My Anglican Journey 7: Church Planting
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I’m going to conclude this series by talking about my experience in Anglican Church Planting.
I don’t consider myself to be a “Church Planter” for two reasons. First, I was not the initial planting priest in either of the two church plants I’ve been a part of. At Church of the Apostles, Columbia, I was a seminarian, and then a staff member under Fr Chip Edgar during its planting phase. At Resurrection I became the first full-time Rector, as the church was still in a “plant” phase. Fr Victor Oliver had helped the initial core group get organized, and the church was already meeting on Sundays for worship with 40-50 people.
That said, I’ve had the great opportunity to see two churches grow from plant to fully established local church, and to be a part of leadership on teams that helped make that happen.
Second, I am not a big risk-taking, entrepreneurial, dynamic guy. I enjoy seeing new things start up, and I love helping to build good, healthy, mission focused organizations. I love the creativity of church planting. Seeing things “as they are right now” and being comfortable with slow growth and change are okay with me. And yet in my mind I can’t say “I’m a church planter!” because I did not initiate a plant, and I’m not one of those cool, charismatic, front line type guys.
All that to say that anyone can be involved in helping to plant a new church. If I have done it, so can you.
And in a way, church planting was in my DNA. My dad was the planting pastor of his church in Ravenna, Ohio. Along with twelve people, they started the church I grew up in.
In many ways, an Anglican church plant is like any other church plant. Gather people, pray and talk about what a church is and get to know each other. Eventually find places to work and meet, plan worship services, and find ways to help newcomers and visitors find their place in the community. Establish good relationships in the community, and in the wider church. Help mentor new leaders. These things are common to almost all plants.
What is a bit different? One thing is that many of the core members of an Anglican plant are coming from various backgrounds. Even if most of them are lifelong Anglicans, that doesn’t mean that they share similar past church experiences! There are some pretty strong feelings on how to worship, evangelize, and organize. There are even parties organized for or against certain versions of the prayer book (anti 1979, pro 1928, common worship, etc). Some folks are more puritan, others more catholic, and still others more charismatic. Its not easy to try to guide everyone toward a common vision for planting a local community.
Another challenge is the liturgy. Anglicans are in the middle of a long conversation about what is essential and what isn’t. The planting Rector ends up having to be a “local liturgist.” Lots of decisions that used to be made by the bishop or were simply part of the Prayer Book (or custom) are now made at the local level. So while you are planting, you are also trying to discern what kind of music, ceremonial, and vesture is appropriate. And often you can’t “pass the buck” to the Bishop! Thankfully, we will have an ACNA Prayer Book in a few years, and I think it will help with that.
My goal was to keep the basic Christian worshipping tradition. If we were not able to add something due to the stage we were at, I would talk about it, and then we would add it in later. People were afraid that we were going to go to one extreme or the other. I tried to keep us focused on the prayer book tradition of Word and Sacrament, rather than on various Anglican parties. Our people really ended up catching this vision, and I think the community formed a shared vision of a blended service. Not that everyone was happy with every aspect, but at least we were able to worship together and share a sense of commonality in that.
Each year we added in some new feast or tradition. For example, we added the Epiphany in year 2 and the Easter Vigil in year 3. We began using vestments in the church’s year 1, after Sunday worship had been going on for about a year. None of these changes were “sprung” on people. But we did introduce them gradually.
Another challenge of planting, quite frankly, was turbulence at the higher levels. All of our bishops were very pastoral and helpful leaders. Yet we ended up with 3 bishops in the first six years of the church. Most of that was due to the birth pains of new movements, and have somewhat settled out. Most of us have ended up with the Anglican Church in North America, so we’re more united. However, it was challenging to have changes and transition above you while you are trying to lead a church plant.
We had the usual financial challenges. We had the blessing of receiving support from our network, and eventually grew out of that and into local funding. But along the way, there have been the challenges of being too dependent on outside funding, or on special donations. We had many a vestry meeting to discuss the fact that we were 3-6 months from running out of funds. Fun times. But our vestry and leaders persevered, and we were thankful to be able to continue on.
My experience as a Rector of a plant. Honestly, I did think of our church as a plant when we were planning organizational stuff. But as a pastor, I just did my thing. I talked to people, prayed with people, met new people. I focused on helping newcomers and visitors connect. I tried to identify leaders, and spend time with them. I wanted to build a pastoral team of lay and ordained people.
I had some priestly help for the first year. But I ended up being the only clergy for about 18 months. I preached, celebrated, and visited. I did take vacation, but wasn’t able to be away as much on Sundays. It was challenging, but it stretched me. Eventually we developed a team of preachers and had another priest to help out. I loved seeing that team spirit develop. Today that priest, Gene Prince, is the Rector there. One other man, Bill Humble, has become a priest and is Rector at another church. A couple that was on our pastoral team, John and Tammy Rivenbark, are helping plant another church. I love that.
I learned a lot. I learned that I needed to pick up the phone more and talk to people, rather than sending long emails. I found my preaching voice (thankfully folks encouraged me until I did!). I learned that people have really good ideas if you would just listen more (I’m a “know-it-all” if you hadn’t noticed). I walked through life and death with the people. We prayed, we cried, we sang praise, we tried to discern how to fulfill our mission. In the end, I learned how to be more open to others, how to communicate better, and how to better encourage people to be free in God’s grace.
I learned also through personal burnout. I found myself physically exhausted eventually. I wasn’t really resting, even though I would take a day off. I was becoming tired and tense. Through spiritual direction and counseling, and a really cool stress-reduction class, along with the friendship of my wife, my colleagues, lay leaders, and bishops, I began to emerge from this burnout slowly. I learned that this phase almost always happens to anyone in ministry, especially in planting. I’m glad that I had the support to grow through it, rather than becoming self-destructive. I hope that just writing this will help other pastors, planters, and lay leaders know that its normal to get burned out sometimes, and that you should identify it as early as you can and get some refreshing help.
What is it like to pastor an Anglican church plant? They are all different, even though we share many things in common. My experience has been of challenge, of frustration, burnout along with grace, love, and fulfillment. I’ve met and worked with some wonderful lay people and clergy. I’ve had fun and yet have found it to be hard work at the same time. It was definitely the toughest job I’ve ever had. The only harder job was probably the people who had to work with me!
But I really believe that we need to be planting new, faithful churches in North America, and that Anglicans have a lot to offer in terms of “re-churching” people, and in terms of evangelism. So even though I often felt like a failure, or wasn’t sure what I was doing, I have always felt that it was time well spent. As my mentor always told me, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Accepting that we aren’t the Messiah is helpful in church planting.
I often wished our plant would grow to thousands of people, and in my worst moments I wanted to be a hip, cool church planter guy. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t cut out to be a hipster. And yet a nerd like me was able to serve, and together with our committed lay leadership, we saw a church established. If I was going to give anyone advice, I would say just be yourself, be steady, and keep going.
I have never led a capital campaign or led a building process. Thankfully, Fr Gene has done both a few times. He is also much better than I am at outreach and at community development. Resurrection is preparing to purchase and remodel their building. They have seen new folks join and are set to continue growing in spirit and in numbers. I am so glad to have been a part of seeing that community established. Please consider supporting a new church plant, whether by leading it, joining it, or by supporting it financially. Its an amazing gift to a community to see a new, gospel centered, healthy church community birthed.
Thank you very much for reading “My Journey”. Your messages and comments have been very encouraging and challenging. Check back with us in the next few months as other Anglicans share their own journeys.
My Anglican Journey by Greg Goebel
- Pastor’s Kid
- Grief, Prayer, and Love
- Pastoral Ministry
- Church Limbo
- The Plunge
- Back to the Future
- Church Planting
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