Casting vision is an essential part of the church planter’s call. He does it in order to galvanize a team, raise financial support, and call the church to persevere amid challenges. But there is a pain that lingers in the planter’s heart. Ministry is not what he envisioned. Ironically, it was his ability to see what others could not that made him so sure of his calling. But he is not so sure anymore. His eyes have grown weary, waiting for the vision to materialize.
I know this pain too well.
After receiving confirmation from God to plant a church in New York City, we excitedly called family and friends and rehearsed the divine providences that had clarified this call. But somewhere in the journey we mistakenly assumed these providences became a promise that God would bring it to pass exactly as we imagined.
What should we do when our ministry plans don’t go the way we pictured? How can we find the strength to cast vision for the future when we live in a graveyard of unfulfilled hopes? What happens when our disappointments cause us to question our calling, our ability to hear from God, or—even worse—God’s character?
We pay little attention to the way our imagination runs ahead when God calls. Humbled that God would weave our story into his plan for the world, we start to wonder, What then will this church plant be? We waste no time imagining it must mean visible success and significance.
But the Bible is filled with examples of people who heard God’s call, and (unlike most of us) even heard an explicit promise of what he would accomplish. Nevertheless, even for them its fulfillment was not what they imagined—nor within their lifetimes.
Abraham was told his descendants would be as innumerable as the stars. How often did he lie awake under those stars, gazing at the symbols of God’s promise, but without a child? What was it like for him to discover that, unlike the stars, he could easily count his descendants before he died?
God spoke to Moses in a blazing fire. His fearful heart grew confident that God had called him to lead his people into the promised land. But could Moses have known he would wander in a wilderness for 40 years and only see that land from afar?
John the Baptist boldly confessed Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. But in prison did he ever question his confession? What unmet expectations led him to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3)?
Each of these men may have tried to reconcile what they heard with what they experienced, what God revealed with what they imagined it would be. But God did not crush these bruised reeds. He won’t crush us either.
We imagined a compelling vision for our church when God called, but there is a cloud of witnesses who urge us to look beyond what we envisioned, to gaze at Jesus himself. Like he was for Abraham, Jesus must be the one we long to see (John 8:56). Like he was for Moses, Jesus must become the treasure greater than all the rewards of ministry (Heb. 11:26). And like John, we must find the blessing of bringing our questions to Christ but not stumbling on account of him (Matt. 11:6).
We must be mesmerized by him, looking beyond the stars to the Creator who numbers and names them. For one of these days, the clouds will come, and every sign and symbol confirming our call will be gone. What will we gaze upon then?
My wife and I started praying about planting a church in New York City in December 2011. We moved there two years later, assuming the same assurances that compelled us to the city would continue at the same pace. But God had other plans.
We were unemployed for nearly a year after we arrived. We struggled to develop relationships and a sense of belonging in the neighborhood. After three years of not bearing fruit, and grieving that loss, I became the lead pastor of an existing church. A year after I became its pastor, we had to close the church down.
I struggled to understand. Why did God speak so convincingly, only to will our worst fears to life? Of course, he willed so much more than that. We didn’t know his plan included not just our success, but our total surrender as well. It was only in 2020—nine years after those initial prayers, and two weeks before the pandemic hit our city—that we planted New Hope Church in Harlem.
Church planters know we must surrender our plans to the Lord. But nothing may be more painful than surrendering our vision for the church, especially when the identity we prize is pastor, planter, and visionary leader. The success of our vision becomes intertwined with who we are; and therefore, to give up our vision is to have nothing left at all.
But Jesus shows us how to surrender when the thought of loss leads us to be sorrowful unto death (Matt. 26:38). He did not surrender as an aspiring teacher or a dynamic prophet, but as the beloved Son of God. And when we surrender as Jesus did, not as pastors and planters, not as servants and leaders, but as beloved sons and daughters of God, then what we lose will never compare to the treasure we still possess. We can cast vision and hold it with an open hand. We can call people to the glory we still see—even when ministry isn’t what we envisioned.