July 11, 2011

The Second Year of Church Planting

We finished our first year of church planting under a tent in a muddy pit with 31 water logged people. When we got home that afternoon, Kyle said, "It feels like we're starting over." We didn't have a meeting place, we barely had a core group, and we were emotionally beaten down.

We--the fearless leaders--were full of fear and doubt.

A few days later, after months of waiting on word, we were approved to meet for church in a local elementary school. The fresh start in a more credible, respectable location re-energized us, catapulting us into our second year.

And we grew, one person and one relationship at a time. I was especially thrilled when a few families with young children committed to our church, seeing as we had been the only family with kids throughout the whole first year. Six months after moving into the elementary school, we hovered close to passing the 100 person milestone and we celebrated when we finally did. But we also knew the work wasn't done so we kept going, one person and one relationship at a time.

One hundred is great, but 100 is also fragile. Unlike a long-established church with 100, there are no deep growing roots. We were a church built upon the young and transient in a young and transient town. We had earned some respect and credibility in the community, but were still newcomers trying to prove ourselves trustworthy.

Privately, I questioned God and His ways. Lord, we put in the hard work during that difficult first year. Where is the explosive growth? I wanted to coast into the second year after the sprint of the first. I was too tired and unprepared to run the distance marathon.

If the first year is characterized by discouragement and spiritual attack, the second is fraught with danger. I have never been wife to a plumber, firefighter, teacher, farmer, doctor, pharmacist or anything else besides a minister. I imagine that every job requires hard work and holds imminent dangers. But there are spiritual dangers lurking in the second year of church planting for the church planter, his wife, and his family that are unique to the calling.

This topic came up at a recent church planting conference that my husband attended with several lay leaders from our church. The speaker relayed the difficulties of the work and exhorted the church planter to love and protect his family from the demands of ministry. Later, one of the lay leaders said to Kyle, "That isn't any different than what every husband should do." "Yes," my husband said, "but a church planter and his wife are more susceptible to exhaustion, burnout, and discouragement because of the spiritual and emotional burdens that they carry and that they help others carry. If we are not spiritually healthy and keeping close watch over our marriages and homes, it has far-reaching effects."

He's right. And if a church planter and his wife are not diligent about nurturing their marriage or family or nurture their church more than their home, it will begin to show in the second year. Little cracks and divisions become wide crevices.

As we grew the second year, Kyle and I recognized these dangers to our spiritual and emotional health:

  • Exhaustion: Despite its discouragements and difficulties, the first year of church planting is the honeymoon period. Energy is high, adrenaline is pumping, and the sprint is on. When we reached the second year, I realized that we had only just begun, that as we grew we would face new and different challenges. I was tempted to dwell in the already done rather than the still to come. I hadn't paced myself, which led to burnout.
  • Lack of Structure: The second danger is closely related to exhaustion and the greatest danger by far to our personal health: Not purposefully setting a familial and marital structure that can withstand years of church planting. All that we had established in our "previous life"--date nights, clear boundaries between ministry and family, family days--immediately flew out the window when we started church planting. The boundaries between family, marriage, even personal life and church planting are muddy. By the second year, the lack of boundaries was greatly affecting us. We spent that year drawing lines between ministry and marriage and ministry and family, effectively protecting our spiritual and emotional health. That structure has continued to evolve as our church grows. 
  • Pride: In the second year, pride appears in different forms. One form says, "We did this" and calls attention to itself, desiring recognition and appreciation. Another form says, "I am responsible for the people in our church and for any future growth. It depends on me." Yet another says, "I've worked really hard so now I'm going to coast."
  • Being Lulled to Sleep: The first year, we are acutely aware of the spiritual battle raging in our city. We see everyone we meet through spiritual eyes. We pray for God to move in our community and for Him to please use us. In the second year, as momentum is building, it's easy to forgetting that there is still a spiritual battle raging. If we're not careful, we are lulled to sleep in our comfortable relationships, our busy schedule, and our church circles. 
  • Ungratefulness: In our exhaustion lurks the danger of ungratefulness. We see the holes, the needs, the gaps, the failures, the weaknesses. We see how God has not come through for us how we wanted or the person who left the church. We fail to remember what has happened: the answered prayers, the movement of the Spirit, the opened door in the community, the supernatural financial support, the fruitful connections. Ungratefulness and forgetfulness is dangerous because it fuels our discouragement and that nagging thought of throwing in the towel and walking away from the whole thing.
I'm sure I missed some second-year dangers. What would you add to the list?