Shutting down a fledgling church is uniquely painful. It signals the end of praying, fundraising, planning and sacrificial labor to reach a particular community for Christ.  The pastoral couple has invested late nights and early mornings, made endless phone calls and visits, hosted innumerable meetings, sent a thousand emails—and now it’s over. Gone. The excitement of dreaming and building is replaced with the dismal task of disbanding.

The peril least discussed or understood is the emotional and spiritual impact on the planter, the spouse and those most involved with the plant.

Just as there are no easy answers in any significant loss, it is immensely helpful to explain the feelings to help name and thus normalize what is happening.  When facing the death of a church plant, the pastor, spouse, and key leaders will experience turmoil, shock, lack of mental clarity, grief, shame, anger and denial. The key is to allow yourself to grieve.

1. Turmoil

Regardless of how well a couple may be prepared for the possibility that their church plant could fail, it is still devastating if this does indeed happen.  No one goes into church planting thinking theirs will be the one that doesn’t make it. Consider the years of schooling, language study, fundraising, geographical moves, and the emotional and financial costs of starting a church.  Ultimately, it feels as if God has abandoned us. Even after a family is resettled after the close of a church, they will continue to face inner turmoil. You may feel relief that it’s over. Paralysis is normal. You may freeze when hearing the doorbell or phone. Anxiety and fear are commonplace.  I recall the seesaw of emotions I felt after we left one church situation.

For years I avoided listening to voice messages and reading emails. Both were avenues where I had received verbal attacks and threats. Apart from vacations, we had been married thirty years before we experienced life with weekends! I was ecstatic imagining the possibility of Sunday brunches. To say I was relieved that I could attend church and be known apart from my husband’s position was an understatement. Nevertheless, relief is troubling. We know our leaving impacted many people. I feel I shouldn’t experience relief when I know my husband misses preaching, when I realize how many people were hurt in the ensuing crossfires.

2. Shock

Even when there are signs that the church might not survive, we still experience the shock that our dream of a thriving church did not come to fruition. We feel sorrow, despair and yes, even hopelessness. “I thought this is what God wanted us to do. If I couldn’t figure this out correctly, where else am I off track?” We don’t even want to express our worst fears: “Who is this God I serve? Is this God I so boldly proclaim to others, even there?”

The best thing a friend or loved one can do is to listen with compassion. The pastor and wife of our sending church sat with us and listened for hours. They gave no answers, no platitudes, no fix-it prayers. They gave their hearts and ears. We will forever be thankful.

3. Lack of mental clarity

When a crisis hits, it’s hard to concentrate. Hours and days blur together. We are advised not to make major life decisions during a crisis. However, the church planting family is in a conundrum. Even if we have a severance package, it will soon run out. Decisions need to be made about kids’ schooling and where the family will live.  And what about a job?

Wisdom dictates caution in what we say on the Internet and in how we communicate with others.  FYI, if you are a verbal processor, close your social media accounts.

We bought a home during one crisis.  It was two weeks before the holidays. I held the decorated Christmas tree upright in the back of the moving van and plugged in the lights as soon we arrived at our new home.  Purchasing a house was my husband’s attempt at providing some sense of home and normalcy for our uprooted family. And even though I was present at the signing, I have no recollection of the event.  

4. Grief

Rarely does the planting couple have the time and space to grieve. Often, others place us in a position of having to give answers when we ourselves don’t even understand what occurred.  We may feel compelled to defend our sending agency or the church at large, especially to family members and friends who aren’t Christians, while at the same time being furious with both. It’s not as if we have lost our love for God and the church –or is it? In the moment, it might feel that way. For some, it may be a long journey back to church, if ever. Ministers often wrestle with their career path, especially as they consider its impact on their spouse and children. Spouses often wrestle with feelings of betrayal by people in their church, their sending agency, their husband and God.  No wonder it’s especially hard for us to attend church services, become a member again, pray and read the Bible. It’s not that we aren’t in a relationship with God, it’s that we are wrestling with God! Since prayer and scripture were foundational in the decision to go into ministry in the first place, we may feel God—or our spouse—manipulated us.

Our spiritual growth may be stunted if we refuse to walk the path of grief.   For we run the risk of never fully experiencing rest and trust in a God who deeply loves us and does not betray us! We need permission to walk this road.  If you are able to read the Bible, look at the lives of Jacob, Joseph,  Job and Jonah.

During our first ministry crisis we didn’t know how to allow each other to grieve separately and in our own way. We didn’t know how to proceed with decisions. We argued. We flung hurtful words at each other. The heartache drew us apart. More recently, we have learned to give each other space, to not demand answers, to recognize when the other is on edge and name it openly. John didn’t prod me to join another church before I was ready.  I have close friends, mentors, and coaches I go to when I feel I will explode. They carry the brunt of my blurting when we are grieving, not my husband. This opens space for John to grieve his own grief, and not just mine. Yes, as spouses, we carry each other’s burdens. But our tendency was to want the other to carry our load. (Gal. 6) We don’t need to borrow each other’s anger or hold each other’s grudges. We now know that I need to meet with church leaders at some point when a church crisis deeply impacts me. We’ve learned not to discuss pain before going to bed as sleep is especially important during a crisis. Instead we’ve learned the importance of touch (that doesn’t always lead to sex), of holding the other without using words. We will need to talk but we’re learning to do so with the other’s needs in mind.

5. Shame

A deep sense of shame is common to those who close their church.  We feel like failures. We could have done more. We review where it all went wrong and what we did wrong.  We wrestle with guilt over abandoning the people left behind and those who supported us financially. We find it hard to face those who believed in our mission, those who backed us.  We feel obliged to give an account of what happened, to prove it wasn’t our fault while at the same time wondering if it was all our fault. We want to thank people for once having believed in us, but how does one do that when we no longer believe in ourselves?  Our self worth is crippled. The dark hours of the night can be dangerous. We hear our inner voices condemning us and we are tempted to agree.  This is by far the hardest part.

It takes tremendous courage to seek help from others, especially when we are used to being the ones others seek for help. But help is what we need! If we truly believe the truth of the gospel, that we are far more needy and sinful than we care to recognize, admit it and find a safe person with whom you can unburden your soul. Shame is healed by bringing it into the light, by speaking of it, and most importantly by experiencing the acceptance of another person who knows our shame. In so doing, we allow others to be a Christ figure for us. We experience a taste of the limitless love of the Father through another person.   

6. Anger, rage, powerlessness, and hatred

Our frustration looks for a target. If others closed down the plant, or were the source of our husband being fired, we often focus our rage in their direction. More often than not, the pastoral spouse is not a part of the decision-making process, compounding her frustration and sense of powerlessness.  Even if we made the decision together to close the church, we still find ourselves in a quagmire of ambiguous emotions.  On the one hand, we grieve the death of our dream. At the same time, we rage against ourselves for not having the foresight or ability to change the course of the church. We flounder in that we don’t know what to do with the enormity of our negative feelings.  Depending on our family of origin as well as our cultural and Christian norms, negative feelings may be denied, suppressed or in the rare case for the planting couple, overly emphasized.  It’s common to deny our feelings by misusing scripture: “Well, it was all in God’s plan, and he works everything together for good.” While these statements are true, using them as mini-pads after an aborted plant is not appropriate. In all likelihood, you and your spouse will be poles apart in how you deal with anger.

Consider how you can be gracious with your spouse. What does he/she need most from you?  Be aware that both extremes—ignoring grief altogether or exclusively focusing on it—can be unhealthy. Be aware of your addictive tendencies. What do you turn to for soothing? Do you overwork, over pray, overdrink? It’s not that any one of these things in and of themselves are wrong; we wouldn’t say praying, working, or having a beer is inappropriate. But what is our reason behind what we are doing? We can as easily use prayer as a subtle way to feel good about ourselves (dull the pain) as much as we use wine to forget (dull the pain).

7. Denial 

Denial has many faces. It can be the inability to recognize the need to close the church when others see it clearly. It may be a lack of understanding why your spouse or children are disheartened when you feel fine. You may think they need to ‘get over it’ more quickly than they do. You may even exhibit incredible calm and an ability to clearly communicate next steps to the congregation and your family. Others may comment on your rock solid faith. This may be the case, but this high-level functioning may also be denial or shock.  It’s hard for a ministry couple to fully embrace grief, especially when the grief involves their calling. The spouse, whose ministry calling is usually ambiguous anyway, often wrestles with her part. She may wonder, “Was I fully on board? Did I do enough to support this plant? Should I have stopped working and given myself full time to the plant?” or “Is it my fault the church didn’t succeed?”

A time to Mourn

If we don’t deal with pain, it will crop up again—usually in unrecognizable and destructive ways. Allowing a season of mourning not only protects us from making mistakes but also allows grief to surface and healing to begin. Consider responsibilities you can forego for a season. With whom will you stay involved and what relationships can you lay aside? What gives you life and soothes your soul? In our Parakaleo groups (link to groups) we use the phrase, “building an arsenal of truth and beauty.”  It’s the cache we use that directs our soul back to the truth of Christ. It can be music, symbolic items, bits of nature, and scripture. The list is endless. What are yours? Where can you create windows of time in your day for your soul to be nurtured?  Will you allow others to care for you?

When we faced our first ministry crisis, a dear friend helped me locate a rental close to her home. She figuratively picked me up off the floor and cared for me. One of her greatest gifts was caring for our kids and providing a safe and fun place for them. When I was able, I spent extended time in the passage,  “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.” As I mediated, the bigger story of humanity and a world defaced by sin grew large. There was much to mourn. I feared the enormity would overwhelm me, that I would spiral into an uncontrollable depression.  But only in the degree to which I faced the devastation and pervasion of sin in this world, in myself, and in our particular situation, did I experience the comfort and joy of Christ.

Grieving isn’t a step-by-step processes. We go through different stages, back and forth, and all over again. I don’t know that we get to a place where we can say, ‘that’s fully behind me.’ But as we mourn and allow space for grief, healing begins. We loosen our need for answers or affixing blame. When we least expect it we catch glimpses of God’s redemption washing back over the event. A comfort beyond explanation slowly seeps into our souls. Others may notice gratefulness, patience and longsuffering sprouting where there once existed entitlement, grumbling and anger. We smile. The work of the Spirit is bearing fruit, good fruit!