Many of the richest times in ministry are also some of the most painful. I’ll never forget that time when I felt the small group meeting in our home had “finally arrived.” It seemed like a normal evening of hanging together, working through a text and talking about application, and then we shifted to prayer requests. I just kind of randomly picked a person in the room and figured we’d work our way around the room from there. The woman I chose sighed and shared with great frustration that she was again pregnant. This poor woman (and her husband) were tired, had multiple little children already, felt broke and were aggravated that she is apparently more fertile than ancient Mesopotamia. As a dad, who at one time had four children who were all ages 5 or under, I could feel her pain. But there was another pain being felt in that room as well. Sitting just beside her was another young mother. She and her husband already had one child, but they were praying and hoping for more. Despite doctors appointments and a litany of tests being run, they weren’t getting pregnant. They had no answers.
THE PAIN OF INFERTILITY
As the first mother shared, this struggling mother silently sat beside her with tears running down her face. When it became her turn to share, she emotionally shared that theirs was the exact opposite experience. They were actually praying to have a child, and not prayers, tests or appointments seemed to provide any answers. I watched the two moms and wondered how they’d interact with one another.
What I witnessed that night was truly beautiful. Each mother stepped into one another’s pain. There was no posturing on who had it harder. There were no “but you should just be thankful” type statements by either woman. They genuinely saw the other was struggling and they called out to Jesus to help each other. As I looked on, hurting for each family, I also silently rejoiced. The gospel had taken hold in our group in unexpected and beautiful ways!
In many ways, that small meeting in our living room has paralleled our relationships within Sojourn Network. Gatherings with other pastors are regularly full of discussions about new church plants, campuses forming and what seems like explosive growth. These experiences are not without strain and stress and all of these good things bring legitimate burden with them too. We’re experiencing an exciting time of fertility in the network. It’s been exciting and a joy to participate with these brothers. Yet our own church’s experience has been quite different. While we rejoiced in the gospel growth we’ve seen all around us, each exciting development also reminded us just how deeply we wanted to plant a church.
Our Church Is "Pregnant"
Today, I can rejoice that while writing this post, our church is “pregnant.” A planter has stepped forward. A core team is forming. A city has been chosen. It’s exciting and energizing, but I’ve also been surprised at what a relief it’s been too. Never did I realize all the feelings of doubt, fear and inadequacy I was harboring until the ship started sailing. It’s been a long road, and I believe many of us in the church were starting to wonder if something was wrong with us. But just like a family that struggles to grow (either through fertility struggles or adoption processes), once you finally get that child, they are perfect for you and you wouldn’t trade that child, or the timing, for anything.
Our church does not have the normal church planting story, if such a story actually exists. Our church was started in 1999 and took off rather quickly. In fact, the rapid growth rate caused some tensions with the mother church, leaving the plant to feel rather “orphaned.” But the planter and his wife persevered, and by 2002 they had seen enough body weight, particularly from parents with teens, that they felt it was time to hire a youth pastor. I arrived at Greenville Grace excited to start a youth group, but really had a larger goal in mind. I’d been told about this church and about the planter. Others had suggested I’d be a great church planter and felt that this church would serve as a great learning experience. We were all pretty sure that I would be planting a church out of Greenville Grace in no time. We stepped into a thriving church and the growth continued. In 2004, we hired Jason Bradshaw to become our Music pastor and the church continued to grow in number and depth. I then headed for a church planting assessment. If I “passed” the assessment, everything seemed good to go.
But it wasn’t the Lord’s plan. Though the assessment went well, the Lord used it to confirm to my wife and I that the timing for planting wasn’t right, and the desire to plant wasn’t even there for us. I wasn’t sure what the Lord was doing, but circumstances quickly confirmed the Lord was up to something. Just as we were preparing to enter our own permanent facility, the original planter expressed his desire to step down. As the elder team discussed and wrestled with our next phase, it started to become apparent that God did not want me to plant a congregation, but stay and become the Teaching Pastor of the church I was already in. Our church’s desire to plant was still there, but the timing just didn’t seem right.
Committed to church planting, we sought to keep the original planter on staff and make him the Pastor of Outreach. A large part of his job description would be to devoted to recruiting, training and coaching church planters. We were committed to planting and thought maybe this would be the route by which it would come. We tried this approach for a little over a year before a family health emergency forced Daniel Pierce, the man who originally planted our church, to move away. But it wasn’t simply an issue of filling his position. As we looked, the strategy wasn’t working. We’re rural. Jobs are scarce. We’re not really in a place that people are looking to move. The growth rate at our church (though consistent) had slowed down, so it wasn’t even like we were the kind of church potential planters were dying to experience. We were going to have to consider some other option.
And here’s the irony. I became the Teaching Pastor at Greenville Grace because I did not believe God wanted me to plant a church. However, God was calling our church to replant ourselves.
Our theology became a bit more focused and our philosophy of ministry became more consistent. We moved less toward an attractional model and really embraced “gathered, scattered” (terminology we greatly benefited from Sojourn Network introducing). We also had a seismic shift in believing that planters were supposed to be raised up from within churches, rather than simply recruited or coached by a local church. We began to restructure ourselves for this purpose. In, 2008 we hired Marshall Gipe as our Administrative Pastor so I could focus more of my attention on leadership development and we officially joined Sojourn Network in 2010. Both of these changes allowed us to be more prepared for the planting process. Now we thought, we’re not just wanting to plant a church, we’re doing something to make it happen.
Now, at this point I would have assumed the planting would finally happen. We wrestled for a while to find a proper way to equip and train leaders for our church. It took us a couple of years to find materials we felt trained and equipped well. It took us until 2012 to discover Porterbrook Network materials and see what a good fit they were for us. People we thought were on board with the vision began leaving and recruiting others to leave alongside them. Their absence meant out budget got much tighter, testing our resolve toward the mission. In all this, God kept our elder team united to press forward with the vision. A church planter, and a church plant, would come.
But even when godly, motivated men stepped forward, we ran into “setbacks.” Twice we thought we had a potential church planter on our staff, only for the Lord to direct them away from our church. Another man showed potential promise but proved to be a genuine heretic who’s life was a mess. Other guys showed promise or interest but other issues like finances or family concerns became obstacles. During this time, we came alongside two other churches providing a significant number or our people to help launch other church plants, but it wasn’t the same. It seemed like each time we thought we saw a church plant in our future, we’d get a little closer and realize it was all a mirage. It was emotionally exhausting and was starting to take its toll.
In the midst of one of our most depressing times, I prayed that God would continue to grant us hope. We had just seen a staff member step away from the church. Not only was he a great friend (and thankfully, still is), but we really thought he’d plant for us. His departure made me wonder if it was ever going to happen. “Sure, aspiring to plant a church is a great thing. It’s a biblical thing. But maybe it’s not our thing. Maybe we don’t have what it takes.” Then, our Worship Pastor, Jason Bradshaw returned from a sabbatical and informs us that God has put a burden on his heart for church planting. He was an unexpected source, but as elders, we decided to investigate it. Over and over again, God continues to confirm that he is calling Jason and Jodi Bradshaw to plant a church in Troy, Ohio. Correction: He’s calling Greenville Grace to plant a church! And now multiple families are looking to join them as they step out.
4 LESSONS ALONG THE WAY OF CHURCH PLANTING
Our church is 17 years old. I’ve been here for 14 of those and been the Teaching Pastor for the last decade. Jason has been with us since 2004 and we’ve been intentionally training leaders for the last four years. It’s not been fast and certainly hasn’t been easy. It’s not all been fun and there’s times when the vision didn’t seem to be confirmed by our circumstances. But as I sit here, with a “due date” in mind of our church, I can see all kinds of lessons God taught me, not just in the planting process, but in the time it has taken to do it:
Though no one will tell you church planting is a bad idea, many people will think so.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who says it’s wrong or a foolish pursuit to plant a church. How can you? It’s all over the Bible. However, when sacrifices are required to make it happen, don’t be surprised to discover there are actually quite a few people who choose not to support planting. Yes, you’ll lose people because of the plant. Some (many) who go to be a part of the plant. Others who simply don’t want to see church planting be a priority.
Lock arms with those who will lovingly keep you focused.
We joined Sojourn Network because we loved the vision. We still do. But we remain in Sojourn Network because we love the people. Throughout these years, the network has faithfully encouraged us, allowed us to celebrate with them and helped sharpen and train us for being a church planting church. We either would have been exhausted or exasperated without them!
Train leaders, not just planters.
- When we first began focusing on equipping, we put church planting front and center to that vision. But training up a church planter isn’t the only form of success. Raising up leaders (men and women) for ministry and service is genuine gospel fruit. By seeking to train in ways sufficient for a church planter, God has graced our church with more qualified elders, better teachers for women’s ministry and even internship opportunities for students!
Trust God's timing.
- He’s often working in ways we cannot see. Jason Bradshaw has always been one of the most godly men I know and a wonderful pastor. He faithfully participated in our training and has served in multiple ministry formats. Yet I wasn’t aware that God was also training and equipping him to be a church planter. This whole decade I’ve been wondering why God hadn’t raised up a church planter from within us, and this whole time, that’s exactly what he was doing!
I know our church will never be the fastest, biggest or best at most things. We’ll continue to celebrate the growth, expansion and planting they see happen at rates that only seem to be explained by divine intervention. We’re thrilled to see it! We’ll also have joy for the things God has done in our midst. But I’ll also rejoice knowing that God is faithful and good, and he is teaching us, even as we wait for those gospel-fueled ambitions to be realized.