A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot
No one told me that planting a church would be this hard. Actually, everyone told me, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. I saw the possibility. I saw the need. I saw the opportunity to reach people no one else was reaching, and the open door to establish a local church where we could come together and find freedom and hope in Christ, even if that often looked more like a wrestling match than a prayer circle. We were going to create space to ask questions and be different. We didn’t have the language at the time, but ultimately, we were going to cultivate environments where people could belong before they believe. (Thank you, Jeff Henderson, for supplying the language and demonstrating the heart for that idea.) We were going to take off our boat shoes and walk on the water.
No one could have prepared me for all of the relationships I would lose – the people who would start with me and believe with me and work with me, but with time, move away for one reason or another.
I remember all of the people who cautioned that this would be hard on my marriage. My friends, someday I will write a book on the miracle that is my marriage to Clark – a marriage that is holding together and growing stronger despite all of the times it probably should have, and almost did, fall apart. Our walls could tell stories, many of which need to be shared in the right time and place to help see others through their darkest moments. For now, I just want to say publicly and loudly, thank you, Clark, for never giving up, for showing up when it was hard, and being the man who consistently goes to God with me and for me.
I was told that my job in planting a church would be to set, maintain, and protect the vision. I was given the illustration of a train boarding in Kansas that I knew was supposed to go to New York. Plenty of people would want to stop and hang out when we reached the first place that was a little more populated and offered some creature comforts and predictability, but I was supposed to make sure the train kept moving. Some people would see Chicago as an easier possibility as the ride got longer and space got tighter, but I was supposed to remember that the destination wasn’t Chicago and the goal wasn’t comfort and keep the train moving. Other people would make it the whole way to New York and realize they didn’t like how it felt, how many other people were there who didn’t make the journey but wanted to join the party, how it didn’t look like they had pictured it, but I was supposed to shout the walls down anyway, and despite all of my fears and my own weariness, remind everyone we were sent for such a time, and for such a place, and for such a people as this.
No one told me that with the planting there also comes the uprooting. Sometimes the very seeds that got you started become the ones holding you back from the places God is asking you to go. And it doesn’t mean the seeds weren’t good, or even that they went bad, simply that there is a time for everything.
Ashley Ridge Church started as a missional congregation of the United Methodist Church with me, an ordained UMC elder, as its pastor. We were given a challenge to start a different kind of church, and in the process, God gave us a clear vision for what that church should be – a church that believes we’re better together (with God, with each other, and with the world). And so, we relentlessly do everything we can to find people who are going it alone and we make our table bigger so they know they have a seat, a place, an identity, and a purpose. We share life at the table (in circles), and a lot of times it’s messy – mostly because we have a TON of kids. But, if we’re being honest, the kids are simply the outward messiness that covers for the inward messiness we’re all carrying. The kids are the permission we often need as adults to learn things again, or maybe for the first time, things we thought we were supposed to already know or believe and were ashamed to admit we didn’t. Sometimes I get tired of cleaning up for the next meal, but mostly I could just ugly cry for days at the beautiful mess of people who pull up chairs beside each other day-after-day, desperate for what only God can give. And when we show up, God reminds us He never left and He’s eager to give us exactly what we need.
We’ve reached a place in our journey where this living thing God is growing no longer fits within the structure of the United Methodist Church. We didn’t intend for that to happen, and it’s not because one is right and the other is wrong, but in the process of creating something different, we created something different. So, maybe it is exactly what everyone intended, just now how we thought it would look. In recent months, we’ve been asked to adapt what we’re doing to make it fit, but the truth is, we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. God is leading us into unchartered territory and doing things we can’t describe and certainly for which we can’t take credit.
For some time, we had hoped to keep everyone happy and make everything fit together in the more obvious ways (recovering people-pleaser, right here, raising my hand high), but God has made it clear that we have to trust Him with both the planting and the uprooting. And so, Ashley Ridge Church will not be chartering as a United Methodist Church, but instead continuing on our journey, trusting God for what is next. And I will be giving up my credentials as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, trusting that my call has not changed, but the location has shifted. And while there is some sadness in this change, our faith reminds us that what holds us together is still so much greater than the things that seem to separate us. We really do need each other.
I am incredibly grateful for our mother church, Bethany United Methodist, and their willingness to help start something different, and also their ongoing ministry that reaches and touches so many lives in our community. The United Methodist Church is in the midst of a lot of changes and uncertainty, and whatever happens, I believe we should celebrate the ministry and work that has been done that has given birth to what will come next. The Church as a whole was and is God’s idea. It is imperfect because it is made up of imperfect people, but God hasn’t given up on it, and we won’t either.