June 24, 2016

Confessions of a failed church planter

Photo by Kristel Rae Barton

Americans don’t like the word “failure.” We like winning.

Christians in America don’t seem to be immune from this tendency, despite New Testament stories and teachings such as Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians on “the foolishness of the cross” (1:18) and “God’s weakness” being “stronger than human strength” (1:25). In the person of Jesus, God chose to show what true love and divine power looks like through something that the world (and initially Jesus’ disciples) considered to be a shameful death and humiliating defeat. A failure.

But failure of a different sort is what I experienced for the past few years while trying to plant a church in rural Iowa, after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University four years ago. I had spent four years in Virginia working on graduate degrees in theology and peacebuilding, getting my head full of big, wonderful ideas about the church and its participation with God’s redemptive mission in the world.

Then the heady days of university life gave way to a new chapter in a socioeconomically depressed community, my wife’s hometown in rural Iowa. We moved “back home” out of a sense of her being called to practice her craft as a mental health counselor in a community whose needs in that area are significant, and to be close to both our families.

“Bivocational ministry” was a buzzword in the missional church circles in which I congregated online through grad school. I have not once sensed a call to pastoral ministry in a traditional or established congregation, so I thought church planting and bivocationality were the recipe for me. I got a job with EMU that I could do from Iowa and we settled in. I fancied myself to be “seeking the peace of the farm town.”

To my knowledge there was no financial support for church planters, so in our district we got creative. I started working in a few administrative roles for the district in hopes that I would also be able to work on local church planting efforts.

What actually happened is that my two non-local, paying jobs left nothing for local church planting, and I hit a wall. I had been running on fumes the entire time anyway, trying like mad to find a suitable work/church/family configuration, but eventually the fumes of big ideas from grad school ran out. Nothing left in the tank but dust, disappointment, and exhaustion.

So last year I said “Enough.” I slowly phased myself out of the district roles and put the church planting project on indefinite hold. While I still currently work three-quarter-time for EMU, I’ve replaced the “church stuff” with starting a small business in our local community. In a strange way, that has satisfied my search for local belonging and purpose that the church planting efforts never quite did.

I have to confess that this experience has soured my hopes for what the Church of the Brethren might become in 21st century America, particularly in communities like ours where economic and social capital is severely constrained. Personally, I’ve had to work through my own self-imposed feelings of guilt, which hasn’t been easy or quick. It’s also been a real struggle to find a worshiping community in which to belong, and my family has been essentially church-less for two years.

But as I’ve told my spiritual friends and mentors in recent months: My faith in the institutional church and big-idea theologies might be shaken, but my faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ endures. By the work of the Holy Spirit through people who love and support me, I’ve learned from and grown through this failure, even as I continue to sort through the wreckage.

The holy, catholic, apostolic church will not, ultimately, fail. But its current earthly manifestations might have some more dying left to do before something new can be (re)born. I await with a sobered sense of hope in resurrections big and small.

Brian Gumm is an ordained minister in the Northern Plains District. He works remotely for Eastern Mennonite University in the school’s online education initiatives, and is the owner/coffee roaster for Ross Street Roasting Company. He lives in Toledo, Iowa.