Episode 1: Meet the Hosts
Nick: Welcome, everyone, to the Start In LA podcast. We're so excited to be here, we're so excited to get this going. The "we" are going to be three different hosts that run this podcast over the course of the next seven, eight, or nine sessions that we do, and we'll look forward to getting to know the hosts here today. In the meantime though, let me get you caught up on the narrative of Start In LA.
Nick: First of all, I'm Nick Warnes. I'm the director of Cyclical LA. Cyclical LA is working in partnership with Fuller Theological Seminary to create and expand Start In LA. The purpose of Start In LA is to gather multiple perspectives from multiple ecclesial innovators, people who start churches, to do mutual learning with one another, to learn from each other and to grow together, and the multiple perspectives that we have in starting new churches in this city that we love so much. That said, I'm the director, like I said, of Cyclical LA, and also the executive director of Cyclical Incorporated. We'll get more into the nuances of those later.
Nick: Start In LA started as a conference that as held in October of 2017. In that conference we gathered multiple church starting network leaders for public conversation on what was going on with the churches in their networks. We felt that the event was helpful for numerous people, and the diversity of voices that came to that also expressed a lot of learning that happened, and a lot of gaining of competencies that were then implemented into the various networks. From there, Cyclical LA and Fuller Seminary agreed to continue the Start In LA opportunity.
Nick: In addition to the conference that we will be having next fall, we're also adding quarterly that Len Tang from Fuller Seminary will be heading up. We had our first one, I hope that you made it to it. I heard that it was a lovely experience. We talked about church starting in multi-ethnic contexts. Then Cyclical LA is in charge of this podcast that you're listening to right now. We're hoping that the quarterly gatherings and the podcast will lend toward an even more meaningful experience next fall at the Start In LA conference.
Nick: All that said, let's get to know the hosts here. I'm so excited to be sitting with two doctors.
Nick: Yeah, Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox.
Nick: And Dr. Michaela O'Donnell Long, who just was crowned with her doctorate recently.
Michaela: I'm actually wearing a grown right now.
Michaela: It's very sparkly.
Nick: Would one of you like to introduce yourselves to the audience?
Michaela: First of all, I'm the first one with several long last names. I feel like we both have that. I'm looking over at Bethany. I'm Michaela, and I come at this conversation from multiple angles. Almost seven or eight years ago, was part of the initial elder board that helped Nick start a church here in LA. I'm also a business owner. I have started my own business, and we own a creative agency, my husband and I, where we make videos and do branding, and sort of serve a wide variety of clients who do social and cultural impact. I also do coaching for Cyclical LA, do some teaching there, and I'm involved at Fuller with the De Pree Center for Leadership where we're focused on some different entrepreneurial things that kind of overlap in creative ways with the church planting stuff. I'll stop there.
Nick: We've got to flesh a lot of that out here.
Michaela: Okay, yeah. I didn't have as fancy words as you do, like "ecclesial information" and "mutual learning".
Nick: Jennifer is our generous producer, and she is so tired of hearing me say these. Really there's like six worse that I know.
Michaela: Yeah. Ecclesial, ecclesial, ecclesial.
Nick: Totally, exactly. Bethany, we're so glad that you're with us as well.
Michaela: Yes, tell us everything.
Bethany: Thanks, I'm glad to be here. I guess I have a couple of connections to this Start In LA world. My connection to Fuller, I did my Ph.D in ethics at Fuller, also teach ethics at Fuller from time to time, and work in full time administration at the moment at Fuller, doing primarily access services and supporting and making sure we have access to courses and programs for students with disabilities. Then I started with Cyclical like a year and a half ago, going to some of the Discerners dinners, and hanging out with folks, and having conversations. Then just a few months ago we started meeting as this church that we're starting called Beloved Everybody Church.
Michaela: Very cool.
Bethany: Yeah, it's been fun ... Maybe isn't the whole way I would describe it.
Michaela: That was very drawn out. "Fu-u-u-un."
Bethany: It's been a lot of things, but fun is one of those. The church primarily is collaboratively formed and led by people with and without intellectual disabilities, so I can talk more about that at some point.
Nick: You should definitely do that. For those that haven't been around Bethany, it's a pretty regular experience that when I get around Bethany and she starts talking about the church that she's about to start, I'll just start crying. Just FYI, just so you know. It's been a really powerful place, I think, for a lot of people to get to grasp an ecclesiology that we've wanted for so long, and to have someone as gifted as Bethany, and as trained as Bethany ...
Bethany: Yeah, right.
Nick: Not just core competencies that are so natural, but also the Ph.D in ethics that adds to that is just amazing.
Bethany: Thanks Nick.
Michaela: Ditto that.
Nick: Something that's kind of funny michaela was just nothing was that michaela coaches both Bethany and me.
Michaela: That's true. I wasn't going to say that. I'm like, does that fall under confidentiality?
Nick: You should start there.
Michaela: So this podcast is asking me about your problems.
Bethany: Michaela's a great coach.
Michaela: It's really fun, actually, to do the coaching, because you get to track with people around particular problems, but then develop this inherent sense of really rooting for the different things that each people are starting. I'm looking forward to hearing much more about what you're doing Bethany, and even Nick. One of the interesting things about your story, maybe you can tell us about this, is how you went from doing church planting to sort of zooming out a bit and assisting and supporting and doing more systemic planting.
Nick: Yeah. Like Michaela noted earlier, I was part of a group of people that started Northland Village Church, which started in 2010, and out of nvc came a whole bunch of new churches, new worshiping communities is a term that we use in the PCUSA, which is where I'm a pastor, and we just knew.
Michaela: Yeah, tell us all about that, [inaudible 00:07:14] brand new.
Nick: I just am about to be finalized in my ordination process. It's been a wild ride. I didn't grow up Presbyterian, I didn't grow up connected to churches at all, but to find my tribe has been an important part of my life, so I'm grateful for that.
Michaela: Yeah, congrats.
Nick: Thank you. So we started this church called nvc. Out of nvc came a whole bunch of new churches and new worshiping communities. The boss of our region, which is called Presbytery, said, "Nick, would you consider going half time to frame out what God's doing with all these new churches?" My wife and I prayed about it, we thought about it, we talked to family and friends, and decided to go for it. Six months later, eight months later, we framed out what's now called Cyclical LA, which is a ministry of the San Fernando Presbytery that works with leaders toward creating sustainable churches. Then, we kind of had a hunch, I remember talking with Michaela, we kind of had a hunch that other regions, other judicatories, middle and upper judicatories, other governing bodies, may be interested in these frameworks. Right away Orange County and San Diego called. Right then I was like okay, here we go, we need to start a nonprofit, so we started Cyclical Incorporated, that's now working with, I think, nine different cities around North America.
Michaela: Nine cities in what is it, 12 months?
Nick: Yeah, it's been a year.
Michaela: Yeah, that's awesome.
Nick: We just did month 13. It's been ... Let me say it this way. Starting a church is hands-down the hardest thing I've ever done. Nothing's even close. Not family, not marriage, not friendship, not any other job I've had, nothing's even close as challenging as to start a church. The Cyclical LA and Cyclical Incorporated really rolled out more like butter than Northland Village Church did. I feel like I sleep better now starting Cyclical Incorporated than I ever did starting Northland Village Church. Lots of lost hours worrying about different things.
Michaela: can I ask both of you a question there? To me that is, Nick said starting a church has hands down been the hardest thing you've ever done. Immediately I thought about, what's the hardest thing I've ever done. For me that's becoming a mother. It was hands down the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm wondering, Bethany, for you, is starting a church the hardest thing you've ever done? Is that a common narrative people have? Is that unique to nick?
Bethany: I feel like it is absolutely hard in a very unique way. I feel like I'm not one of those people that likes to be the favorite, the most, the hardest.
Michaela: What's your favorite ice cream flavor?
Bethany: I really shy away from this.
Nick: We need lots of hyperbole for this podcast though.
Bethany: I would say that I have been ... We're really new. I'm working full time so we're meeting monthly at the moment, and I have been surprised at how difficult this whole thing is. Not just in terms of tasks and things like that, that's really not even what's hard for me about it. It's partly that it's very vulnerable, and that it's this thing that I really care about, and it's something I would love to have exist in the world.
Bethany: I remember at one point talking to my husband and saying, "Why would I do this to myself? This is so awful. I just feel stressed out. This is terrible. Why am I doing this?" He asked a really ... If he hadn't asked this question at this time I might have been like, "Forget this." We were driving in the car, I remember. I was like, "Maybe I should just give up, because this is hard." You know what, you kind of go back and forth on, "I think God wanted me to do this," and, "Maybe I didn't understand that right. What's happening?" My husband said, "How would you feel if you didn't do this. Let's say you just decided not to do it and you gave up, and this thing didn't exist. How would you feel about that?" I was like, "Oh man, I would feel horrible." That would feel worse. In a way, it not existing would feel worse than the really, really awful feelings I sometimes have while trying to do it. I think that was a really crucial moment in this.
Nick: For our listeners, people who are thinking about starting a church, what a great question to ask yourself if you're on the edge of whether or not you should take this jump. It's a great way to think about it.
Michaela: It's actually a really interesting sort of more widely applicable vocational concept. So many times these moves ... Nic, you're saying that in some ways the evolution of the Cyclical was like butter, that was actually much easier. At certain points we have these hard things, and we're like, would it not existing, or would it not coming to fruition if it's a project, within even a church or something else, be worse or harder than the effort it takes to get there? I think that's really good, I agree.
Nick: How did you decide to end up going for it? What were a couple key steps in your discernment process?
Bethany: Prior to that moment of questioning?
Bethany: I think that for me, I've been ... We always joke about this, Nick and I have joked about it since we met, which is that in the PCUSA's ordain process there's this phase that's at the very end, after you've jumped through all the denominational hoops, where you're called certified ready for a call, and I've been at that point for 12 years now, which is extremely long. I haven't looked for a call, that kind of thing, but I think I've always had mixed feelings about ordination, and about church ministry, and I haven't totally known why. I've had lots of different ideas about hierarchy and about all these different things, but I hadn't learned ... I think what I finally decided was that the real problem for me was just that ministry in established churches is not where God has called me, and not even where I'm most gifted. I think because that's all I had seen as options before, I stayed on the fence for 12 years.
Bethany: I think when I heard about church planning that felt a lot better, because I have a lot of friends ... Obviously when you go to seminary you get to know a lot of other pastors and people who are doing church ministries in churches, and I see them doing really amazing good work that is super necessary for the body of Christ, but also sometimes it involves beating their head against the wall for years to have the community move forward like an inch. It's hard, hard work, and important work, and so not my work. I think that was part of the reasoning, is that when you start a church it's a different kind of hard thing that you're doing, to get the boulder rolling is really hard, but once a boulder's rolling, to change course is also really hard. It's just kind of which one is God calling you toward. I think for me it was that.
Bethany: Then in terms of the specific church, the Beloved Everybody Church, and focusing around the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, and thinking about what it looks like to worship together, kind of centering and wanting to make sure people with intellectual disabilities are fully included and can really belong and participate fully, has just been that my experience of church has felt really heady and wordy. Most churches, in terms of their worship experience, there's a long sermon where people are expected to kind of just sit quietly and glean from someone's words at the front, and that just doesn't work for people ... Well it doesn't hardly work for me most of the time. But especially people with intellectual disabilities. It isn't a way that they especially connect. I thought, what would it be like if we worshiped in a way that was more embodied, more relational, more participatory, less of that wordy.
Bethany: Again, changing an established pattern of worship on a Sunday morning in a community is ... Everybody probably who's ever worked at a church knows that that's super hard. To even change one tiny thing like, "We should change this song to the end instead of the beginning," you're going to have a seven hour meeting where people are going to cry. Anyway, that's the gist.
Nick: Something that Bethany said that really stands out to me, and I think part of the heart of what I'd love to see long-term, is the renormalization of church starting within churches. So many people I talked to, they were like, "I didn't even know that starting a new church was a thing." Or their example is, whatever, some mega church that started out of a Bible study. "I couldn't do that." Most of us couldn't do that. Just to widen the plausibility structure for what's possible in one's life around starting new churches is really important to me. I think that it's too extraordinary. Starting new churches is still way to extraordinary. I'll joke that I want starting new churches to be just as normal in conversation as small groups in local churches, or Sunday gatherings. These things are pretty normal in most churches. "Hey, how's your liturgy ministry going?" "Oh good, how's small group ministry going? How many churches have you started this year?" "Three." That would be perfect to me, and there would be nothing extraordinary about it. I would really love that.
Michaela: What do you think ... Now we're back to the system, pushing the boulder and getting it started or changing direction. I'm wondering, why do you think it is so extraordinary? What are the obstacles? I have my own imagination about what some of those things might be, but why do you think that is? Why is it so abnormal?
Nick: I did this book about three years ago called Starting Missional Churches.
Michaela: Buy it.
Nick: Yeah, we can hawk our stuff here on this podcast, right?
Michaela: Especially if somebody else says "Buy it."
Nick: Was that the Holy Spirit talking?
Michaela: It was. Sounds a lot like Michaela, yeah.
Nick: What we did in that book was frame out the four preconceived notions on how people imagine new churches start. It's remembered through the acronym SPEC, S-P-E-C. Most people, when you ask them how are new churches started, they'll lean on suburban sprawl, which is the S, which is a typical mainline post-World War II Protestant strategy. The P is through Protestant splitting, or what I like to say, protest-ant splitting. For those of us that identify as Protestant, we have to identify that literally our name, in it is protest. Our DNA started with splitting, and there are now over 40,000 Protestant denominations globally. It's a wild number.
Michaela: 40,000 denominations.
Nick: 40,000. Protestant denominations.
Michaela: Protestant denominations. My goodness, okay.
Nick: Decentralized system, I guess, is one way to think about it.
Nick: E is through expert institutions, so you need an expert nonprofit, or an expert staff person from a denomination, in order to do it. And C is through charismatic figures. You need an exceptional preacher, typically in recent years a white man or a person of color that's a man, that stands up front, gives great sermons, and attracts people to their personality.
Nick: When it came time for me to start a church, none of those felt like good fitting ground for reason to start a church. I think a lot of people just don't even get into the conversation because of their preconceived notions on how this is actually accomplished. There's such a wider way to think about this. I hope that we talk about pneumatology and the theology of the Holy Spirit on here. However we can re-embrace the Holy Spirit in context with the imagination of the plausibility structure to start new churches and invite the Holy Spirit into that, I think would be an exciting place for us to work on this podcast.
Bethany: Can I ask you a question? Because something I really appreciate about you, Nick, is that, and I found this in our first conversation, and I've heard a lot of other people say it who want to start a church, is that for most people ... I'm sure this doesn't happen 100% of the time, but most people who come to you and are like, "Hey, this is my idea," you're like, "Awesome, do it, great!" I always have felt like, is that connected to a certain kind of pneumatology? Where does that come from? Because I feel like so many people in churches and in positions of authority feel like they need to be gatekeepers in a really strong way. That has not been my experience of you, and I just wonder what that's connected to.
Nick: The irony would be, if someone came to me and said, "There's this new suburb and we should build a building, and I'll be the professional Christian that goes to the middle of that building and attracts people to that building, and worship service is based off my sermons," I'd be like, "That's a terrible idea." Anything outside of those preconceived notions that I just noticed, I think is always ... The beginning is always a trusting relationship, and trusting the people who have done the work of praying, talking to their family and friends that they love and trust the most, and trusting that they've discerned this, or they are discerning this, and let's work from there? Who am I going to be to say, "That's a terrible idea"?
Michaela: I think trusting the process a bit too. I've watched you get excited and get enthusiastic about where somebody's at. There's a lot of different places that somebody or a church might end up, but in that first set of conversations it's not necessarily about all of that. That's sort of back to the gatekeeper, you could easily make a judgment call, this sort of person even fits within these preconceived notions, or this person, or this idea, or this context, it's just not going to work. Instead it's like just being open sort of allows you, and allows those people, a yes enough to engage one step further with what the spirit is doing. If that church isn't going to work out, it's not going to work out. It's not going to happen. Trusting that process a bit, rather than having to dictate the process ... Because I agree.
Michaela: I feel like so often it's like people have ideas, they want to start new churches, and I think one of the most tangible obstacles is often resources. That's where you get into the gatekeeper conversation. It's like, "I want to do this, however I've got to sort of go through these channels that are persist." In both of your own experience, I would love to talk a little bit about just that barrier, of how do people who are thinking, there might be something, God might be calling me something, the Spirit might be doing something, but there's no way I could ever pull it off because that takes a whole set of things I don't have. What would you tell that person?
Nick: It'd be my hope that I would be able to say something like "That's why we're here. We're here to fill that chasm for you, we'll close that gap for you." I feel pretty passionate about that. It doesn't work every time, and it takes some vulnerability to stick your neck out there and be there with a person as they go through those questions, but when it works it's amazing. When something is birthed that otherwise wouldn't be there, it's pretty special.
Bethany: Can I just say one thing that I just thought of based on what you said, Nick? You used the word "birthed," and I feel like, is that normal church starting language? Does that happen a lot?
Nick: We're making it happen right now.
Bethany: Because I noticed, we had a Cyclical-
Michaela: It's for sure a feminine model.
Bethany: Yeah. I love that, because when I heard ...
Bethany: Jana ...
Bethany: Ziegler, yeah, from Gold Line, or now it's Church of the Resurrection.
Nick: Highland Park.
Bethany: In Highland Park, yeah. She was speaking to us last month, and she used the metaphor of a birth, and I was like, that is totally how I experience it, way more than all these other metaphor I've thought of. In the sense that, I carry the metaphor pretty far, in the sense that I was like, the conception is like the fun idea that you have.
Nick: That's awesome.
Michaela: I like it. I like it.
Bethany: That's the beginning part. Then the pregnancy for people is ... Because some people have an easier pregnancy and some people have a really hard pregnancy, but there's some preparation that's happening. Then the birth happens. Anyway, I'm not even a parent, and you both are, and I'm the one going with this metaphor, but you get the idea. In the beginning it's fragile and you have to spend a lot of time on it. Anyway, I just really like the birth metaphor. Just throwing that out there.
Michaela: I like it too. One of the reasons why I like it is, it sort of removes the element of control. Just as a participant, one of the things that I'm hit with daily is just that I am not in control of this person who I have birthed into the world. Sure, I'm shepherding her and parenting her and helping her become the person that she is, but it's not in my tight control, and I feel like any time we give birth to something, any time something comes to life, what happens with it, what shape it takes, whether it lives, dies, success, fails, et cetera, et cetera, is TBD. I actually think that's one of the great vulnerabilities of anything, particularly starting a church, is that you are birthing something, and then you're putting it out in the world for it to have its own life.
Nick: Michaela, you just finished your dissertation.
Michaela: I did.
Nick: And it's connected to this conversation.
Nick: Can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation?
Michaela: Yeah. My dissertation, I have a degree in practical theology, which means mostly I study things that are happening in the world right now and try to make sense of those things theologically. One of the big things that I wanted to make sense of are just that our structures for how we work in the world are really different. Particularly, many many people are having to chart their own course. A decade ago there was 7% of people who would fill out their IRS forms and register as some kind of an independent worker. Anything from freelancer to church manager to entrepreneur to all the things in between. A decade ago, 7%. Today it's 35%.
Nick: Holy cow.
Michaela: It's 35%. I'm like, holy moly. Not only is the Church's, big-C Church's, model of vocation not caught up with this, I actually think it's also why the soil is so rich for church planting. Because it mirrors what's happening in the economy, and it kind of has this interesting dance. I basically said, if this is the change, how do we need to adjust our models of vocation?
Michaela: I went and I interviewed and did all this kind of technical research stuff, and I talked with people who are thriving in a changing world. These different people who have some level of faith woven into what they're doing, very implicit, explicit, whatever, but that they've started something, that they're an entrepreneur. I grouped together some of, basically the spiritual practices that came to the top. When you talk about the spiritual practices of entrepreneurs, they don't fit the mental models always of how we do spiritual practices. The spiritual practice of risk taking, the spiritual practice of imagination, the spiritual practice of empathy, things like that. Then I took all those things and mashed them up and actually put them into a process, and the process is intended to help people engage what the spirit's doing, I think in the economy and in the larger world of work, and be able to adopt that entrepreneurial posture.
Michaela: Because the way the economy's going, more and more people, whether by force or by choice, will have to chart their own course. Which is one of the reasons why I naturally love church planters. People who have said, whether it's frightening or whether it's exciting, we have said we're going to make a way. We're going to make something that wasn't there before there. That's kind of the overview.
Nick: How do we get access? Are you going to publish this thing?
Michaela: Yeah, so it literally got wrapped in a bow not too long ago. I had the gift of a really difficult dissertation committee. I was halfway through my process and they actually made me start over. They were like, "This isn't very good," basically. That gifted me in that by the time it was done I really was happy with where it was. That means that I will be able to pull from it much more quickly to start publishing things.
Michaela: At the De Pree Center for Leadership, which is one of Fuller's institutions, we recently just got a grant, actually, that is meant to take the ideas I just talked about, play with them, let them change, let other people speak into them, et cetera, et cetera, and then actually start putting resources out into the world. There will be a book, or books, there will be workshops soon, there will be vocation cohorts, there will be lots of stuff coming in the next year or two.
Bethany: Something you said during a coaching session that I think is connected to your dissertation research, that I would love for you to just say a few things about, is especially about maybe women and entrepreneurship, or women and church planting. I think I didn't realize how women were not a hug percentage of church planters, because I was new to the conversation, and I still kind of don't know the ins and outs of the whole community, but I remember you and I having a conversation where I was lamenting that all of the resources I was getting were kind of based around tech startup language, like "grind" and ... I don't even know the words.
Nick: Grit. Grit, grind ...
Michaela: Grit is important. Grit, grind, go ...
Bethany: They're all important, but the whole thing of basically banging it out, the nose to the grindstone-
Michaela: Hustle, hustle.
Bethany: Hustle, yeah, all of that. I was like, ugh, that just makes me feel tired. It doesn't make me thrive, and it doesn't make me feel creative, and it doesn't make me feel anything good. I was telling you that and thinking, I just need a different way of thinking about starting things. I think hustling and working hard are important things, but having the whole enterprise framed in this tech startup effectiveness sort of language kind of kills my soul. I think when I told you that, you had a good response. Do you remember your response?
Michaela: I do actually. One of the things that was really interesting for me in my research, and also just anecdotally in my life experience, having engaged with so many entrepreneurs naturally in my networks, whether they be church planters, whether they be nonprofit founders, whether they be starting businesses is this thing of, okay, what does it mean and how are we supposed to be when we start things? I kind of had my own model of, it means this kind of hustle, and how do we be productive, and do we give it five, and we answer all of our emails by this time? What is that?
Michaela: I had the benefit in my study of, at first, having way more women respond to what I was doing than men, and I actually had to go and bounce it out just for research reasons, but I noticed something. I asked like four basic questions in these in depth interviews, and the four basic questions were, how have you learned to define success, what practices have helped you be successful, how have you learned to define failure, what practices have helped you deal with failure? Those are the four questions. All the women that I talked to, which was not a ton, but I started to notice a pattern, talked about, in terms of how they, after they defined success in different ways, they all talked about the practice of empathy. They would talk about having to get to know other people's story, listening, X, Y, and Z.
Michaela: What I found interesting about that is that, in so many either corporate, or sort of business, or even just the patriarch, women are asked to put empathy in a different category. Women are said, "Actually don't bring empathy in here, don't bring emotion in here, don't do that, because we need that to be over here while we do the business in this space." But these women I talked to were like, empathy is actually what made them successful. I was like wait, that's really interesting. Now if you actually go to the innovation literature, and there's this whole set of thinking there, some of the brightest thinkers will actually talk about having empathy as one of the first stages in innovation. I'm like wait a minute, these two things are the same, but they're not talking to each other. Or it's not yet that femininity is being woven in with our sense of technological or innovative empathy. That's what we talked about that day, Is being able to even, if you will, reclaim some of these frameworks, models, behaviors, postures, with whoever we are. In that particular moment in that case, it was as a woman.
Bethany: Yeah. And certainly men. It's not a gender-essentializing thing. Plenty of men would also probably not relate to the startup tech, and plenty of women might really love that.
Bethany: I just remember me feeling a certain sense of, what we traditionally consider to be a womanly way of doing things did feel really shut out. I appreciated that wisdom.
Michaela: Yeah, it's been fun actually. I've had the blessing of coaching a few different female church planters, and it is interesting to ask the basic question, are there different models, are there different postures? I'm not sure that I have strong opinions on how that would go, but I do find that when we're in ... I'll say this to the women who are listening, that when I'm talking with women who plant churches, that question of being a woman, and what kind of model then does that take shape as, is always one that comes up, whereas it doesn't come up with men. Because it's sort of the assumed norm. To your point Bethany, there's lots of people that don't feel like they fit in the assumed norm, so we should break down lots of those barriers. It's not just a man-woman thing. But I think it's helpful to be asking yourself the question any time, "Do I fit within the models that are prescribed for how I do this?"
Michaela: Back to your four points of why people often start churches, and wanting to reject those, I liked what you said Nick, is you didn't say, "Here's the three things we do like about starting new churches." You're like, "Basically anything outside those." The imagination is wide. I would say there is just a lot of space to be really wide in our imaginations about what is included in models that can work.
Nick: Then the common thing that we see in the midst of that wideness is hopefully ... It's not newly, it's renewed pneumatology. It's a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit, and the bread crumbs that are out in front of us, and being able to discern those next steps and those bread crumbs, and then to hopefully be able to gather the courage to go after them, and we can gather the courage to welcome the grace of God that hopefully still gets us to those bread crumbs moving forward. What we're talking about here is post-industrial church starting. For so many, starting new churches was like an assembly line. You do this, this, this, this, and bada bing, bada boom, you have a church. You do three weeks of mailers prior to your public launch, you gather at least 50 people, you try and launch large, and within three years you'll have a budget of at least $180,000 so you can support a full-time pastor and three different ministries.
Michaela: Yeah. Very formulaic.
Nick: Many of us were taught these kind of things. We're not going to be talking about that here. We're going to be talking with various people with various perspectives, and where it's going to land is in a post-industrial context where again, the Holy Spirit will again need to be prioritized to make decisions moving forward.
Michaela: Will you unpack, just in case someone's like, "What does post-industrial mean," what does that mean?
Nick: Industrial would be like an assembly line. You're just going to do the same thing over and over again, regardless of context. When we say post-industrial we're remembering that we take context in mind. For instance, I live in northeast Los Angeles, and the idea of starting a big church in northeast Los Angeles makes very little sense. There's tons of little churches, because that's the way the sociology rolls in our context. If someone felt called to start a big church, amen, glory to God, we could go for it, but realistically there's just not going to be big churches that happen in northeast LA. In the suburbs of Dallas, where I just was a couple weeks ago, they're filled with huge churches, and we've got to pay attention to that when we're starting new churches. A way that we think about it is, do we want to be prophetic or do we want to be contextual to the context? In Dallas, if we want to start a small church, that would actually be quite prophetic in the moment. Is that fitting or not for the context? Or do we want to be contextual? Do we want to start another large church? That could be fine too. Just a nice frame that we've used to think about this.
Michaela: I think too, it mirrors what's happened as a society. We've moved from an agrarian to an industrial to now an information society, without decentralized modalities of information, largely because of the internet. It feels like it, again, is sort of engaged with that, and that it makes even more sense why an industrialized context would feel less contextual now.
Michaela: Something that I'm really curious to know from both of you is what you're learning, specifically as starters who are in very different stages. Nick, this is not the first thing you've started, Bethany it is the first thing you've started. Just talk about what you're learning.
Bethany: Sure. One thing, just to connect to what we were talking about in terms of strategies for church planning, and how people think things need to go a certain way, it was really funny because even just a month or so ago I was talking to some folks who aren't even church people, but it's really ingrained. Certain ways church starting, if people have any conception of it, certain ways that looks is so ingrained in people, even non church people. Because I was at this event and someone mentioned to some other folks, "She's starting a church." I was like, "Oh man, I don't want to talk about this right now." Just because it's vulnerable. Then literally the first thing they asked was, "How many people do you have?" I was like, wow, I also don't even want to answer that question.
Nick: First of all, people aren't had.
Bethany: Yeah, that's true. For us, something about starting a church that is intentionally welcoming people who might not be super verbal, or who might connect to God in a way that isn't primarily intellectual, is that I can't fall back on structures and ways of doing worship that I've mostly experienced. I'm super verbal. I love words and language and all that, and it's been really hard just to structurally step out of that and to be okay with it not looking like how I kind of think it should look, or how other people think it should look. The numbers thing especially, we haven't even started announcing publicly where we're meeting, and what time. I'll put, "We're going to meet. If you want to come let me know." I'm not ready to open the doors wide, partly because welcoming folks with disabilities who maybe just interact with worship differently, and you're not sure what to expect, I want to make sure we have a hospitable welcoming atmosphere where people's gifts and needs are taken into account in advance. If we opened it wide and there was like 50 people that came, we might not really be able to be a welcoming space at this point.
Bethany: One thing that we learned, just as an example, is the issue of physical touch, and how we engage with people bodily. There are some folks who might come and might into be very verbal, and it might not, also, be great for them for people to be touching them all the time. That was the case for us. Then there was another person in the community who loves hugging everybody. It created this dynamic where it was like, wow, this actually is not a safe place for everyone, and we need to make sure there's a way of communicating. We want people to hug people to hug who want to hug. We don't want to be like, "No hugs!"
Michaela: We're the no hug church.
Bethany: Yeah, exactly, that would be the worst. But also to make sure that people for whom that was not comfortable for them, or was not a loving thing, that we would be able to communicate that, especially if they couldn't speak up for that themselves. Right now we're just experimenting. This next time we got these name tags that are red, yellow, and green, just like a stoplight to say, if it's red then you can wave at the person, no touching. If it's yellow then you can kind of give a high five or handshake. If it's green then you can ask for a hug. That way, for folks to come who aren't able to express how they best want to interact physically, there's a way of communicating that very directly. Then the stoplight is something people learn really young, so it's a way ...
Bethany: That's just one small thing, but there's like a hundred of those things that we need to be thinking about to really create a space ... And there's always going to be more of those, because in any community, when you're welcoming a diversity of folks of any kind of ability, you're going to need to be thinking through what does it mean to be a welcoming space for different kinds of people. That's what we're doing right now. I don't want to have a hundred people come because it's just going to be too many variables, so we're really intentionally keeping it small. Which is outside the box from, "Get as many people as you can," that kind of thing.
Bethany: It's hard for me even, as a starter, because I kind of want to judge my success based on, how many people want to come, how big were we, how many people ... It's like that isn't the point right now, and it's hard to instead listen to God, and try to separate out, what is God really calling our community to right now, and not, what does it look like to have a successful burgeoning church? I feel like those are just different questions, and it can be easy to fall into the second one and to let my mind be overtaken by those questions and thoughts. It's an intentional practice, which is part of why I go see a spiritual director, part of why I have other kinds of practices. I go to centering prayer group, different things to reconnect to God and to the deeper truth, and not just social ideas about how things should be. I don't know if that's a really long way of answering your question.
Michaela: I definitely hear what you're talking about, actually just learning lessons of hospitality, like what does pragmatically that look like. There's some wisdom about pace in there, because I think you're right that there is, especially when we feel vulnerable we default to the model that bigger is better, quicker is better, but you're like, we need to actually figure out certain elements, and in order to do that, this pace is the appropriate pace.
Michaela: That feels like a lot of wisdom.
Bethany: The other piece I just want to throw out is that I really want to wait. We're really looking to hire a co-minister who's someone with an intellectual disability, who can be an official paid on-staff leader in our church. I feel like it's really important to me also that we have that person in place, because the vision is for it to be co-led by people with disabilities. It isn't just, I'm making a thing for them, but it's really like, we are making a thing for each other, together. That piece, I feel like, is the other thing that slows us down. But yeah, slowness is so anti our culture, and so that can be really just a hard thing to work with.
Bethany: I don't know if that's, Nick, in your experience, and what you're doing, maybe that's not what you're dealing with. What are you dealing with?
Nick: Certainly in the church that we started it was the same kind of a thing. Smaller is often times better. One relationship at a time, because of the intensive work on creating space for reconciliation. I really resonate with that. When people start talking about heavy priorities and fast growth, I think there is a place for it, but let's remember in our bodies, if you get fast growing and multiplying cells it's called cancer, and it can actually kill the whole thing. I think we need to be very prayerful about decisions we make with regard to how we want to grow.
Nick: A priority that I kind of believe really is important for all ecclesial contexts is trying to get to moments of sustainability, so that we can indeed reproduce. Getting to moments of homeostasis is important. Everything that's alive, and I think we would all agree that the church is alive, has three different parts to it. Everyone shares it. Something is born, something achieves hopefully, moments of homeostasis where it can reproduce, and then the thing dies. I really think the church is no different. What does contextual sustainability in homeostasis look like for individual churches in particular contexts across North America? It's a thing.
Nick: Something that I'm learning about right now, in creating Cyclical Incorporated, which is this nonprofit that's working with different cities around North America to create church-starting ecosystems, is that people will do crazy things for God. People will do crazy things for Jesus. So crazy that often times we want to provide frameworks that help them to make sure they're leverage ... Healthfully? Is that a word, "healthfully"?
Michaela: You mean like as individuals?
Nick: As individuals, and for their families, to make sure there's also opportunity for health there.four of our core covenant values, four of 12 are around the pastor, slash pastors, and leaders of the church, to make sure we're doing all we can so that they live with health on the forefront. You all know the numbers. The numbers on pastors and burnout is insanity. Throw church starters on top of that and it gets even worse. Helping people to make sure they're prioritizing things like a work-life balance, or work-life harmony, so important. Make sure we're tracking the number of hours people are working, and making sure that we're living sustainably there.
Michaela: But Nick ... Okay, I was going to ask you about that.
Michaela: Work-life balance, I don't know if such a thing exists. One thing that you've said, actually for years it stuck in my head. Is your mantra of, work hard, play hard, rest hard. Maybe that's a kind of balance, but in your experience, are you learning that people can actually get to a balanced place?
Michaela: Okay. I want to hear all about that.
Nick: I think what we see is, there are seasons where we have to work harder. For instance, at the beginning of something, typically there is a pony-up mindset. You've got to pull up your bootstraps and go for it early on. But we can't stay there, that space always has a comma after it. We can move in the direction of having better wildlife balance. As it is with homeostasis, we don't always achieve perfect homeostasis all the time. We look for moments, however, of homeostasis. There are certainly moments of homeostasis for leaders in new churches, and the more we can get there are larger ratios of the minutes that we live, the better. Part of, I think, my job with Cyclical Incorporated is making sure that these people who will do crazy things for Jesus prioritize things, like wildlife balance. It's a challenge to do that.
Michaela: I live that phrase, like there's something after the comma. Because I think you're right, that what happens is you hit this process where you do have to go ... Even if you're not going for big numbers, you're putting a lot of whatever kind of energy into something, but if knowing from the onset that there's a comma after that, I feel like that's just a lot of hope at the end of the tunnel, not to say "I'm entering this new sort of job where this is now my pace." Just that simple shift from the beginning, I think that's cool to hear.
Bethany: I think it's also, because I feel like I've seen people do that, or heard people kind of say, "This is just for a season," but then they're just kind of always saying that, forever.
Nick: That's a problem.
Bethany: I think that it's like, I don't know if you put a limit on it like, "I can live this way for three months," or six months, but then ... I don't know.
Nick: Which is where we need trusted colleagues, we need our coaches, our spiritual directors, our therapists, our spouses, our friends, our churches, to make sure we're being held accountable to those things.
Michaela: I think one of the most helpful things that Cyclical could do is, and it sounds like you're doing this, and I know you to be doing this, is to focus on the mental health of church starters.
Michaela: What a gift.
Nick: Absolutely. What a lovely place to stop. Lots of thanks to go around here. Many thanks already to Bethany and Michaela. The three of us will be hosting different church starters, different network leads for church starters, and we're going to get a whole bunch of different voices in here, and we hope that you'll continue to join us to hear the different narratives. We will have combinations of myself and Bethany and Michaela, it won't always be the three of us, so I hope that you return to listen to those combinations. Many thanks to Jennifer Kent for producing this. I appreciate you very much. I appreciate your vision here and look forward to seeing where this goes. Many thanks to the Artime Group here in Pasadena, who's hosting us in their space. We're grateful to Henry Artime and his staff for welcoming us in. And we're really thankful for you, the listener. Thanks for joining us. We hope to see you in episode two. In the meantime, peace to you, and we'll hopefully see you soon.
Nick: Hi, this is Nick Warnes, and here are a couple of announcements happening for you within the Start In LA umbrella. Firstly, on June 27th we will be hosting, at noon at Fuller Theological Seminary, our second Start In LA Stories. At this event we will hear from two seasoned church starters and also have lots of time for mutual learning with one another. Secondary, within Cyclical LA we have our monthly Discerners dinner on June 20th at 5:30 at Little Beast in Eagle Rock. At this meeting we again hope to create space for people who are thinking about starting churches. Again, praying together, discerning together, pushing each other, challenging each other, for opening up the potential and opportunity to actually do this work for people who are thinking about it. As always you can get more information on these events at StartInLA.com and CyclicalLA.com.