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Dealing With Emotional Ups and Downs of Church Growth

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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Adey Wassink and her husband Tom planted the Iowa City Vineyard in 1996. She is a well-respected leader within the Vineyard. Le Que Heidkamp sat down to talk with her about navigating the emotional ups and downs of the early growth the Iowa City Vineyard.

How did your church grow in terms of numbers and gathering people. Did it happen in spurts? Was it pretty quick?

Well, as I look across the years, growth has been pretty steady. In the early days, especially when there were just 20 or 25 of us, any one or two new people made it seem explosive. We’d think that within a couple of months we’ll double and we’ll break through all those barriers that people talk about without having to go to the “Breaking the XXX Growth Barrier” seminars at pastor conferences. But the truth is, we’ve had pretty steady growth with some slow times thrown in.

What were the slow times like? Was there anything that characterized them?

I remember one time that was harder. We had grown to about 80-85 people, we had moved to a new and better building and location, and we were excited. We thought, “based on these projections we should be this number (meaning ‘lots’) in a few months.” But we kept staying 80. A few would leave, a few more would come and it would still be between 80 and 100.

So we started getting a little bit panicky and trying to understand what it meant. In retrospect we have all kinds of insights, but as it was happening, we thought things like, “Maybe we’ve just hit our ceiling as leaders. Maybe we’re not the right people to take this thing to the next level.” We’d start second guessing everything. ”Maybe it’s our leadership team. Maybe we didn’t listen to God.” We’d pray. We’d fast. We’d be extra nice to visitors. We’d focus on all our shortcomings and the shortcomings of our team. We’d realize what a truly horrible environment for the kingdom we live in, how successful the enemy had been in turning the ground hard and dry in anticipation of my arrival. We’d revise our vision, our mission statement, our plan for growth. Ya know, you just get a little nutty!

Of course it was only a matter of time before more people came; amazing friends from diverse backgrounds that have shaped our community. I can’t actually recall a specific “thing” that we did, a new insight we had gained, a new program that we implemented. We just stayed in the game. We talked, we prayed, we faced our weaknesses and at some point emerged out on the other side. Now we look back on that time where we just ached to break the hundred barrier and think how sweet it was. We knew everyone and were all a part of each other’s stories. There was a depth to community that spanned the whole congregation. It’s like my five kids. There are challenges in every season. But, we’ve learned to live in the present and enjoy each one.

What helped you get through those harder times?

One that saved me is being friends with a couple of women in another city who I’d known for years. It was to them I could say, “I’m feeling like a failure and I don’t know how to interpret this and I can’t tell who I am anymore” or “I need you guys to tell me I’m okay. If I tried to sort through things on my own I would end up pretty crazy. Sometimes when I’m really struggling I need people close to me to listen to God on my behalf.

Another thing that helped us make it was that we liked our church. We liked our music, we liked our messages, we like our community, we liked our Sunday services. So, even though it was hard when the church wasn’t growing, we still enjoyed ourselves and experienced God in our midst. It was clear that Christ was forming us as a community. And that is thrilling.

Finally, our church reaches the un-churched, often secular liberals, in Iowa City. Every time someone came to faith it was so wonderful. Every baptism put all the struggling into perspective. Every healed marriage, every broken addiction, you know, you just say, wow, that was worth it.

But I take it that others eventually did come too.

Yes. It just is the case that we can’t be other than who we are. If we liked it, there probably were other folks like us who would like it, too. This is, I think, what makes diversity so important, but also so difficult.

I often remember a particular couple who visited our church early on. The wife was a significant leader in a national Christian college student organization—truly high up. They visited us when we were a congregation of 20, seven of whom were my family, and we were meeting in a basement laboratory teaching room at the local hospital that was right next to the morgue. We watched the hospital personnel wheel out the recently deceased while we sang hymns of praise. Anyway, I felt excited/chagrined/fearful/hopeful when they showed up. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just what we need! If they come here, then the hundreds of University [of Iowa] students that they work with are going to come. And here’s another woman advancing in leadership in kingdom work! A soul sister!” It helped that the service that day was really good. I felt up.

But afterwards they came to us and said, “Thanks. We enjoyed the service.” And then left. Nothing else. No kind words or enthusiasm, just a brief farewell. I heard clearly, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” I was depressed.

Then, the next week they came back! And they said they liked the church and our vision and were joining us! I felt up! It’s ridiculous, I know, to be so mercurial. We’re supposed to be solid and stable because we have faith in Jesus and we pray and fast and find our identity in him. Blah, blah, blah. I’m probably better at that now than I was then, but we were like a leaf on a tree waiting to be blown away by the wind, and I was pouring my soul into this leaf.
But we did realize, coming out of that time, that there were people like us looking for the kind of church we were trying to build, and that if we could just keep at it long enough, they’d find us and we’d find them. It was very encouraging and faith building, to realize that Jesus had put something in us that, if expressed, would draw others to him in the same way we had been drawn.

Any other tools that help?

When it gets really bad it only takes us to drive through Iowa City and the surrounding areas. We see the people who we love and the city that we love and it stops being about us for a minute and it stops being about numbers and it stops being about how great our teaching or our service was or the worship we got or the guest speaker and once again it’s God’s heart for a city and we connect with Jesus’ words of, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem how I’ve longed for you.’
There’s something about reading the scripture and letting Jesus speak to you and rearrange the puzzle so he is in the center again. It’s in those moments I will spend 20 minutes in silence and somewhere into that time all the muck is cleared away and I’m in still waters again and I remember, ‘Oh yeah. Jesus loves me.’ And this is about Jesus and his love for people and it’s not about me.

Also, I love reading books. They’ll often describe something and I’ll go, “Yes! That is so much my experience.” And even if I don’t have a solution, I feel like I’ve been identified with and that helps me to go forward. Just to hear an author, another church planter, another woman, or another pastor or theologian say, “Oh! and then I had this period where…” and I think , “Oh! I’m normal! This is okay. I don’t have to make these feelings all go away to be okay before God. I don’t have to have everything perfect.”

It’s so important to learn how to be real with where you’re at at any given time and to figure out what you need to do in the harder times to keep going forward. We as a people pretend. And when we pretend, we can’t get prayer. We can’t get the help we need. We can’t have people speak into our life. We can’t invite God into that place. We need to come to a place where we can face where we are at and talk to Jesus- whether it’s celebrating that another person, another family is coming, another marriage was healed, another person has been healed from addiction or whether it’s, “uh, this has been a hard year. We’ve lost a lot of people we had a church split. The people who I love the most left and they’re mad at me.”

We really need that- not just at the beginning, but to keep moving to each new stage of growth.

It is hard. It is really, really hard but it never diminishes the fact that it’s this enormous privilege that we are given. No one is forcing me to pastor this community. Jesus Christ invited me to partner with him to see his kingdom established in my city. This is an unmerited gift of the Father.

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