Church planting maxim #10: “You will be broken.”
I had heard this maxim often in my work with the Department of Church Growth and Evangelism before I experienced it as a church planter. I had helped facilitate denominational trainings and assessment centers for church planters, opportunities that prepared me to plant our own church. Brokenness isn’t the first thing on your mind when God places a vision and dream in your heart. And it certainly isn’t part of the pitch as you cast your vision and recruit people to join your team! As my husband, Scott, and I set out to plant Bridge Covenant Church, brokenness was right where it belonged—at the bottom of the list.
Church planting comes with a list of ten maxims—the aim of which are to help a church planter’s feet become rooted in solid ground. We sign our agreement, and with a guaranteed pay check (at least for the first year), we hit the streets empowered by God-sized visions and dreams.
The maxims are meant to protect us from ourselves, from slipping in to believing that we can accomplish those God-sized visions we’ve been given on our own. They remind us that we are human, with limitations that shouldn’t be pushed too far. They help us remember that no matter how charismatic or innovative or driven we think we are, “church planting is a God thing” (maxim #1).
Some weren’t hard for me to accept. Maxim #3, “It’s the relational—not the technical,” seemed like a no brainer. And while I believed maxim #6 was true (“You can’t plant a church behind a desk”), I also knew I could get sidetracked by the endless number of tasks a church planter must accomplish.
But I had no intentions of embracing maxim #10.
Our vision in planting a church grew out of 2 Corinthians 5:14-19 where Paul encourages us to be messengers of reconciliation for the new community in Jesus. Our passion was to reconcile people first and foremost to God and then to one another. We felt especially called (burdened) to bridge the gap between the Spanish- and Englishspeaking communities in my hometown of Salem, Oregon. Through prior ministry there with Young Life, I had witnessed the division between these two communities. So much disconnected them: language, geography, economics, and stereotypes that each community believed about the “other.” We wanted to demonstrate God’s redemption and grace to both. How could we be a bridge that would connect God’s people?
We followed the basic steps of church planting: casting a vision, recruiting a launch team, starting monthly preview services. Something new rose to the top of our to-do list with each phase. Even though we were still casting vision, still recruiting, and still planning monthly preview services, we were also creating budgets, developing websites, designing, printing, and distributing flyers, building relationships, and – well, insert what you think should come next! And so the list grew. At each phase, our to-do list grew exponentially larger.
Initially, church planting seemed to be right up my alley. As a “doer” (Myers-Briggs ENFJ), I was energized and excited by getting things checked off the list. I also had nine years of ministry experience and four years of seminary as my foundation. I didn’t fit the stereotype of a young, hip church planter straight out of seminary. I also didn’t lack experience in the world or with pain. I’d traveled, lived as a foreigner in another country (Colombia), made plenty of mistakes, waited longer than most people for a spouse (we got married when I was forty), and flourished in ministry, which tends to be a male-dominated profession.
On a personal level I’d worked through pain and disappointment many times by this point in my life. And my husband and I were in the middle of navigating the waters of infertility, discerning the myriad of options in front of us as we dreamed of a family. Being broken was already a part of my experience.
With infertility came difficult ethical decisions that we tackled from both a theological and personal perspective. When you can’t conceive your own child, the options about what to do next can become overwhelming – both financially and emotionally. We were thinking about exploring an egg donor. I wasn’t so sure I was comfortable with that, but before we even moved forward a small, insignificant cyst on my ovary needed to be removed. We’d have time to continue thinking and praying about our decision while we took care of the cyst. We let ourselves have a short respite from thinking and making decisions about conception.
That break was much needed as we were making other significant decisions with our launch team. They were eager to move beyond monthly preview gatherings to weekly gatherings. We held a church-wide retreat and made the decision to start weekly worship gatherings in October. This was a huge decision for our church. Hopefully, moving to weekly gatherings would lead to the growth we desired. We desired rapid growth at church, but something else was growing rapidly that was much less desirable: my “small, insignificant” cyst.
The rapid growth accelerated our plans for surgery, and introduced the possibility of cancer. I had surgery in September 2011, the same month the church made the decision to move to weekly worship gatherings. The surgery went smoothly, and the prognosis looked excellent.
And then we got the phone call. The results came back malignant. I had ovarian cancer. The miraculous news, however, was that I had stage one ovarian cancer, something rarely detected with the disease known as the silent killer. One more routine noninvasive surgery and we’d be done. We decided to stay on course. No need to rock the boat.
But the next surgery did more than rock my boat – it broke it. I went to sleep anticipating a short robotic procedure. The doctor anticipated that I’d go home the same day. When I woke up I remember thinking it was much later then I thought it should be. It turned out the surgery had not been as straightforward as expected. Worried that the cancer might have spread to my uterus, my doctor put away the robot and went to work. I awoke with my last ovary gone, a huge incision, and part of my uterus removed. I spent five nights in the hospital. Chemotherapy would begin as soon as I had the green light from my doctor.
Obviously brokenness had quickly moved to the top of the list. My condition had taken me out of the work of church planting, leaving the to-do list in the capable hands of my husband. The surgeries and chemo took their toll. But more than just my body was broken – so was my heart. I needed time to heal – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
My broken body had begun to reveal to me an even more broken theology. My education and experiences had enabled me to preach and teach a God of grace and redemption. But I was forced to recognize that what I had shared with others I was unable to receive myself. My understanding of grace and redemption had become entangled with earning God’s favor. I had given God more than I thought he deserved, and still he refused to give me the child that was the deepest desire of my heart.
My relationship with God had mutated into something transactional: I’ll do this for you, so you’ll do something for me. It was more subtle than it sounds. It took years for me to uncover that subtext, to finally figure out that God is not interested in my transactions or to-do lists.
While I was at home healing and learning about brokenness, our church was worshiping. They were studying the first chapter of Luke, so I turned to the same passage. It wasn’t an easy passage to read. The story of the birth of John to his aging parents, Elizabeth and Zachariah, all too closely mirrored my own.
And then verses 76-79 spoke to me: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
That day I wrote these words in my journal: “For years I’ve struggled with forgiveness because it’s been attached to the future mercy of God – or what I thought that should look like. It’s been attached to a child, a redemption child. But the reality is that the redemption child doesn’t come from my body. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born to a young girl named Mary. Through this child the tender mercy of God is given to me. How do I let go of my own redemption plan and allow the tender mercies of God to overwhelm me?”
My heart was in need of God’s tender mercy, mercy that was extended to me through brokenness. In my brokenness was revealed the truth that God loves me not because of what I do or don’t do for him. God simply loves me.
God took me completely out of the picture at what seemed the most crucial time in our church plant, a season where there were long lists of tasks to check off. He took me out of church work to focus on the more important work of healing the brokenness of my heart so I could pastor with a heart filled with God’s grace and redeemed by his love.
With this heart I’ve tried to pastor Bridge Covenant Church. Not hiding my brokenness but accepting it as a reality. I believe it has allowed others around me to be honest with the pain they are experiencing. Because of the pain in our lives, we intentionally join Jesus in his brokenness, intentionally journey with him on the way of the cross. It’s a challenge to remain on the journey when we start in the garden of Gethsemane instead of starting in the garden of the empty tomb. But we choose not to rush through the abandonment or agony, the disappointment or denial, the depletion or despair, the hurt or humiliation, the sorrow or the pain of Jesus. We cannot risk missing the fact that through the cross brokenness becomes the apex of our faith. When we are willing to enter into our brokenness, Jesus transforms our hearts and unites his people.
As we set out to plant Bridge Covenant Church, brokenness was right where it belonged—at the bottom of the list. At the top of our list was our vision to be messengers of reconciliation. Yet what God soon revealed to me was that brokenness was central to our vision. I’m not sure how I missed it – it’s the very first verse of our seed text: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14, NIV).
The common denominator of humanity, breaking through barriers of race, gender, and economics is our brokenness. Perhaps God knew that I needed to see that in order to accomplish our vision of reconciliation.
Carmen Bensink Lewis is co-pastor and co-planter of Bridge Covenant Church in Salem, Oregon. She and her husband, Scott, are awaiting the adoption of a baby in July.
Bridge Covenant Church at a Glance
- Bridge Covenant Church in Salem, Oregon, opened its doors for weekly worship in October 2011 with a completely bilingual service.
- The congregation meets at Grant Community Elementary School.
- The congregation is 50 percent white, and 50 percent other (mostly Hispanic). The services are now mainly in English, but Bibles, bulletins, and music are in both Spanish and English.
- Co-pastors Carmen and Scott Bensink Lewis share one full-time salary and fundraise a portion of it.
- On the fourth Sunday of the month, they share an extended time of worship through music, testimonies, and a potluck meal.
- On the fifth Sunday of the month the church divides into teams and volunteers at the school where they worship, doing a variety of needed tasks for the teachers.
- Bridge began with three streams of funding – the denomination, the Pacific Northwest Conference, and their partner church, Trinity Covenant Church in Salem. They have been off appropriations and self-sufficient since August 2013.
Visit Bridge Covenant Church’s website here.