
- The cost of doing church the way they were doing it was unsustainable. They basically were digging a hole of debt from day one, assuming that at some point, the congregation would grow to the point where they would be able to break even and have enough left over to pay off their startup debts. That day never arrived and the pastor and his wife had to declare personal bankruptcy.
- The relentless financial pressure coupled with the gut-wrenching loss of key leaders who were not committed for the long haul took its toll on the pastor and his wife. He ended up dealing with suicidal thoughts and realized he needed to reach out for help. His elders insisted that he take a break and provided for some intensive counseling. While he was on the emotional mend, his wife carried the church on her back. They both ended up in a place of emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
- The breaking point was when a team member started spreading untrue rumors about the pastor and his wife. They decided they’d had enough and shut the church down.
- A large church in the metro area heard about their plight and offered to bring them on staff with a manageable portfolio to give them a place to heal and recover.
They’ve still got a ways to go, but they are both on the better side of the recovery process. I asked this courageous church starter to share with me the lessons he and his wife had taken away from this experience. Here’s what he said:
- Church planting organizations using models that prioritize “return on investment” as their primary focus are not a good fit for the city. He followed the guidelines of his organization to a “T” and learned firsthand that those guidelines are not appropriate for urban settings. Lesson: work with an organization that understands the unique challenges and opportunities of urban planting.
- Although his organization has a national platform, it was too easy for him to suffer in silence because he had very few peers that were geographically close to him. Lesson: bend over backwards to get connected to a local group of peers.
- Having access to a lot of money fast from one source with very little accountability was not a good thing for him. There are two lessons here: Lesson 1 – Take the time to cultivate income from multiple revenue streams and have a realistic financial plan in place that will take you through the first five years before you ever start. Lesson 2 – Healthy accountability is a good thing. Be intentional about setting up a good process for accountability and value it as a safety valve instead of seeing it as a problem to work around.
- He was unprepared for the challenges of managing a proactive team of volunteers. Lesson: Team members need to be pastored just like everyone else in the church. In addition to adding value, team members will have issues and create drama.
This was a bittersweet conversation for me. I hate it when any church starter goes through a catastrophic failure experience. The fact that this failure was totally preventable hurts even more. But I was encouraged that this leader has learned some valuable lessons and has decided that he is willing to try again, should the Lord call him to do so.
Part of the mission of Urban Islands Project is to drastically reduce the number of these kinds of catastrophic failures. They hurt too bad and cost too much, both in financial and human resources. If you are sensing God’s call toward starting a church in the city, the Urban Islands Experience is a great place for you to take your next step of obedience. Click here to find out more and to register.