If I had to name the god of my time as a Church Planter, I would name it Calling.
A Jedi Council Meeting
Drew asked me when I was going to move back to Lafayette to start a church with him. I cracked up laughing and said, “Never.” I was done with Lafayette. I had just gotten back from China and was in love with Houston. My future was bound to that sprawling beast with strip malls for bones and ten lane freeways for clogged arteries.
About half a year after telling Drew I was never moving back to Lafayette, I called him to ask if he was serious about the church-starting-thing. He and I then started praying earnestly about starting a church together. A few months later I asked my small group at Ecclesia to do a “discernment circle” with me. It’s a Quaker tradition in which you gather people you respect and they can only ask open-ended questions as they help you discern the direction of something in your life. It looks kinda like a Jedi Council meeting. Except it’s God instead of the Force. And no one has a light saber. And you can’t strangle people with your mind… I tried my hardest with that one.
By the end of the Discernment Circle, it was clear to me and everyone else that I was going to move back to my hometown to start a church. My college dream was becoming a reality and I was going to do it under the leadership of one of my best friends.
Latin for Voice
Drew and I sat down with Mark Driscoll and another man that ran the Acts 29 church planting network. We were in the middle of a church planting seminar and each team got a one-on-one session with the A29 guys. (Aside: the Evangelical Community has an acronym fetish. I wonder if part of why Emergent was rejected was because there was no acronym for it.) I felt pretty good about the meeting. I was part of the leadership at an A29 church and Drew was on staff with a megachurch. We -mostly Drew- had done more detailed work than I imagined possible to answer the questionnaire that A29 had given all the potential church planters in attendance.
After our introductions were done, Mark jumped right in. “Drew, I’m going to be honest with you. I think your theology is shit.”
As I watched Drew try to recover from that knockout punch, I sat in my chair, totally content to be invisible. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if I had ever been happier to be invisible. Drew did recover and the meeting went well but we weren’t A29 material. They took a hard pass on funding us.
As a parting prize, we left that conference with our church name. Vox Populi was the name of the host church’s newsletter. It’s Latin for The Voice of the People. Drew wrote “vox?’ on a note and slid it across the table to me. I nodded in agreement. Our church would be called Vox, Latin for Voice, Cry or Call.
We were a tiny group
I believed in a God that spoke directly to people. He oversaw our lives as a loving parent looked over a child’s shoulder, he walked beside us on our journeys, and he whispered from within us. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends in my hometown about this intimate God.
My first experience with Vox was the day I drove my moving van home. The first few members of Vox, as well as some of my friends, met me to unload the moving van. My community welcomed me into their midst by serving me. We unloaded boxes, washing machines, and knick-knacks together.
We were a tiny group of people and Drew and I jumped in by doing what we were great at- teaching and shepherding.
Drew was a great teacher. He was able to cast vision and direction in a contagious way. He was great at leading a team, too. He started doing what he called dialogical sermons. They were TOTALLY different from anything I’d ever seen before and I was deeply impressed with his bravery. Drew had notes and a destination in mind but he welcomed all of our input into the sermon. He was placing a bet on the fact that God actually did speak to all of us as we engaged the scriptures. It worked. Every week people gave their unique insights into what they were hearing and seeing in the bible as we read through it.
While Drew’s strengths lay in teaching and organizing, my strengths lay in being with people. I didn’t need a purpose behind anything nor did I need a vision to cast. I just tried to model Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance. I sat with people in their pain. I listened to their fears. I led them in prayer and meditation. I pointed towards hope that was greater than and outside of their problems.
My arms were always marked
I asked one couple attending Vox for a favor- I needed a job and any referral they could give me would be much appreciated. About a week later I sat down with J.P. MacFadyen, the owner of the local Great Harvest Bread franchise. We talked about things like Living Wages, my church, and social justice issues. J.P. was Catholic but clearly not the kind I grew up with. He told me what he could pay me, I gladly took him up on the generous wage, and began my first job in the Food/Service Industry the following week.
I started right before the Holiday Season of that year and we pulled double shifts the entire week of Christmas. I remember getting up, opening presents with everyone, and then going back to sleep for most of the day. The amount of hours I had put in had been grueling. However, it paid the bills.
The longer I stayed at Great Harvest, the more responsibilities I picked up. I started making the doughs at 4am. I started filling in all the spreadsheets. I pulled orders. I burned myself over and over again. My arms were always marked by at least one scab from a sheet pan branding me.
I felt that this job was below me. I had done white collar work my entire life up to this point and I looked forward to the day when I could leave the Food/Service Industry behind me and go full time with Vox.
All we’ve got to give
I sat down with the high school kid over breakfast. It was an intimidating breakfast for me because I didn’t have anything to offer him. Vox didn’t have a Youth Group. Vox didn’t have silly games.
“All we’ve got to give you is ourselves,” I told him. “We’ll be honest with you about life and welcome you as a brother and friend.”
Ben looked at me and told me that was all he wanted. He displayed a maturity that I wish I had when I was in high school. He saw past all of the games, songs, and activities to the God behind them. He wanted authentic community, the one thing Vox had in abundance.
I left that breakfast with Ben more proud to be a pastor that I had ever been. It was a privilege to be a part of lives as awesome as that high school kid’s life. I felt that way about everyone. Paige, Jason, Jenny, Nicolette, John, Katie, Nichole, Jerry, Emily, Drew, Kelly, Choopy, Tara, Brett, Kristy, Ben, Stephanie, John, Becky, Matt, Rebecca, David, Laura, Isabel, Beau, and Carrie all still have special places in my heart.
I was rocked back
When I got home from work, Carrie walked up to me and put her arms around me. She choked out the words, “Everything is going to be OK” before she started sobbing. The test for Down Syndrome had come back positive for our second child. I was rocked back but stuffed everything down so that I could take care of Carrie in that moment.
I started imagining our future. In my mind I could see my oldest son at about 10 looking at me, next to him was his 8 year old brother with Down Syndrome. This was going to change my life forever but I felt up to the task. I would love this kid, no matter what.
They rarely returned
Every week our “church services” started with an hour of prayer and meditation. As you might expect, there was a small turnout for the hour of prayer. It was usually just Drew and me but occasionally someone else would show up… it was a big ask for our young community to show up at 9am on a Sunday when they had been out at a club or a friend’s house past midnight the night before.
We would start with meditation that focused on our breath and letting go of our preoccupations before moving on to a scripture passage to engage. After that, we would move to world matters and local matters, asking God how to act and how to pray.
Everyone who attended said that they left the hour much more at peace than when they walked into the room. They rarely returned, though. The lack of attendance started to eat at me, eroding my sense of contentment with our community.
There was no smile
Drew and I planted a flag on drinking. We were pro-alcohol. The bible overwhelming supported and celebrated drinking (only 18% of bible references to alcohol are critical) and we observed a strong religiosity in Southern Evangelical culture’s fixation on drinking as a measure of piety.
As a result, we used real wine in communion as well as grape juice. We drank at get-togethers. We used alcohol as a springboard into conversations about the true measures of faith (loving everyone and serving everyone) as opposed to religious measures of faith (looking “right” and saying “good” things). We had beautiful sharing over beers with our friends. We savored the bitter, sour, burning of wine in communion. Our small community understood why we drank and supported us in the belief that our service of the people in our lives was a better measure of our holiness than abstaining from drinking or not saying “fuck”.
The challenge I faced was that most of my church connections were Baptist. And those guys loathed drinking in ways I truly didn’t understand. They had planted their flag on the opposite hill and they were ready to die on it. (Aside: the origin of their anti-booze stance is rooted in the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the late 19th/early 20th Century. Their strongly conservative leanings and anti-equal-pay policies are the deepest of ironies considering their history as a progressively minded denomination.)
I showed up at the tailgating party for UL and said hi to my friend who ran the Baptist Collegiate Ministry. I then walked over to my other friends and cracked open a Miller Lite I had brought with me. My Baptist friend walked over and conversed with me and everyone else with a smile on his face but there was no smile to what was happening under the conversation. He was bewildered that all of us were drinking and we were bewildered at his bewilderment.
I didn’t think much of that beer until we sat down with a Baptist Missions Director who was going to invest $2,000 a month in Vox. Drew would get $1,000 as the Lead Pastor and I would get the other $1,000 as an “Inner City Minister” since we met downtown. The man informed us that my beer had forced Vox’s policy on drinking into the spotlight with Southern Baptists. He had been willing to look the other way but my Miller Lite had forced a forming of ranks within local churches and ministries. I began to defend myself but Drew stopped me. He could see the writing on the wall much better than I could.
That Miller Lite cost my church $2,000 a month. It is, without a doubt, the most expensive drink I have ever had.
the positive results
We sat with the lights dimmed, surrounded by larger monitors than normal for the ultrasound. This wasn’t a normal visit to check on the baby. This ultrasound was much higher definition. The technician drew lines with his mouse, measuring bone length, heart size, and other developmental markers.
As he went through his checklist he would occasionally narrate what we were seeing. He confirmed that we did, indeed, have a second son on the way. He let us listen to the heartbeat. I remember my father-in-law wiping back tears as he watched the baby in Carrie’s belly move on the screen.
At the end of the ultrasound the technician told us that our son showed none of the markers for Down Syndrome. He told us that the ultrasounds were occasionally wrong but he continued to emphasize the positive results he had found.
I didn’t let go of the fear, despite the optimism. We all went back to my in-law’s home and Carrie went back to the sofa. She had been placed on bedrest. Nothing about this pregnancy was going according to plan. It was a dark cloud casting a deep shadow over my life.
my hunger consumed me
Early in my time pastoring Vox, I felt the need to go on an extended fast. It wasn’t to manipulate God into giving me something good. The purpose of my fast was to gain clarity and focus. I needed direction.
I was moving into uncharted territory. I had done the Evangelical version of fasting a couple of times: skip breakfast and lunch, mutter a few extra prayers, and then gorge for dinner. This was something that felt different. I had researched extended fasting and learned more about the whys and hows. I had made space in my calendar for contemplation and rest. I was going in with the goal of a fasting for a week but I was prepared to bail earlier if need be.
The last thing I ate was communion. I walked to the communion station in the kitchen of the home Vox met in, ripped off a piece of the bread, and dipped it into the wine. There was a deeper understanding of the Lord’s Supper for me on that day- as I ate, my eating was a prayer for God to sustain my mind and spirit. My bite was a proclamation that I believed God would sustain me.
For the first day and a half, my hunger consumed me. It was almost all I thought about. I was frustrated because I wasn’t really accomplishing anything internally. Then, at about the 48 hour mark, the hunger subsided. My digestive system had, basically, gone into hibernation. I was forced to move slower because of the lower levels of blood sugar in my system which, in turn, caused me to pause and rest not only my body but my mind and soul.
As I drove around Lafayette, I became aware of how much food dominated American culture. Signs for fast food restaurants were everywhere. Billboards advertising food and drink obscured the sky. Delivery trucks with food and drink brands were all over the roads. I observed all of this from a different place… for the first time I was disconnected from this basic human need.
“We are such a strange people.” I thought, “We live completely obsessed with something we quickly do three times a day.”
On the fifth day of my fast, I called it quits. My acid reflux from the lemon juice in my fasting drink was killing me. I reentered the world of food with some cabbage boiled in water with a little salt. It was a glorious meal.
The timing couldn’t have been worse
I could hear the frustration in J.P.’s voice when he answered the bakery’s phone line. It was around 6am and I was supposed to be there at 5:45. I told him that I couldn’t make it because my baby was being born that day. The frustration evaporated from J.P.’s voice and was replaced with joy. I hung up with him and went back to my fear.
The previous day we were at a routine ultrasound. The technician casually noted that the amniotic fluid was low and said, “I don’t like this. I think the baby is going to have to come early.” She then went back to her sorcery involving the grainy screen.
I circled back and said, “So, how early are you thinking?”
“Today,” she said.
We went back to my in-laws to pack up. The timing couldn’t have been worse. We were closing on our first house in two days and now an emergency C-section was being thrown into the mix. Carrie frantically packed baby clothes and did a little nesting.
After my call with J.P., the nurses and aids started prepping Carrie and I for her surgery. When we had a few moments alone I read Psalm 139 and substituted our son’s name into the Psalm as I prayed it aloud.
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
About an hour later, my second son came into this world. His entrance was the exact opposite of his older brothers’ birth. As I walked around the operating table to see my new son, I was aware that, in my periphery, I could see inside my wife. There was blood soaked gauze everywhere and the smell of flesh being cauterized. Above it all, though, I could hear my son crying. He was alive, healthy, and completely normal despite being six weeks early.
As I walked with him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I saw my dad and said my second son’s full name aloud for the first time to someone other than Carrie. I then disappeared into the NICU with the nurses, where my son would spend the next two weeks of his life.
The following day I signed the paperwork on our house. I was still wearing the wristband allowing me back into the hospital where my son and wife were recuperating. For the first time in our marriage, Carrie and I were homeowners.
Our first night under one roof as a family was not in our new home, though. It was spent at Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Carrie and my youngest were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My oldest and I were on the second floor of another building. He had suffered from an asthma attack while I was walking him around our new neighborhood and he had been admitted to ensure his blood oxygen levels would stay high and that his breathing would stay normal. When they suggested it might be pet related, we got rid of Carrie’s childhood cat immediately.
I wasn’t prepared
With the traumatic birth of my new son, the long hours at Great Harvest, and revolving door of people attending Vox, I was at my end. Paige went off to grad school, as did Nichole. Ben left to go to photography school. David and Laura left so David could get back into ministry. John and Becky left to go hike the Appalachian Trail.
I wasn’t prepared for this side of being a pastor. I didn’t realize that there would be so many people leaving that I loved and cared for. Some left in a huff. Others faded away without a whisper. Those were the hardest. What had I done wrong? Why did they just leave?
On top of all of these issues was my never-ending battle with expressing myself in feminine ways. I was a fucking stereotype: an evangelical pastor with some twisted, dark side that I repressed and hid from the world. I feared the day that everything would come out and I would be exposed. I worried about the blowback for Vox if that ever happened.
I felt like an unravelling thread that was about to snap. I needed a break, so I asked Drew for a sabbatical. He gave me one and cared for me like a friend and pastor during my month off, juggling those two roles beautifully.
It was all a lie
As tired as I was, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Vox was about to be gifted $200,000 by a member’s father who needed a tax write off. It was a completely unexpected godsend.
As Drew worked to facilitate this massive gift, I left Lafayette to spend the holidays with my family in Texas. I was on my parent’s patio, looking over Canyon Lake, when Drew called me on January 2nd.
“Dallas, it was all a lie. She was impersonating her dad in the emails. She was impersonating him on the phone calls. There is no money. I just got off of the phone with her dad and he was apologetic and explained that this was all an elaborate hoax that he knew nothing about.”
Sometimes sick people do sick things for attention. One of the sick women in our church -in desperate need of love and help- did one of those sick things and the consequences for Drew and me were immense. Our church went from having the funding we needed to carry on to having nothing in a matter of days.
I was done. I resigned not long after I got back to Lafayette.
Drew carried on for a few more months before he, too, ran out of steam.
Too fucked up
Now that my dreams of being a pastor had turned into a nightmare, I was left with a cold, hard dose of reality. I had a family I needed to support and a part time job at a bakery that wasn’t going to cut it. I pulled J.P. aside one day and told him I needed to make more than he could afford to pay me. I told him that I would be looking for work and that I wanted to give him a heads up so he wouldn’t be caught by surprise when it happened.
A few days later, J.P. pulled me aside and told me, “You don’t get to tell me what I can and can’t afford.” It turned out that not only could he and Michelle afford me, but they wanted me to be a part of their business. I stepped into a full time role at Great Harvest that I didn’t see coming.
One day, as I was alone at the oven, I saw my life playing out like a movie. It wasn’t a comedy or adventure film. It was a tragedy. The film was ending with me standing at an oven. I saw it fading to black. This movie of my life was the story of someone too fucked up for God to use.
My mind was stuck on a mathematical formula that I couldn’t disprove:
If God called me to start a church
And the church Failed
Then I must be the reason behind the failure
Read the next chapter: A god named Cultivate.