The following is a guest post by Joe Martin. Joe is a member of Ashland Church in Richmond, KY. He is a husband, a father, and a lecturer at the University of Kentucky.
The memory is still vivid for me. Walking into the evening service of our newly formed church, my wife and I were met with the sight of people hugging and crying in the foyer. We soon realized that our pastor, who had just preached that morning, would not be coming back. I was blindsided. While our church was not filling the school gymnasium we had recently “grown” into (if anything, our attendance was going in the opposite direction), we had no indication that anything was amiss. Yet, apparently one conversation with our deacons was enough for our shepherd to drive home one Sunday afternoon and never come back.
I was a young seminarian at the time, and it seemed like this was only one in a string of ecclesial heartbreaks. Already I had experienced a church in such turmoil that “conflict resolution experts” were brought in to conduct interviews and provide a report to the congregation; my brother and former pastor (both ministry heroes to me) were in part the objects of this conflict. Eventually, through tears, my wife and I left that church, simultaneously promising each other that we would do everything possible to never leave a church again. Soon after this we joined a church plant, that consisted largely of members of the church we left (some might prefer to call this a church split). As this church was beginning to get off the ground, I was stunned once again, this time by a crisis that intersected my ministry hopes and my own family. Nevertheless, I was determined that I could serve God in our new church under our new pastor – until he left that Sunday afternoon.
Soon after our pastor’s untimely departure, I was asked to serve on our pastor search committee, which proved utterly unable to reach a consensus. While faithful preachers brought the word to us each week, we continued to see our attendance numbers decline. Eventually, a mere handful could be found in our weekly services and the possibility of dissolving loomed palpably – that is, until our interim pastor put us in contact with a church in a neighboring county, Ashland Avenue Baptist. Providentially, they were considering planting a church in our city. Quickly it became apparent that this possibility was a win-win: our church would be saved from dissolution, and Ashland would get a ready-made church-plant. So, Ashland agreed to “adopt” us.
While I was relieved at the prospect of never going to another pastor search committee meeting, as well as salvaging the church my wife and I loved, I was still reeling from the aforementioned string of ministerial catastrophes. I liked to think that I was what Paul would describe as “fainthearted,” but the reality was probably closer to “overly introspective.” I soon learned that orientation toward self was a poor match for my status as an adoptee. My new pastors never bothered to ask how I felt about the whole ordeal, and didn’t seem to “love on” their fledgling congregation in the way I had hoped they would. Instead, and much to my surprise, they immediately turned our focus outward. What would guests think of our unkempt foyer? Do visitors know where they are supposed to park? Would anyone actually feel comfortable leaving their toddler alone with a stranger in the broom closet we called a children’s area? These were the types of pointed questions being asked of us, and they were not personally edifying.
I was also generally perturbed by the fact that we were the ones being asked to do all these things. Ashland was a large, financially secure, and well established church. When they “adopted” us, I remember feeling like the pinned down and overrun soldiers in films I’d seen who, just when all hope is lost, see a torrent of their own cavalrymen rushing down a nearby hillside. I had imagined Ashland swooping in with their resources and gifts, immediately solving our many problems, while wrapping us up in blankets with gentle pats on the back and assurances that everything would be okay.
I began to feel that our adoption was more an indentured servitude. Our shortcomings were being highlighted instead of excused, and our workload was increased instead of lightened. One night, after a no-nonsense meeting of things we needed to do in order to reach the lost, I’d had enough. Though I fully believed it meant ministerial suicide, I approached our pastors in the parking lot and, through tears, told them that they were “unloving.”
Exactly nothing changed about their approach after that encounter. They continued to push us toward reaching the lost and doing everything with excellence, despite how we might feel. To my surprise, they entrusted me with new roles, overlooking my obvious disloyalty. And while we shed members who perhaps weren’t bound by the same solemn oath my wife and I had committed to, we gained many more. Despite my earlier pronouncement, my eyes were opened each Sunday as our new pastors loved us: not in easy affirmations, but in significant and sacrificial acts. Soon, one such pastor uprooted his whole family for us, and came to live with us, in our city. Our love for one another grew, and so did our church.
After seven years of investing time, money, and resources in our small and unworthy church, Ashland Avenue Baptist cut us loose to minister as a thriving and autonomous church body, giving us one of their beloved pastors and saying nothing of the tens of thousands of dollars and untold hours of effort and prayer they had given us. As we celebrated our official launch last Sunday, I took the opportunity to have another conversation with that same “unloving” pastor, successfully holding back the tears this time, and thanking him for orchestrating one of the truest acts of selfless Christian love I had ever witnessed.
What I learned about love from church planting is something I should have learned from Jesus long ago: that love is most fully and truly expressed through sacrifice. I’ve learned that is precisely the kind of love it takes to plant a church.