The Story of an Established Church Pastor who Became a Church Planter... And Returned Again

I always said I wanted to be a church planter someday.  Even before church planting became "cool," I always thought it would be a great adventure to start a new church from scratch, particularly in an under-reached area.  I distinctly remember attending a conference where a bi-vocational church planter spoke, and being moved to tears by his story of walking by faith and seeing God do amazing things.  I thought, "I want to try that before my ministry is done."  But then reality set in.  I was the pastor of a 100 year-old church.  I had been there for several years.  The church was growing, it provided a good living for us, and our entire family loved the church and the community.  We were firmly entrenched, and we were happy!  The idea of planting a church seemed little more than a dream.

Still, as time went by, I would occasionally raise the subject with a friend or colleague.  When our church began a missions partnership with an association in suburban Chicago, my heart broke for the communities of 100,000+ people who had few evangelical churches to attend. (And in some cases, none!)  I would often ask myself the question, "How can I spend my life ministering in an area that has a church on every corner, when there are so many people in need of the gospel just a few hours away?" 

Then came the day I got the text.  One of the friends I had visited with in the past (a missions pastor of a large church) said, "What would you think about planting a church in Indianapolis?"  At first I was closed to the idea.  But then I agreed to hear him out.  To make a long story short, after much thought and prayer, we agreed to take the plunge and move to Indianapolis to plant a church.  While I could go into much more detail on that part of it, let it suffice to say it was a gut-wrenching decision.  One night I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably, and the tears just wouldn't stop.  In the days before we told the church, I was literally physically ill, even going to urgent care at one point with what I feared were signs of a heart attack.  (It turned out I was carrying stress/tension in my shoulder/chest muscles, which was simulating heart pain.)  We had been at our church for ten years and had lived in the Ozarks our entire life.  We were leaving behind family, friends, and everything that was familiar to us.  In retrospect, perhaps the decision should not have been that hard.  But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Our church was very gracious when we told them the news.  In fact, they could not have been more wonderful.   Not only did they give us a very generous severance package, but 20-30 of them showed up to help us load our moving truck, and two of the church members actually drove the moving truck to Indianapolis for us!  On our final Sunday at the church, they recognized us with a plaque and a meal, and laid hands on us in prayer.  Many tears were shed that day, and many hugs were shared.  Never has there been a pastor any more loved.  That is what we left behind when we decided to plant a church in Indianapolis.

At this point, I could probably write a novel on all that happened once we got there.  (And perhaps I will one day.)  But to make a long story short, I don't know that it was ever quite "right."  Don't get me wrong, we had a very good experience in Indianapolis.  We came to love the city and our neighbors.  It was good for us to learn that we could move to an area outside our home region and be okay.  It taught us faith and reliance on God.  And I have no doubt that we grew spiritually very much during our season in Indy.  But, at the same time, I came to realize I didn't have the passion for my work that I should.  

Almost from the very beginning, I found myself saying, "I wish we could fast-forward to the point where I have a church to pastor!"  I wasn't enjoying the process of building a church from the ground up.  In fact, I was suffering somewhat from an identity crisis.  I felt like a shepherd with no sheep.  I was doing some supply preaching, but it wasn't the same as teaching the same group of people week after week.  I was a square peg in a round hole.  We worked very hard at getting out and meeting people, and trying different approaches to get something going, and nothing ever really clicked.  We tried meeting in our home.  We tried meeting at the park.  We tried meeting in Pizza Hut.  We finally had a series of worship services in a fire station that were seeded with members of a nearby church.  Occasionally, we would see signs of progress - perhaps a visiting family or two - but nothing lasting or substantial.

After about six months, we decided the time had come for a change.  It was time to transition back into pastoral ministry.  The lack of tangible "success" in our efforts certainly played into our decision, but it actually wasn't the primary motivation.  (Most people would say six months isn't enough time to determine whether or not a church plant is going to "go," and I would agree.)  Our main reason for making the change was that I came to understand that my God-given passion and giftings, are in shepherding the established church.  For all the frustrations that typically come with pastoring an older congregation (bureaucracy, tradition, etc.) I found myself missing the established church.  I knew it was time to get back to doing what I was truly called to do, and there was no sense in wasting any more time or resources to figure it out.

Shortly after I made it known publicly that I was looking to transition back into pastoral ministry, our beloved Selmore Baptist Church contacted me to ask if I would prayerfully consider returning to serve as their senior pastor.  (During the months we were away, God had not led the church to call a new pastor, so the position was still open.)  Initially, I was hesitant.  But again, after much thought and prayer, I accepted their invitation to come in view of a call, and the church welcomed us back with open arms.  I will always remember one of our senior deacons calling me during that time of seeking God's will and saying, "Come home."  And we are glad we did!  We love our church!

In telling this story, please don't hear me say it was a mistake for us to go to Indianapolis.  I don't know that to be true.  What I do know is that we were following God's will to the best of our understanding and ability at the time we made the decision.  And while I am still sorting out everything that's taken place this last year (we've only been back in Missouri for seven weeks as I write this), I am convinced that time will reveal God's purposes for our season in Indianapolis - not only for us, but for the people in Indy and for His church at Selmore.

My main purpose in sharing this story is to be an encouragement to those pastors like me who are serving in established/traditional settings, and considering the possibility of church planting.  If I could communicate only one thing to you, it would be this, "Pastoring the established church and planting a new church are not the same thing." My advice to you would be to pray long and hard before making this transition.  If you have any doubt, talk to those spiritual mentors who know you best and let them speak into your life.  

Finally, if you have a passion for church planting, but don't believe it is your calling/gifting to plant a new church from scratch, you do have at least a couple options:  1)  One option may be to replant an existing congregation.  Don't overlook this possibility.  Replanting is growing in acceptance, and is excellent stewardship of God's resources.  2)  If you're like me, you may come to the conclusion that the greatest contribution you can make to planting new churches is to lead your established congregation to support and resource new church plants.  There is no shame in this, and many more churches need to step up to the plate in this area.

Please feel free to contact me by email or social media if I can be of further encouragement/support to you in this area.  Blessings.