Our Church Planting Effort Failed—Or Did It?

We began eventually to meet in a historic bar. . . . It was informal, accessible, familiar, welcoming. Also unconventional.

We moved to Washington, D.C., in 2012 to plant a new church. To do so, we had to leave a community we cared deeply about—a church we had successfully planted in Michigan. Less than two years later, we left D.C. The community we had begun, Roots DC, was not able to continue.

This one goes in the “didn’t make it” category. The “failure” box. The loss column. At least, that’s how anyone looking from the outside in would perceive it.

From the inside, the story is much more complex. Discrete categories of success and failure are shorthand for what “worked” and what “didn’t work.” But those categories don’t adequately explain or describe what we experienced.

In many, many ways, our time in D.C. feels like it was a success. We moved there knowing almost no one. A new city. A major urban area. A daunting place to move for any reason, let alone with the hopes of forming a close community of people we’d never met. Yet form a close community we did.

After only three months in D.C., we had begun gathering with folks in our home. We dreamed together of what a new community of faithful disciples in an urban, international context might look like. We prayed. We visioned. We posted sticky notes around the fireplace. There was good energy—we were excited and encouraged about what was beginning to unfold. We continued gathering in our home for a year while keeping our eyes out for a public meeting space.

In the meantime, we developed relationships. We made friends in our neighborhood. We found jobs to help with the exorbitant cost of living—Jobs that led to new relationships and connections and that also felt deeply satisfying. We connected with other parents in the neighborhood public school. I coached a Little League team comprised of urban kids along with two of my sons and had a blast engaging with the kids and teaching them a bit about baseball and life.

Over time, D.C. was beginning to feel more and more like home. We had impromptu evenings of conversation and wine on the front porch with neighbors. We got to know people: from bus drivers to crossing guards to coffee shop baristas to high-profile government employees. We explored parks that allowed us to feel a connection to nature amid our urban context. We connected with clergy and with people in the city who had been working intentionally for years in some tough ministry settings. We got involved in justice causes we felt strongly about. Simply by living in this busy, international city, with its challenging mix of “haves” and “have nots,” our worldview expanded.

Meanwhile our community slowly grew, both in depth of relationships and in connecting with new people. Our organic approach was measured, allowing us the time and space to create relationships in a city where the pace of life often precludes such connection.

We began eventually to meet in a historic bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, a place where we had already been gathering for weekly pub theology conversations for more than six months. It was a fitting setting for our community: informal, accessible, familiar, welcoming. Also unconventional.

And yet, with all of those good things happening, we had to pull the plug.

It simply cost too much for our family of six to live in one of the most expensive cities in America. Some are blessed with salaries that make this manageable. Others work multiple jobs, as we were attempting to do. In the end, we simply couldn’t raise the kind of money we needed to continue. Our other jobs were a nice complement to my church salary, but they were not able to replace it. Other job possibilities fell through. We were reaching young people who had left the church or were considering leaving, many themselves struggling to survive the cost of living in D.C. Our community, in its embryonic form, wasn’t able to provide much internal support. Calls and emails to potential supporters didn’t generate enough—and yet we remain deeply and profoundly grateful for those who did support us, and for our sponsor Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church, who provided great encouragement and support along the way.

And so despite creating a community of people coming from diverse backgrounds, many of whom said this was the first real community they had experienced in the city, despite a deep sense that this was where we belonged—in the end, we had to leave.

We made that difficult decision and informed our community almost two months before we would move. This gave us time to continue gathering on Sundays, sharing meals and celebrating each other and what had happened among us and entrusting one another to God, knowing our parting was imminent. In one of the most transient cities in the nation, where one- or two-year stints are common, we had simply become one more temporary relationship: good, meaningful, and coming to an end too soon.

One of our early community members was Abby. She serves in the Navy and knew she would only be with us for a short time. She told us a bit about why Roots was a blessing to her:

I have been thinking about the name “Roots” in terms of putting down roots, of making a new place home. Moving to a new city, even with a connection to college or a job or a relationship, can be a challenging time. . . . The imagery that suggested itself to me was of a soft landing site created by the community for those seeking a home here . . . a little garden patch amidst the city's concrete in which each one might help to plant and tend something, no matter whether the gardener is destined to see the century plants bloom, or just the annuals.

Little did we know at the time that we too would be among the annuals. And yet all we experienced made it feel as though we’d found a garden patch in which our family was immensely blessed and nurtured—by our Roots community, by our neighborhood, by our coworkers, and by our new friends.

So was this a “failure”? It’s probably written up that way in official reports. And we certainly are going through a grieving process at leaving people and a place we were growing to love. Yet to my wife, who was able to bridge her passion for politics and faith in working with the Faith and Politics Institute and was able to work with a local nonprofit on urban justice issues; to my kids, who fell in love with the neighborhood and the friends they found in it; and to me, who enjoyed the challenge of urban ministry and was gifted with a newfound appreciation for the contemplative side of faith with the Shalem Institute; and finally, to our Roots community who became our family for awhile—it feels like we gained a whole lot. And that, on many levels, counts as a success.

About the Author

Bryan Berghoef is an ordained CRC pastor and church planter. He lives in Holland, Mich., and works remotely supporting online contemplative learning and curating social media content for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.

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I'm touched by what you have written about you and your family's experiences in church planting in D.C.  More importantly I think I feel a little of your pain.  Because of your pain I am hesitant to ask any questions.

I spent 20 years in what we called at that time "Home Missions" work.  Mine in Ft. Collins, CO and Riverside Ca. Mine also under a completely different model of church planting back in the 70's and 80's.  Back then typically, new churches were started with a small nucleus of  around 20 CRC-RCA 20 families where no Christian Reformed Church existed.  The strategy was develop the nucleus into a mission that reaches out to its area with the gospel, that seeks out the least and lost. But the time table for such a development was not 5 0r 10 years but 15- 20 years with all salary, ministry costs, buying of land and build of a church facility properly planned and funded in a partership of the local church, classis and denomination.  Un fortunately it sometimes took 30 years and the denominational leaders determined that this was far too costly so they canned it.  The fact is that many churches like that are still functioning yet today.

Your story makes me a little angry because it demonstrates that once again people called and trained in gospel ministry and especially to plant churches do not often make the strategy decisions.  Those decisions are often made by people with no skin in the game.  Home missions boards, classis and synod.  While what existed back in the 70 and 80's was too slow, perhaps what is in place now is too fast.

Whatever, I wish you well and that God's grace will heal, teach and lead you according to what may be needed.  The CRCNA and I too need your kind of calling, theological training and commitment to flourish. 

This story is very sad, and I know it's not uncommon and not just in the CRC. We sometimes attend a church (near our family cottage) which we love. It's a financially struggling church that is growing in numbers as well as depth of community in an area where most of its members live below the poverty level. They are trying to raise support for an investment strategy that would give them extra annual income that they could count on to help them survive. We need to get creative in funding these kinds of ministries that may never be self-supporting churches but that have shown success in expanding the kingdom of our Lord on earth. Isn't that what we're all about?

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