My Sabbatical Blog week 2: "The Anatomy of a Failed Church Plant"
Grace Community Church began in 2015 in a suburb community close to a major university in North Carolina. It started with a core group of 16, launched on its first Sunday with 54 people and grew quickly to an average of 170 adults and children within six months. The church had a passionate, gifted pastor with a dynamic worship leader and was located in a growing community. They began with an effective social media campaign and an impressive interactive website. They had a well-organized welcome team and children's ministry. So why did they close after only 19 months?
Here's the anatomy of this failure as gleaned from the leaders I interviewed:
First, Grace CC launched prematurely. This is the reason for many failed church plants. They launched before they had hammered out their values, vision and unique mission in their community. When they experienced hard times, they did not have a strong foundation to hold them together. The church launched before raising up enough key leaders and teams of volunteers. By month 5, leaders were burning out for lack of others to share the load and the pastor's family kept picking up the slack. This is a recipe for disaster!
The staff was hired quickly without checking references and proper vetting. The worship leader was gifted and talented yet he could not build a team and his ego was huge. And the administrator did not build consensus and did not have a desire to teach stewardship. The leadership would find out later that both staff members had left previous churches for these same reasons. The worship leader left abruptly in month 6 when the leaders confronted his leadership style.
There was a big disconnect between the church and the community. The pastor was much more conservative than the community. People were drawn to the pastor's charisma, the talent of the worship leader and the impressive social media that connected with the young, high-tech workforce in the area. Yet people did not stay when they realized the church's message lacked grace and mercy for the poor and hurting despite the church's name.
The church started without first connecting with the community. They did not hold any introductory or outreach events prior to launch, no listening sessions and never conducted a Mission Insite study to better understand the demographics of their population and what they were interested in.
Since they launched too quickly, they did not have a strong plan for assimilating people. They offered only an orientation class led by the pastor. They failed to recruit and train group leaders. People felt disconnected and new believers had too many unanswered questions.
The death nail of this new faith community occurred when the pastor and administrator made a major decision without a church vote or even an information meeting. A large tract of land close to their rental space became available on short sale at a discounted price. So the pastor and administrator went to the bank, borrowed the money and saddled the church with a mortgage payment.
After one year, the church had an $8000 mortgage payment, was searching for a worship leader and was trying to jump start small groups while replacing key leaders who had burned out. Three months later Grace CC missed their mortgage payment and the pastor called a churchwide meeting following worship to explain the problem to the congregation. People were furious that he had bought the land without discussion with the leaders and a churchwide vote. Over 60 people never returned again to the church.
The church's problems only got worse as offerings continued to drop. More mortgage payments were missed, the pastor suffered an anxiety attack one Sunday before worship and the people lost confidence in their future. By month 19, the new faith community was in turmoil, the pastor was on leave and only 3 staff members were still in place. The young church declared bankruptcy, the remaining staff were dismissed and worship ceased at Grace CC.
A failed church start is painful for all involved. It can leave a community of faithful people and seekers scared and disillusioned. Such is the case of the people I interviewed and many like them. The pastor is still struggling with stress and anxiety, and understandingly so, he declined to discuss the church's story with me. He needs space, restoration of hope and time to evaluate his call at this point in his ministry.
There is much we can learn from this account. Most of these mistakes could have been avoided if the pastors and leadership had taken their time. You can't rush Kingdom success. When you get ahead of the Holy Spirit, you are on dangerous ground! Leaders need accountability structures, to value consensus building and to listen to wise counsel from a coach, mentors and one another.