In one of the episodes of StartUp, my wife Leah is asked about my mental health in relation to church planting. She describes the venture as “inhumane.” I didn’t know she felt that way, but she has seen firsthand the toll church planting can take on someone. It can really beat you up.
At this point, some people will say, “that’s an exaggeration.” Yes, many men and women have had great experiences with church planting. They’ve always had plenty of people, funding, volunteers, and baptisms. That’s great.
My sentiments reveal the experience of the rest of us: those who feel incredibly alone, who scare our families and ourselves with our irritability and anger, who don’t know if they will be paid each month, and who feel like we have to please everyone and are incapable of pleasing anyone.
If this is your experience, then what you are experiencing is inhumane.
I’d like to offer some reflections on a few major topics church planters have contacted me about since the podcast began airing.
“Thank you for being so honest and vulnerable” is the phrase I’ve seen most in emails since the beginning of the StartUp series.
People from across the spectrum, even if they disagreed with me on everything, were grateful for my openness about my weaknesses and struggles. This surprised me because I honestly don’t feel like I was that vulnerable. Perhaps that’s because some of my issues have forced me to come clean with my struggles, or because I’ve spent a lot of time in therapists’ offices talking about these things.
Or maybe this is because I have seen people’s lives destroyed because they felt like “faking it” was their only option. Regardless of the reasons, I came to a point in professional ministry where I decided that I was only going to do this if I could do it while truly maintaining my integrity. If I couldn’t be honest about my issues, doubts, and struggles, then why would I be a spiritual leader for others?
To everyone who was grateful for my vulnerability, I hope you find or have found a spouse, significant other, friend, and/or church community (even if you’re the lead pastor) that gives you ample space for honesty.
One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard about StartUp, Restoration Church, and me is that the podcast made church look like a business that is all about growth and money. Comments like “this is why I don’t go to church” and “this isn’t true for our church” could be found on Twitter, Reddit, and TGC’s comment section on Facebook.
Again, I want to emphasize that this is a secular podcast that is showing the similarities between business startups and church plants. Of course they’re going to focus on money and growth more than other aspects of church life. But what did you expect?
For the record, the church is not a business, the gospel is not a commodity, and our goal is not just to grow numerically and financially.
The church is a transnational entity, made of all people who worship Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s a claim no business can make!
But if we’re honest, I think we can admit just how much the practical underpinnings of the church in America mirrors the business world in 2018. “We’re nothing like Silicon Valley startups” is a funny thing to say when we use demographic studies, marketing tools, social media, websites, merchandise, and investors to start churches.
Moreover, we run churches like businesses with budgets, salaries, and insurance packages. The parallels are striking!
For me, I admit that our church is a lot like a business, and I don’t like it at all, but I don’t know what other option we have. If we want to meet our long-term goals for the community, we must become a self-sustaining entity. And in order to get there, we frequently need to utilize the same tools that businesses use.
Thus, if you’re a church planter who has a vision from God, use whatever resources and techniques are available to get up and running. And if you are a church that is financially stable with excess funds in your budget, consider supporting a church plant that complements your mission!
Church planting requires you to pour your life into starting a local body with no promise of it’s survival, or yours. And with that much skin in the game, it’s easy for one’s identity to become intertwined with the perceived success or failures of the church.
As pastors, I think we’d be wise to separate our identities from the church’s success or lack thereof. In the last several years, church planting has wrongly been perceived as an elite level of ministry. Men and women have dreamed of becoming church planters. God has indeed called them to do it.
Unfortunately, before they know it, their happiness is directly connected to the success of their church. I’ve learned that in order for me to stay sane, my role as a pastor cannot be my identity. If the church is doing great, it shouldn’t mean that I’m necessarily doing great. Likewise, if the church is failing, it doesn’t mean I’m failing. This past year a pastor encouraged me with the reminder “success is obedience, nothing more.”
In conclusion, I’m excited for all of the church plants that are popping up all over the world. I’m curious to see where the movement will be in ten years. May God be with us all.
AJ Smith is Lead Pastor of Restoration Church in Philadelphia.