The title of Randy Bohlender’s new book is best thought of as a confession rather than an accusation.
“I remember where I was sitting when it dawned on me that our church plant had not died a natural death, it had been killed and the Lord’s hand was in that. It was shocking because you’re taught in ministry that bigger is always better and something failing is never what God intended. You realise he had a role in that and it makes you re-evaluate everything.”
What Went Wrong?
Self-described experts on church planting would have predicted great success for Randy. He and his wife Kelsey had felt a strong call to plant. Their vision was a seeker-friendly and Holy Spirit led congregation. There was also financial backing as the team moved into a booming Cincinnati suburb.
“It had every reason to succeed but it didn’t,” Randy says looking back.
“We were shocked and stunned because we had poured everything we had into this thing for years. To see it die was sad and embarrassing. I didn’t want to talk about it. I felt like I had wasted people’s time and money. I felt like I had heard from the Lord to do it but something had obviously gone wrong and I figured that must have been me.”
But the end wasn’t messy. There was no big blow up or falling out.
“It didn’t explode. It coasted off to the side of the road and coughed,” Randy says.
A Call to Quit
The team had gathered around 70 people to their weekly meetings. While pastors of some UK churches would be delighted with such a number, (and celebrated that revival was on the way) Randy wasn’t as impressed.
“Here in the US you almost ought to be able to gather 70 people with good donuts and decent music. This is not the hardest, darkest place in the world.
“The church expression was not invalid, it was pleasing to the Lord; but the things the Lord had put in our hearts for outreach we were nowhere near accomplishing. I found myself using a lot of energy to maintain what we had built rather than to expand in the way the Lord had laid on my heart to do.”
The quitting is never fun because it’s never fully understood.
Was the calling to leave the fledgling church plant as strong as the earlier call to start it?
“As strong, but definitely not as fun! It’s always more exciting to be starting something than to quit something. The quitting is never fun because it’s never fully understood. Even when it’s the Lord there are people who pull slogans out like ‘God isn’t a quitter’. They are preaching at you with bumper stickers!”
Learning Through Failure
Randy is now a leader at the International House of Prayer. He’s also gone on to start a non-profit and adoption agency. It was on the seventh anniversary of his church plant closing that he spotted a brochure for a church planting conference.
“Some of my contemporaries from my church planting days were now teaching at this church planting conference. I remember thinking, ‘Wow if our church plant had succeeded I would be running in that camp not this camp.’ I heard the Lord speak to me and say, ‘Yeah you would be telling all those people to do what you did because that’s what would have worked and you didn’t really know anything’.
“It was entirely true. It was the Lord’s kindness to us that we did not succeed in our ignorance. It was the Lord’s kindness to the body of Christ we didn’t succeed. Not that we were bad. We had the idea that nothing could be learned through failure so God always wanted you to succeed.
“I’m 45, if I look back on my life I’ve learned way more through my failures than my successes. That’s why I came to the realization that the church didn’t die. Jesus killed it and it was a mercy killing.”
'They Don't Teach You Anything In Seminary'
Randy’s book Jesus Killed My Church tells the full story of the church plant and is laced with lessons the pastor has learned along the way. Who has he written it for?
“I think of church planters who are just starting out, but I also think of the guy who is 45 and pastoring or leading a small group and is looking back thinking: ‘this is not exactly what I thought it was’.
“What you know at 45, which you didn’t know at 20, is they didn’t teach you anything in seminary! They taught you Greek and Hebrew. They didn’t teach you the practical aspects of pastoring.
“I run into a lot of guys my age and - disillusioned is too strong a word because they love their church and their people and the Lord, but there is a little bit of angst of: ‘wow this didn’t turn out the way I thought it would’.
“The book helps them visit their own history and see the hand of God move through their successes and failures and appreciate their own journey more. I look back and I wouldn’t change anything now. I would not have said that before I wrote the book.”
I’ve learned way more through my failures than my successes. That’s why I came to the realization that the church didn’t die. Jesus killed it and it was a mercy killing.
The promise that the book will help other pastors appreciate their failures as well as their successes is an important one. Randy believes that processing recent failures is tricky.
“I intentionally waited a long time to write the book. I waited eight years because some things you can’t process up close. You need distance to think about it correctly. As I wrote it, I felt I had more understanding of what happened. In the moment of the pain and emotion we very rarely see what God is doing.”
Sharing his life story’s lessons in a humorous and good natured way, Randy is now content in the knowledge that God always has a plan, even when our plan falls apart.
December 11th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes