confessions of a failed church planter: money (1/3)

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Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

eikon church

confessions of a failed church planter: money (1/3)

one year ago this week, we were fresh off saying our teary farewells at our final sunday gathering for eikon church. on september 16, 2012, our little 4-year-long experiment called eikon, in fact, came to a close.

since that time, in certain contexts and even on this blog to an extent, the elephant in the room has been the details of our demise. quite frankly, i haven’t been interested in talking about it. it hasn’t been so much that it was just painful or awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s been more that it’s taken me quite a bit of time to sort through it all and gather conclusions that weren’t reactive or born from the immediate heat of the circumstances.

no doubt, i have a few scars from the process and i still carry some baggage that deserves a thoughtful and careful telling of the story. i learned a lot through that journey—things that i’ll forever bear and count as important life-shaping lessons. ultimately, even after a full year, i still have plenty of reflecting and processing to do and i hope to share more as that unfolds.

but, i think i’m prepared to share some of my initial conclusions. six-ish months ago, i made a textedit document with a bulleted list of what i perceived as reasons the church didn’t survive. since that time, i’ve whittled down and refined the list. what i’m left with isn’t an exhaustive list that describes every single reason or provides deeply layered insight into all the nuances of the end of eikon. rather, it’s a high-level list of things that i hope can serve as a very basic checklist of possible landmines for prospective church planters (or really any pastors or organizational leaders).

due to length, i’ll post the first reason now, the next couple tomorrow and wrap up with the final reason on friday. (note: rather than a ranking, these are listed more in a logical order that builds on top of each other.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: the title, confessions of a failed church planter, conveys a critical theme of these posts. this isn’t a list of things that prevented me—a masterful, creative, brilliant, flawless leader—from achieving the kind of success we desired. this is a series of posts that honestly reflects on the way in which my leadership was lacking in a number of ways and was further exposed when these forces interacted with them. just want to make sure the tone isn’t simply outward blame or excuses.

reason 1: money

i’ll start with this because it’s been, interestingly, the number one assumption by people when they learn the church closed. i usually get something to this effect: “so you just couldn’t pay the bills?” or “yeah, it sure is expensive to start a church.” i have to admit that i get super frustrated when people assume we just ran out of money and couldn’t pay our bills. nevertheless, i try to graciously inform them of the real reasons.

but if i’m being honest, money played a more critical role in the end of the church than i’d like to admit or that i assumed it would before we started. just in a different way than most people assume.

many people don’t know, but i actually walked away from a very sizable amount of startup money from a denominational church planting board prior to starting eikon. when i say “sizable”, i’m talking six figures. so yeah, that was a lot of fun… 😉

long story short, i felt deeply convicted that what i felt called to do with this church was fundamentally different than the goals and expectations of this particular denomination. it was a painful decision to walk away from that kind of funding, but i knew deep down that the partnership could never work.

these 2 truths paradoxically co-exist:
it was absolutely the right decision to make and,
it was the first crack in the foundation of what we were beginning.

what do you walk away from when you walk away from that kind of money—or, for that matter, any startup money at all?

  • a full-time salary
  • giving at levels we desired
  • salaries for other staff
  • a building of our own
  • targeted marketing
  • equipment (for the building and beyond)
  • and the list could go on and on

i’ll talk about the lack of salaries in my post tomorrow, but beyond that, probably the biggest piece of that list is marketing. now, people of my theological and ecclesial ilk often get nervous about words like “marketing” when it comes to the church. trust me, i get it. but whereas “marketing” is often perceived as slimy and manipulative, the reality is that marketing, at its core, is simply building awareness within a targeted group that your church/product/service is existent and available to them.

even with tools like a (decent) social media strategy and a nice website, we struggled over the years with just making folks aware that something called eikon was even there. money isn’t a magical key that unlocks marketing success, but in our case, even with a very small budget, it certainly would’ve gone a very, very long way. beyond myself, we had smart, creative people and i believe we could’ve put some marketing dollars to use that would’ve moved us forward in ways that we could otherwise never achieve.

further, programmatically, our creativity and sense of calling, was abridged by our limited resources. one of the things i’m very proud of with eikon is that we far overachieved in terms of “programs” relative to our size. we did a lot with a very little. but, the reality is that the effectiveness of many of our programs and connection strategies never reached the kind of potential they had because we couldn’t afford to fulfill our vision for them. it was consistently frustrating and disappointing.

the bottom line is that church planting—even if it’s of the organic and intentionally-slow variety that described eikon—requires money. certainly more than the empty bank account that we started with. not having realistic financial expectations was certainly a primary contributing factor in the ultimate eikon demise.

so, people are half right when they assume we closed because of money. it’s not for the reasons they believe (that we just couldn’t pay our bills), but certainly, money is an undeniable force that is a significant contributor to the success or failure of church plants. eikon was, undoubtedly, a prime example.

tomorrow’s post will be titled, bivocational martyr, and should be a fun one. check back then.