“I know what we should do.”
In late July of 2016, Curtis caught my attention while he was pulling weeds in our front yard. I stood in our blacktop driveway, while the boys drew on it with sidewalk chalk.
The question was what we should do…with our lives. I’d wish it was “What should we do for dinner?” or “What should we do about a babysitter next week?” But alas, we were in a season of asking, “What should we do with our lives?” What should we do with our hopes, our vocations, our dreams, our calling? You know, the stuff you sort out pulling weeds.
At that point, we’d spent two years in Illinois, serving at a church where we’d long dreamed of working. There was a time where being part of this specific church was the answer to that question, but we had a growing sense that our hope to stay for the long term wasn’t going to be realized. It was complicated reality to embrace—this place has been wonderful for our kids in dozens of ways; our friends here are gold; my parents moved here to be present and helpful in our lives.
But both Curtis and I have long hoped to pastor and preach, to help lead and shape a community of people to follow Jesus into the world together. And no matter how much we enjoyed the things we got to do here, it was what were weren’t getting to do that stuck with us. So we were asking, “What should we do?”
Curtis paused the weed pulling and looked at me. “We should plant a church in San Francisco,” he said. “I know we didn’t imagine that we would ever plant, but we have some specific things we really want to try and we’re not sure they really fit the existing church model. And we know we have affinity for the demographics and culture.” He went on explaining the reasons this could make sense for who we are, what we love in ministry, our stories to this point. It wasn’t until later that he told me that he had a sense that God spoke to him while he weeded.
For my part, I was tracking with the logic, but not interested. We didn’t want to plant. We never planned to plant. We wanted to help the suburban mega-church navigate the transition as the baby boomers who pioneered this expression of church passed the torch to our generation. We love this form of church. We understand it, and we thought we could be good at holding history and future hope together. We imagined re-asking the origin questions that birthed these churches: why don’t our friends want to do church? What might cause them to rethink that choice? And most of all: how might the unchanging hope, truth, and power of the gospel of Jesus speak to the unique and ever-changing challenges, fears, events, and questions this generation is facing?
And yet, we’d spent ten years in ministry, serving in three mega churches, each in a different form of succession, and we experienced a different process than the one we’d imagined in our minds. Not bad, just different, where we were just less aligned with things. I had to admit that Curtis had a point.
So, without changing my mind one bit, I agreed to start praying about whether we should try to launch a church.
It was just a couple weeks later when I read an article online from a pastor in Boston about why it was so important to include women in the core of a church planting project. You see, church planting, perhaps more than pastoring at large, is overwhelmingly done by men. The largest planting organizations and most active-in-planting denominations don’t allow women to be pastors. I was grateful for this article, so I emailed its author briefly to thank them for writing it. I said—I don’t really know why except it was the truth—that as someone who had always dreamed of pastoring a church, it was encouraging to know that there were male pastors using their voice to advocate for someone like me to have a place.
I didn’t expect him to write back. But he did.
Just a few days later he replied to thank me for the note, but also said, “If you want to talk about that church, let me know.”
Now it was my turn to catch Curtis off-guard. I told him, “So this guy in Boston says he’d talk to us, if we really want to get serious about this question.”
Two weeks later I was on the phone with him catching a vision for how this might actually work. He was dispelling the myths that kept me from wanting to try this, like this image of starting a church by just showing up in a town, walking door to door to introduce yourself and wooing people to this new thing with the sheer force of your charisma. The John Wayne image of the whole thing was very off-putting.
Instead, his church was planting churches with whole groups who already really loved their neighborhood. The group together was thinking about how to be a deeply local church that made sense in their context; how to stay relationally connected where people were forming real friendships. It was a different paradigm, and it was the one that gave us our first sense that we might like to be part of something new that felt like that.
Six week later we were in Boston to visit. The trip was fun and encouraging and refreshing (hello, first time away since having two kids!) the people we met were wonderful. We spent the next six months walking through what’s called Church Planters Assessment, a process of discerning if a pastor’s skills, temperament and personality, gifts, and vision might make them a good match for the vocation of launching a church. Assessments have been shown to greatly increase the chance that a brand new church will be a viable project a few years in. In March 2017, we were recommended.
While we were on the drive home, our Chicagoland church requested a meeting with Curtis, which led to offering him a full time role in Discipleship. The job was exciting and seemed to really be a fit with what Curtis loves and is good at, so we pushed pause on planting to say yes to another season here.
We spent March 2017 to March 2018 enjoying and engaging with our jobs here, and both felt like we should keep praying about launching a church ‘whenever we’re done here’. That felt good—open, but not pulled away from our lives now. Someday, we’ll come back to all that.
Then, seven months ago our church went into crisis. It caused us, like nearly everyone on our staff, to ask, “God, what would you like me to do? Would you like me to stay and try to help here? Would you like me to go to something new?”
I believe the answer is unique to each person in our situation, and Curtis and I each felt clear and sure that we needed to leave. Back to the same question: what should we do? And again, we both felt clear and sure: of the various choices, we are captivated by this unlikely dream of launching a church. We were equally sure that it needed to be back home in California. One of the many lessons from our time with the Boston church was the power of loving your community—not just the people, but the place. There’s a lot to be said for knowing and loving the culture and quirks and unique pieces of your town. In other words, for it being truly home. And home is California, land flowing with avocados and In-n-Out.
We started reaching out to ministries to ask for help and see what a way forward might look like. We reconnected with the pastor of Boston church, who explored a northern California option with us–a process that brought encouragement, hope, clarity, and passion, but did not ultimately work out.
Along the way I asked a friend and mentor for help. Specifically I asked: how crazy it is for us to be talking about planting a church in California? Instead of answering me, I heard how this little group of our friends were dabbling in something like a house church. Many of them felt like maybe they’d like to be part of something new. I joked, “So you want to plant a church?” “No, but if you do, we could help.”
Here’s the thing. To do this you need people, meeting space, and money. Ten friends does not a new church make. Curtis especially, practical in all things, could not quite imagine how we returned to southern California without, well, any of that.