Church Plant Postmortem

Photo courtesy of Flickr, user serzhile

Photo courtesy of Flickr, user serzhile

Last year we made the official announcement that we were planting a church on the NorthEast side of Grand Rapids. This past January they gave us the keys to a beautiful old building, a well loved home for our new church. We soaked in the pictures of the beautiful sanctuary together, and you all offered your most sincere prayers.

We had so many dreams starting out, I was going to write weekly updates and blog about the church plant, both here and on our church website. We were going to be a place of authenticity that made space for brokenness and lament, a community that could weathered life’s seasons and hard questions together.

A community that engaged creativity

That loved our neighborhoods by being a part of them, shouldering burdens, being present.

I committed to bring my true self to this church, not the paper doll pastor’s wife I felt I should be.

We labored over a name and many of you got involved by taking a survey.

We bought a house specifically so we could be nearby the church and engage our neighborhood with Christ-centered hearts, loving honestly and opening our home. We wanted to be authentic members of our community with no agenda other than to show love.

I saw so many dinners and real-true conversations happening in these rooms when we walked through this home for the first time.

Sometime this summer I stopped writing about the church plant, because well, when things aren’t going well you’re generally not the first to bring it up, you deflect or hope no one will ask.

Last week Wednesday Kel and I sat in a meeting where we agreed that it was time to close the book on our little church plant.

We realize that this seems soon and know that the decision wasn’t ours alone, the conference that supports us felt that it was time to move our family on to something else, to allow us time to rest and to realize that the team that had promised to show up to support us in this, wasn’t coming.

The churches that promised members and families wouldn’t be sending anyone and that ten months of going it alone was enough for us.

When I write about how hard life has been this summer, now you know why. This has been so, so hard on our family.

It’s painful to fail at something when you feel like you’re failing God, failing at faith.

There were many times when Kel and I took our frustration out on each other saying things like “maybe if you’d only” and throwing the blame at each other as we ached.

Losing our parents was hard on our marriage, but somehow? Somehow this was harder on us. Not a greater loss, but it was much harder to stay together in our pain.

Maybe if we pray harder? Are you praying enough? I’m not… maybe that’s why? Maybe we suck at faith, what are we even doing and why?

When we started this, there were many friends who came forward to talk to us about their experiences with church planting, and to be honest they were usually painful stories. Stories of heartache that lead to seasons of examining their own faith, feeling cynical and even drifting from the church because it all felt more like a business than a bride.

Seasons of walking through church doors wondering what they did so well that you did so wrong.

There were some that questioned us honestly in the beginning, asking why the world needed another church in the first place. I get that cynicism too, but even after all this pain I still believe in church planting, some of it, somehow.

So now, here we are ten months down the road with nothing to show for our work but a box of t-shirts with no one to wear them bearing a logo that will go generally unused.

We are grieving, questioning, a little ashamed and just generally sad. 

If you’ve been around long, you know that I’m hard on myself…. really, unfairly hard on myself. So I’ll be drifting in and out of mental sessions where I throw us under the bus all while trying very hard to temper those thoughts with logic, grace and deep breathes while we trudge through this season of church plant postmortem.

We are going to be fine financially and the conference Kel works for is going to find him a new appointment and work in the meantime. This might mean another move, it could be a few hours away but oh God, I really hope not.

And yes, we could use your prayers and your encouragement as we wade through this season.

Pray that we can read true words, talk good walks and engage in things that are a balm to our wounded souls, rather than hide in misery and netflix binging.

Pray that Kel will find peace as a pastor without a church for a while as he waits tables instead of writing sermons and hearing stories.

Pray that I don’t wander into anger more than is needed to heal.

And honestly, pray that his next job doesn’t take us too far away from the friends and family we love and moved home to share life with.

Thank you for your support and encouragement, your kind words and prayers. Life is messy, risks are still worth taking, failure will always be hard and life is comprised of all sorts of seasons.

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  • Natalie Hart

    It’s a tough season, for sure. Count me as someone else who’s experienced the frustration of churches not sending people/people not wanting to leave their comfortable place (even though the church plant would’ve given them a chance to live out the values they loved to talk about so much). I’ve failed in church settings, both my own very personal failures and others who have failed me. Let yourself be good and sad; try not to hide the sadness in anger. An odd thing that helped me in my last season of this (only 2 years ago) was reading the old testament: almost every hero of the faith had periods of significant failure. An experienced church planter once told me to think more like a scientist, who expect more failure than success, who expect many seasons of failure with incremental success — it’s all learning. (Still hurts, though). I send you love <3

    • Leanne Penny

      I think the scientific approach would be hard for me, I could always point to someone who seems to be getting it right off the bat. But you’re right, it’s like that with so many areas of life. I know we need to be sad, it’s just so unwelcome right now because I feel like that’s mostly what we did all summer… struggle and wonder. Yet I know better, this is where the healing happens and we need to be real about our woundedness.

  • Mark Allman


    I do not think we judge failure and success very well in this world. The way we view both I think is most likely skewed by lots of factors. When we judge something as failed I think we also believe nothing worthy came out of it. I have saw a lot of failure and I have noticed a lot of good often comes out of it at times. I think at times failure is part of preparation for something better in the future that would never had been so without the portion of failure in the mix. I am better for working through failures; trying to learn from them; working to not let them darken my soul.

    I feel confident that you and Kel were faithful in the things you did. I am also confident that you have touched lives during this process and blessed people along the way. You may not have reached your goal but I am sure you accomplished a lot more than you realize along the way. Even in failure Leanne I know you will bless and encourage people for that’s what people live everyday with and struggle with.

    One of my favorite quotes is by Catherine Rohr who said “failure is really redirection”.

    Failure hurts like hell especially when you think it’s all on you. But anything worthwhile is also worthy of being failed at. I would rather fail at something grand like you were going after than being a success at something that matters not much.

    I pray for you guys and I am excited to see where you go from here.

    • Leanne Penny

      Thank you Mark. I adore that quote and need to post it places. Your encouragement is always such a gift.

      • Mark Allman

        I have it posted on my door at work.

  • bki

    lately i’ve been through a lot of ministry pain. I’m not pastor or wife, but i’m very high on the team. God works all things out for good for those who love the Lord. in this season it means i’m hanging in with a situation that feels hopeless most of the time yet learning how to love the people who are adding to the problems and learning how to not add to the problems myself. there is a lot of hard self-evaluation. i find that many times i am just sitting and lamenting and longing for the perfect pureness and love of heaen. but i remember that many sections of the bible are dedicated to lamenting and it is part of the valleys that we have to walk through to see the view from the mountain top. to not give up before the miracle and that it is always darkest before the dawn. i am open to the idea that God may close this opportunity, but the hard lessons i am learning now will be used for the next opportunity. i also remember what is unique about the Jewish history of the bible vs other cultures… they recorded both successes and failures as a nation, where other nations only recorded the successes. being whole means taking the good with the bad. going through those highs and lows while holding tight to God. and also seeking God for wisdom on how to set an example in life and speech while still being honest about the pains and frustrations. that’s a hard one. who to trust and when. how open to be. i tend toward extremes, either to have my heart on my sleeve or to completely shut down and let nobody except God in. in this trial i am learning balance and wisdom. i know God has a plan for all of this. and i know as long as i stay with Him he will lead. temptations come to fix things on my own or ignore things that need fixing. it’s hard. trials produce character. character leads to hope. i often have to let go of everything i thought God was trying to do. walking one step at a time and feeling like he is leading me away from the goal. i read a book a while back called “hinds feet in high places” it gave a nice word picture for this walk that i’m am walking now. it doesn’t always make sense, even tho i’m a pro at making sense of things that most people can’t (so i think) there are times i just have to let go of all of that trying to figure it out and let go and let God in a whole new way. and keep growing in trust that he really does know the way better than any GPS unit ever. that i am in God’s Positioning System at all times.

    • Leanne Penny

      I have never thought about that aspect of Jewish culture but I like it, is it harder to record, reflect and hold out the bad seasons but it’s so much more authentic for the journey and it draws others into our stories because we all have successes and failures, highs and lows. Thank you so much for this.

  • Rita Bosico

    I’m sorry you’re hurting. I fit in with your sentence “Stories of heartache that lead to seasons of examining their own faith,
    feeling cynical and even drifting from the church because it all felt
    more like a business than a bride.” Yep. The support didn’t come through for me either. I spent all that time trying to build roots and establish my own reputation. Didn’t know about a scandal 20 years before… I was just getting known and trusted when I was reappointed. I was powerless against the structure of the denomination. So much for being “connectional”. It felt like taking my finger out of the ocean. But here’s some good news…. you have sent ripples into the community. They go out into eternity. It’s ok to move on and count this as ‘experience’. You have not failed. You’re still loved and cherished. You’re still you. I would suggest doing quiet meditation for 5 min. and focus on your breath. That will still your inner chatter and break the cycle of anger and blaming. I read something recently that’s helped me… “Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.” Observe the situation… “it is what it is” without a label of good/bad/success/failure. Like being on a park bench observing life. Nurture yourself. Do something(s) that bring the feeling of joy and nourishment to your soul… what would that look like? Do it. Then I’d suggest (if you haven’t already) getting some pix from the internet or magazines.. and create a vision board for those things that from your childhood you”ve wanted to be and have and do. It will focus your mind and heart on what you DO want… not on what you don’t. Our main purpose in life is to bring love into the world. Just keep giving love and receiving love. I understand being “shell time” like a turtle afraid to come out. But listen to your heart and just start making that dream board…. of what you DO WANT. It will revive your faith when you see it start happening. {big hugs…. you will get through this….much love….}. Rita “He restores my soul…” Psalm 23:3

    • Leanne Penny

      Thank you Rita! such great thoughts and I really appreciate you sharing your story and thoughts from your own journey. I have long felt like meditation would be really helpful in centering me and my raging thought life. Stillness in general, all too often I fill the void with noise and entertainment. Good sometimes, but others? Not so much.

  • Tanya Marlow

    I see failure, but not from you and Kel. I see failure on the part of those who were going to support you and didn’t. (Maybe I’m a little bit angry about that).

    I don’t know – we just do church planting differently here, I guess. There’s two models – the more successful model is for a church to give away forty of its best, most dynamic lay leaders, pastures by its best up and coming pastor, and you already then have a small ready-made church that the community can slot into. It’s more like church ‘grafting’ than church planting. Generally the church plant grows slowly then rapidly, and the church it was grafted from has a period of mourning, but it gets refilled, and everyone’s ok. The alternative is to have pioneer people with a handful of small support from churches and do pioneer evangelism, but then you’re looking at c 5 years even to build up to 40 people on a Sunday, and that’s okay, because you’re building slowly from indigenous population. I might just be speaking from a major culture clash here, but it seems in the US you set your church planters up to fail because you don’t give them enough support.


    You were obedient and faithful. I don’t see anything you could have done better.


    Praying for healing and peace and for God to guide you on this next path. I’m trusting in His goodness, and for gold amidst the muck.


    • Leanne Penny

      I agree with you that the seeding it out model is a lot better and I think that is what we are moving to here as well. We were just caught in the fray. Thank you so much for your love and encouragement both today and all along the way.

  • Chrissy

    My husband is a pastor and we’ve had more than one situation that was pull-the-rug-out-from-under-us devastating in terms of ministry assignments, and they HURT. There have been too many arguments that involved turning against each other, and you are right, it is a special kind of pain and grief. But you did your job, you were brave and you did what God asked for you to do, and I know He will not leave you or forsake you. Get some rest and concentrate on growing your baby. Your only job is to be faithful to God, and you are doing great.

    • Leanne Penny

      Thank you so much for chiming in from your own experience, and for the encouragement. We will take it and breathe it in deeply.

  • Rea

    I’m so sorry. I kind of wondered if that was what was going on since you hadn’t posted about the church plant in quite some time. Church planting is hard and painful work, and that’s just me speaking as a church staffer and member of 10 year old church plant that is still struggling along and just not seeing the growth of other church plants in the area (even though I truly believe that we have something unique and beautiful to offer).
    The only thing I have to offer is the prayer that in years to come you will look back and see this not as a failure, but a turning point on a beautiful journey.

  • Jo Inglis

    I’m sorry it hurts for you – the cloak & dagger stuff that goes with church leadership where you can’t always share along the way makes it harder for sure.

    I was talking with a deeply grieving friend last week. She generally keeps her eyes firmly shut in worship at church (I’m in awe that she even turns up), but she happened to open them one morning recently when we were singing the words ‘Over all my dreams in my darkest hour’ from Over all the earth. Her dreams have been dark.

    Darkness might have dimmed dreams for now, but Light will return. Prayers for those you need around you & for peace with the approach of Baby P’s arrival.

    Our lit candle at supper was for you guys today x

  • Andrea Frazer

    Well, that just generally sucks. I’m so very sorry. It’s been a HORRIBLE season for me, too. But Leanne, I really believe in you and your spouse and your life. I know that the website I had worked on totally had issues (sorry again to Kel for bringing him in and then dissing him based on management changes) but it’s going through some positive re-arranges now. I’m still there, wading through the mess. I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I am interviewing Kirk Cameron next week! Ha! I knew if I held on long enough I’d reach Christian gold. :) Listen, you WILL get through this. And I am here for you and believe in you and remember, life is messy. If I didn’t learn that last year, I ain’t never gonna learn it. But God IS good. He is. I promise.

  • Brad Humphrey

    Know above all else that I love you both. Been through my own pain in the past few years and so have not said that enough. Just know and tell Kel that I love you. Your writing is wonderful!

  • Pam Worcester

    Oh Leanne … my heart hurts for you and Kel and Noelle and Caedmon and Baby P … as a family … we’ve been there … done that … have t-shirts as well … Marriage is hard. Married in the ministry is harder. Married in the ministry of church planting is even harder. Even this morning I shed tears and I’ve been doing this church planting thing for many years. But I have to keep reminding myself daily (and sometimes even hourly!) … God is good … All the time … He is faithful … His mercies are new every morning … he longs to sing over us … He who began a good work … Barry and I are praying for your sweet family … prayers for rest … coming together as a couple and a family … for God to reach down, pick you up, dry your tears, hold you close, and then set you down for new steps in your journey.

  • pastordt

    I kinda thought that might be what was so heavy on your heart. And i am so, so sorry. We planted a daughter church and had the opposite thing happen – they took MORE than we thought would go and it took years to recover – haven’t ever reached previous numbers, but that’s okay, too. So sorry for your bruised hearts (and egos, too) and praying you’ll not lose touch with each other through this. Also? that you won’t have to move again! So very sorry, Leanne.

  • Briana Meade

    Leanne, So sorry you guys have had to go through this. I echo what Tanya said: No shame allowed. You were obedient and faithful.

  • Brenda W.

    I’m not in ministry, but I understand the bewilderment and even sense of betrayal when you pour yourself into something God seemed to be calling you to and it doesn’t work out. I’m so sorry you guys are going through this difficult time. Praying for hope and healing.

  • Addie Zierman

    I’m so sorry to hear this friend. How heartbreaking. Praying for your family as you navigate next steps. xo