Adapted from Bryan Halferty’s nearly finished book, Terrible Beauty: How to Plant a Church without Self- Destructing, an honest, memoir-ish guide to the terrible beauty of church planting.
Six months before we planted Anchor Church, my wife, Kandice, said, “I think we could plant a church and stay married and relatively healthy . . . ”
My ears perked up.
She continued. “ . . . if we have a predictable rhythm in our week: a date night, a family night, and a Sabbath.”
I heard the first part and missed the second.
Kandice and I are different. I’m a reckless miner digging for gold in dangerous conditions, and she’s a canary saying death is certain if we stay. Everything Kandice needed to be healthy while planting I was fairly ill-prepared to offer. My insecurities and ego conspired. I expected her to play host for people she didn’t know. I convinced myself she should be understanding when I worked late or took a call mid-conversation.
Months later, there was momentum with the church plant, and God was opening doors. A community leader invited me to an event on a night reserved for family, movies, and pizza. I said “Yes” to the community leader and “No” to my family. Kandice said it was fine, but the resigned tone and grimace were telling.
But wasn’t this church planting? I was taking an opportunity to connect with influential people who could be assets to a young church plant. In reality, I was starstruck and w on opportunity. Like an addict, I pursued the high at the expense of my family’s needs. Worse than the addict, I expected Kandice to run with me at my unsustainable and insecurity motivated pace.
This night became emblematic of our first year of church planting. Me chasing opportunities often at the expense of my family. What I understand now is that Kandice, in her hesitancy to stay at break-neck speed with me, was not an impediment to ministry momentum. Instead, she was the person God was using to get my attention.
The Ideal Life and the Church-Planting Life
If you had asked me to slow down, I’d laugh. In those early years of church planting, it felt like I was running from a lion. Slowing down felt like death.
Strip me of any spiritual maturity I have and take away my emotional health, and I will be a perfect mix of your own personal butler and hype-man. I’ll answer your texts at all hours and blow through my own boundaries for your sake. Church planting excels in stripping you of your spiritual maturity and robbing you of your emotional health by taking you away from what I call “the ideal life.”
You know you’re in the ideal life when certain decisions—like a date night—have a few choices but you know them all well. The ideal life offers relationships formed over years of trust. Often there is financial stability. All of these elements form thick cords of connection, binding you in a network of knownness.
Church planting takes you from the ideal life and places you in an environment that is unstable. The streets are unfamiliar. There are friends who offered promises of keeping in touch, but occasional phone calls are shadows of those conversations on a back porch. Finances are thin, and sometimes there is a question about what bill to pay this month.
Church planting is a wilderness before it’s a garden. The journey offers beauty but only after you feel hunger and thirst and confront demons that have laid dormant for years in the comforts of the ideal life.
God, of course, allows all this to happen. This isn’t new to any Jesus follower who has cracked open a Bible. After the Spirit descends on Jesus, that same Spirit sends Jesus out into the desert. Moses is plagued by voices of dissent from the people he’s supposed to lead and from himself. Jacob gets a blessing from God only after his hip gets dislocated.
I knew all of this when our family stepped away from “the ideal life” and into “the default church-planter life.” But it still caught me off guard. The lion that chased me was the belief that this whole church-planting thing would fail, my family wouldn’t have enough, and people wouldn’t like me.
I would turn around at times and see the lion close enough to lunge. Other times, I looked back to see it at a distance and slow my stride only to find it gaining on me. In my weakest moments, I would contort the church’s vision to please a coffee appointment or stare into the glittering pixels of my phone to text people who didn’t love me when I was sitting a few feet away from my family.
Eventually, I realized that in accruing favor with loose ties, I had gained resentment with close ones. Kandice wondered if I saw her needs. She craved stability and had set out on the church-planting journey expecting to be a partner not a casualty.
For my part, I developed a host of well-constructed arguments for why I needed to keep running from the lion. I’d whip these arguments out like a royal flush each time Kandice shared her resentment.
Kandice felt the persistent ache of not being truly seen or understood—in short, she didn’t feel loved. Add that to the perpetual feeling that she ranked second to the church plant with the ongoing expectation to smile for the pictures. The pressure built up until it boiled over.
One night, she told me, “I’m not happy in our marriage.” I can’t remember how that first conversation went because they started happening so frequently that they’ve blended together like a sad watercolor. I had reached the point where I couldn’t triage her words away with light-heartedness or a cavalier promise.
After one conversation, I went into our bedroom closet, shut the door, and wrapped my arms around my knees. My breathing came in gasps, and I began to weep. The lion was still chasing me, but my wife insisted I stop running. My family couldn’t run at that pace.
A few weeks later, at the end of a meeting with Anchor’s small staff of three, we began to ask, with rhythmic predictability, how we could pray for each other. I somehow coughed out, “I don’t like my life.” Again, I began to weep.
The church plant had all sorts of momentum. Other church planters had begun messaging me asking what we were doing that was working. People who didn’t know the love of God were asking questions. There was every reason to believe that God was working in powerful ways. But at that point, I wondered if it mattered.
I was running hard, my neck craned backwards, assessing the distance the lion was from me—not seeing the pit right in front of me.
The Gift of the Pit
When you’re in the pit, you don’t have a lot of space to keep moving. You’re all alone.
Words like “prison” and “trapped” come to mind. However, the pit is actually a gift from God.
You don’t know you need help until you hit bottom, the old adage goes. To not hit bottom is to find an escape from healing and to conspire against God and those who love you. When you’re running from a lion and somehow managing to avoid the pit, you use tools like defensiveness, a veneer of religiosity, and smiles. You avoid intimacy at all costs. But, once in the pit, you collide with your limits and failures.
When those words, “I don’t like my life” spilled out of my mouth, I just sat there. I was the person “in charge.” The two staff members there were both good friends but were unready, I feared, for this awkward confession. The stream of tears didn’t help.
It wasn’t more than a few seconds though before one of them grabbed my shoulder and began praying, “God, help Bryan see that You love his life.” As long as I sat there crying, he kept praying.
Of course, I’d prefer to have not landed in the pit. However, in the pit we find that God’s grace is not a theological old wives’ tale but actual truth that meets us in our weakness, often through the touch of a friend.
Once you’re there, you also realize the lion doesn’t exist, at least not in the way you thought. Whether you’re a church planter or not, the fantasies we drum up about people only liking us if we make sure to never offend them and make them feel special is a hologram projected by the enemy using his favorite tool—fear. In other words, the lion has no teeth, and often it takes a pit to realize that.
When I talk to church planters who are about to leave “the ideal life” and set out into the land filled with lions and pits, I tell them about the second part of Kandice’s sentence. What Kandice wanted was stability and intimacy in a time where those things would be placed in jeopardy.
Kandice knew that while there were people to meet, opportunities to take, and prayers to pray, much of this work would only reinforce my lion-running anxieties unless there was someone at the end of the day to look me in the eyes and remind me that I was loved and not alone. She knew this is what she needed too. In the flustering season of learning new names and trying to be likable but also trying to be herself, Kandice needed me to be the one who rhythmically reminded her that she was loved—no matter what.
Over time, we learned to not only offer each other the marital gifts of constancy and intimacy, but our love also became a sign, offering each other a glimpse of God’s love, which steadies, stills, and silences lions and is always available. Kandice knew the secret all along.
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