Magazine article The Christian Century

Short-Term but Vital

Magazine article The Christian Century

Short-Term but Vital

Article excerpt

I sat down next to a pastor at a conference and between bites of salad, our conversation turned to the subject of new churches. My lunch partner shook his head. "Our presbytery has thrown so much money into starting new churches. It's a waste! One church in particular has been around for five years and still isn't self-sustaining. They're going to close soon," he scoffed.

I stabbed at my lettuce and struggled to contain my frustration. I often speak about new communities at conferences, so I hear people cry, "Waste!" often. Governing bodies become angry at the energy, time, and money that go into new churches, especially when they don't see a payoff right away.

If I didn't work closely with people who planted new congregations, I might have nodded my head in agreement. But having listened to the struggles of church planters and having walked alongside them when new communities close, I see things differently.

I've learned that pastors who start new congregations take incredible financial and emotional risks. They often begin with a three-year grant and a denomination's expectation that they will soon raise six figures. Raising that much money while forming a worshiping community can be daunting to even the most gifted church planter. Often they sacrifice their savings or work full-time without pay to start the community. They implore investors, grantors, and donors to give to the work.

If we compare church planters to traditional pastors who walk into jobs with incomes, property, musicians, and active members and still have difficulty moving their congregations from a deficit to a balanced budget, we get a sense of how difficult the job can be.

The risk is emotional as well as financial. Pastors who start new churches sense that God is calling them to the work. They have faith that they can do it. They ask people to be a part of something new, making projections and praying earnestly that the Spirit will move all who are involved.

Often the pastor's vocational identity becomes wrapped up in starting a new congregation. When the community doesn't meet its projections, planters can become anxious and fearful. If the fledgling group folds, pastors feel they've let people down. They even worry that they've let God down. Having colleagues scoff is like watching friends dance on their graves.

It's hard to know exactly what percentage of new churches actually take root. We don't have a good way of tracking new communities, because some of them start without denominational oversight. …

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