Prior to planting The Restoration Project, I had taken and failed three church planting assessments. On most days, these results don’t bother me. In fact, I have become quite adept in rationalizing my “lower than average” scores. “These tests are written for entrepreneurs, not pastors,” I would say. “I still don’t know how many people I have ‘witnessed to’ (or ‘saved’) in the past year! How does one go about counting that anyway? Are we supposed to keep a record?” “No, I don’t have a lot of experience with starting ministries and helping them become sustainable. Is that a qualification? Isn’t that what I am trying to do now?” Sometime I wonder, two years into planting what I would deem to be a healthy(ish), growing, missional community, if I have the necessary experience or charisma to pass most of these assessments.
Despite my justifications, I still haven’t managed to forget my test results. To make it even worse, I keep them tucked away with the memory of a phone conversation with an experienced church planter who said, “Eh, I mean, you could try church planting, but nothing on this assessment is saying you should.” The many Skype sessions with regional and national church planters and pastors who demonstrated a similar ambivalence to my perceived calling are, in my mind, also viewed as evidence that I am not in the right line of work. The most damning voice, however, is my own. It usually appears as a continual stream of self-doubt. For years, I was scared to admit any sort of pastoral calling because I am not the “stereotypical” pastor…you know, the warm, make-you-feel-at-home, charitable, smiley, extrovert, who loves praying at every family dinner, drives a car with a clergy sticker, and isn’t super awkward while making small talk. (You know, that pastor. Yeah, I’m not that pastor.)
Church planting is hard. Past mistakes and failures don’t make it much easier. The temptation is to allow the constant critique to define who you are. (I would imagine most of us know this temptation well.)
A few weeks ago, a visitor said, “Josh…right? Your sermon…well, it’s sermons like that that are the reason why I hate the Church.”
A few months ago, a regular attender left TRP because he wanted to “go to church with more old people.” He explained, “This isn’t really a church. It’s more like a college group.” (We are a pretty young group, so we actually hear that a lot.)
During our last series of membership classes, a handful of folks didn’t join because of a disagreement on how best to love the LGBT community.
Rejection. Self-Doubt. Failure. Misunderstanding. The voices that tell you that you are not good enough or effective enough or spiritual enough.
One thing I am learning as a new church planter and pastor: It is too easy to let these voices dominate your church planting experience. It is too easy to let them dominate your ministry. It is too easy to let them dominate your life.
When I was in seminary, a friend of mine never looked at her grades. Instead, she collected every sealed envelope that was mailed out at the end of the semester. (Yep, this was pre-grades online.) After graduation, she burned them all. Unopened. Never to be seen.
Now, I don’t think we should stick our fingers in our ears when we receive critique and I don’t think that everything that is said should be burned in a sealed envelope. At times, the criticism is valid, and the assessment, especially the act of seeing our results on paper or reviewing them with those we trust, is potentially transformative. However, I am more concerned that too often we allow the negative to rule out all of the positive. But I am hopeful that we won’t define ourselves or our church communities by our “failed assessments,” either real or imagined. It is my prayer, that as ministers of the Gospel and as church planters, we would learn to trust the God who has called us into this difficult vocation, and that we would allow God’s voice to resound with words of affirmation and provide peace in the midst of our unsettledness.
And if it helps, seal up some of those memories and failures and rejections and set them on fire.
Josh James is: Church Planter, The Restoration Project in Salisbury, Maryland.