When the Weight of Ministry Feels Crushing

When the Weight of Ministry Feels Crushing

How can a church planter endure through the dark days in ministry?


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Tony Merida: Welcome to Churches Planting Churches, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.

Planting healthy churches that will go on to plant other healthy churches is an immense task. It will require far more of us than we have in and of ourselves. Therefore, it’s right that we feel the heavy weight of the task before us. But as church planters, we also have the propensity to function as though we can achieve this great task on our own.

We tend to be highly driven, focused intently on the goal before us, and it’s right and good that the glory of Jesus Christ be our motivation for planting healthy churches. Churches where his gospel is proclaimed and lived out before a watching world. But our tendency to take matters into our own hands, attempting to shoulder the many burdens that come with planting a church, can be detrimental.

It will have damaging effects on us as well as our family and our church. In short, we church planters and pastors need to embrace our own limitations and walk with humble reliance on the living God. We must live out of our weakness and into Jesus’ all-sufficient grace by the power of the Spirit.

As Paul told Timothy, we must be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus if we are to be like disciplined athletes, committed soldiers, and hardworking farmers in the ministry.

But how do we do this? I’m joined by my friend, Kyllum Lewis, to discuss these things on the podcast. Kyllum is the lead pastor of Life Center Church in North Lakes, which is just outside of Brisbane, here in Australia. He’s married to Karly and they have four children. Kyllum, welcome to the podcast.

Kyllum Lewis: Great to be here, man.

Merida: Did I get that bio right?

Lewis: You did.

Merida: In North Lakes?

Lewis: North Lakes. Yeah, we could be classified as still in Brisbane, but, you know, we’re right at the north end of it.

Merida: And that’s where we’re recording this podcast. This is my first trip to North Lakes, to Brisbane, to Life Center Church. So it’s good to be here, mate.

Lewis: Yeah. Oh, look at that.

Merida: How was that?

Lewis: Mate, you’re doing well. Very good. You’ve got a bit of work to do on that one, but yeah, you’re doing well.

Merida: Now, how do you pronounce your wife’s name again?

Lewis: I say, Karly. You would probably say, Karly.

Merida: But it has an R in it, right?

Lewis: It has an R.

Merida: Excellent.

Lewis: Or an R.

Merida: How long have you been married to Karly?

Lewis: That’s not bad either. We’ve been married 16 years; 17 in June.

Merida: Okay. Seventeen years.

Lewis: Seventeen years.

Merida: Man. So what’s the secret, man?

Lewis: Just don’t be an idiot and she will stay with you, you know? Yeah. Pick a winner. Keep her happy as much as you can. No, she’s great. She’s awesome.

Merida: Where did you guys meet?

Lewis: We actually met in church. So a friend of mine invited me to church. Saw a girl with a red dress, thought I’d return. God saved me. Ended up marrying that girl in the red dress.

Merida: Are you serious?

Lewis: Yeah. Dead serious.

Merida: The red dress?

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: That’s all it took.

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: That and the gospel.

Lewis: Yup. Eventually, got me, so.

Merida: Now, I understand you were a big-time basketball player; emphasis on past tense, right?

Lewis: Yeah. And big, maybe not so much. Yeah, like my basketball, or basketball. Yeah, I love it. Played it since, sort of, junior levels of high school and all the way up to state and, yeah.

Merida: And you were a four-man, power forward?

Lewis: I was, the shortest power forward of all time, but I had hops. I could hold my own.

Merida: Can you still dunk?

Lewis: I don’t think so. I could still get close, I reckon. But no, I wouldn’t be able to dunk.

Merida: Now, do you play other inferior sports like rugby or soccer?

Lewis: Soccer, yes. Not rugby. I’m too skinny. Too weak. I’m not masculine enough in our culture to be able to play those sports, which is why I went to basketball.

Merida: Now, that’s a big thing, though, in Brisbane, right, rugby?

Lewis: Yeah. Rugby Leagues. Probably the biggest sport up here. And in the younger-aged kids, soccer is in their primary schools. This is the biggest playing there. All the mums are getting scared.

Merida: So you’ve been married 17 years. You have four children.

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: How old?

Lewis: So, Fletcher, my boy, is 10. Madison is nearly nine. Georgia is seven and Keller is three.

Merida: When you say Georgia, there’s no R on the end of that, right? It’s Georgia?

Lewis: Yeah, Georgia, yup. Correct.

Merida: Love it. Love it. You know, a lot of guys in the New York area have that, that R on the end.

Lewis: Yeah, right. Really?

Merida: Oh, yeah, it’s pretty cool. Tell us about your church here in Brisbane.

Lewis: So, our church is north end of Brissie. We’re in, sort of, the suburban, sort of, area. Different, sort of, church story.

We didn’t really church plant. Ours is more of a replant. So it took over a church from my parents—theologically, methodologically, really, really different. And we, kind of, had a transition period that took about four years to, kind of, really go through and then, kind of, come to a bit of a headway as to, you know, which direction we’re going to go.

So around about midway through 2014, sort of, really got the reigns of the church as to how we wanted to go. We then, sort of, started explaining that to the wider church and tried to help a lot of those people who didn’t want to go in the direction to get plugged into other local churches. And essentially, we started again and with the goal to move into this region called North Lakes.

So that was about an 18-month period of really just starting to plan that out and we eventually got a space out here, 2016, so we really replanted in 2016, halfway through. And then from there, we’ve just, yeah, sought to try and keep growing, and keep being on mission, keep preaching the gospel. And three locations, finally in another one. And you’re sitting in the office/children’s room of that church.

So, yeah, we’re young. We’re just over 100 people. Mostly young families, young adults. And, yeah, enjoying it.

Merida: Tell us a little bit about that theological development. So you came out of more of a Pentecostal background?

Lewis: Yup. Yeah. So, you know, for those listening probably would be thinking more of that, sort of, Bethel, sort of . . .

Merida: Which is big up here, right?

Lewis: Yeah, really big on the north side, particularly, of Brisbane. And just in my own times of being in our church, reading the Bible for myself was just coming across different things and was asking a lot of questions. But, you know, when I’d get the answers back from my parents or other Christian leaders, I was like, “Okay, well, I guess that makes sense.” And then eventually, really, I stumbled along some of Don Carson’s stuff and Tim Keller’s stuff which was the first I’d ever read where I was like, “Ah, okay, this stuff exists out there. And maybe the way I’m reading Scripture, maybe the way I’m understanding church, its mission, what our focus should be, maybe I’m not off.”

And so, there was a really big couple-of-year journey there of just really working through that and eventually, you know, you hear about John Piper, you know, eventually Matt Chandler. Yeah. So it was just a big, sort of, journey of exploring, asking lots of questions, initially thinking I was just weird and completely wrong to like, “Oh, there’s a whole church world out there I’ve never even seen, heard of, and yeah, maybe I’m not actually so crazy.”

Merida: That was a big jump.

Lewis: Yeah, it was really big.

Merida: A big change. You brought your wife along with you in that journey, right?

Lewis: Yup.

Merida: What was that like?

Lewis: Actually, sometimes she was really far ahead of me, you know, particularly things like the complementarian thing. That was a big shift for us. My mum was the pastor of our church, the main teaching, preaching person.

It took me a long time to really wrestle through what I believed to be true and the right way for things to be practiced in terms of eldership and preaching. My wife was there a year, 18 months, well before me on that.

Merida: Wow.

Lewis: The gospel Reformed, sort of, soteriology, that was more me, kind of, leading that front and going, “Hey, I’m seeing these words. I think this is what they mean. I don’t really understand that.”

But together, I think we really just landed on the love of the gospel and particularly interconnecting with Acts 29. When she started coming on trips for me to conferences, she would walk away and just say, “I’ve never heard a bunch of people talk about Jesus and love Jesus more than that group of people.” So together, I think we were pretty tight on that.

And it was . . . yeah, it was great and she loved it. Coming from her world, which was also Pentecostal, she just loved that focus on Jesus, the simplicity of just that gospel centrality. She loved it. So it wasn’t really a hard journey for her.

Merida: Yeah. So did you connect with A29 guys in Australia along the way?

Lewis: Yeah, a little bit. So what we ended up doing was, I was pretty new here. So 2009 was the first . . . I think they did some small conference here. It might’ve been a boot camp or something. Went to that.

Met David Fandey, who was, at that time, the regional director of Australia/New Zealand. Connected with him, connected with Jeff Vanderstelt, who spoke at that. And then there was maybe four or five Australian guys. But it was small, so I ended up doing the trip to the States, actually. Did a month in the States. So went and spent time with Jeff Vanderstelt and Soma.

Back in the day, went and did four days with Mars Hill and their team and just really trying to suss out this whole thing. I did that because we were really young here. So the oldest person was only about five or six years older than me. So I was like, “Well, if we’re going to . . . You know, we need a home to live in, but I need some wisdom.” So that trip was like, “Oh, look, there’s Ray Ortlund.”

You know, there’s just these different guys out there that are much wiser than us and further along. So then felt comfortable, came back, then started going through the process. And Dave Fandey and David Wilmer have been hugely encouraging in our journey in that, and, yeah.

Merida: Well, I’ve been super encouraged being here. Having been in Sydney and Adelaide, now Brisbane, so many good brothers, so many good brothers and sisters. Just a lot of exciting gospel work going on in Australia. It’s super exciting.

Lewis: Yeah, it is. It’s really exciting.

Merida: Now, I know you have a bit of experience with anxiety, stress. We opened up by talking about the temptation we have to do it ourselves and, kind of, that burden of the weight of church planting. Can you just talk to us a little bit about your own experience with that?

Lewis: Yeah, so I think through the transition from the previous, sort of, leadership to me, obviously, that being with my parents, there was a lot of complications with that, a lot of difficulties. I didn’t really have any way of dealing with it, so a lot of that I just suppressed and just got over. Tried to deal with my own heart issues myself, you know, my wife and I just prayed, try to exercise forgiveness where we needed to, do repentance where we needed to.

It wasn’t really until my parents actually moved on and we, sort of, did that restart of the church. I hit like a, quick, massive breakdown. So the way that my counselors put it, it’s like when you go on holiday and you get sick immediately because your body is like, “Oh, you’re good now?” And so, I didn’t realize where I was at.

I thought I was okay and I was just excited to like, “All right, now I get a chance to do this, how I feel God’s calling me.” But six months in, hit a wall, I started having huge anxiety attacks without really knowing what they were. Had multiple times where I had woken up, passed out in a pool of vomit, you know, somewhere down, like just down here at the lake.

That happened once where I’d gone for a walk, obviously, because I was freaking out and then just would pass out. So, for the first year, they thought it was heart problems because normally anxiety is, you know, hyperventilation. Mine was, sort of, like I’m passing out and dropping out. So it took about a year for us to work out, oh, this is a mental health issue, not a physical heart issue.

And yeah, and those, sort of, ramped up over a period of about 12 months in that transition period. So, 2015 was pretty much wiped out and had no idea what was going on. My wife was pregnant with our fourth, so she was working part-time and really just holding the fort at home, loving me, helping me.

You know, there were times where I’d had to call her and go, “Hey, I’m stuck here. I can’t drive and can you come pick me up?” And so, she’d have to get all the kids, whack them in the car, drive, pick me up, drive me home.

Merida: What would it be like when you just, when you would feel stuck? Like what was your . . . You were just, you couldn’t move?

Lewis: Yeah, I couldn’t move. So, yeah. And yeah, it’d just be like, you feel like the whole room, so if I was in a room, it would feel like that whole thing is completely caved in all on me and pressed in on my chest and I can’t actually stand up. So I would . . . Yeah, and that’s where my, the way my mind was, was so then, would just shut down, just switch off completely and then that’s why I’d pass out.

So yeah, it was crazy. Took a while, like through some really good counseling, was able to, sort of, start to identify what was going on, why it was going on, and what I needed to do, and what I should have been doing the whole time. So like you say, you’re doing all this stuff on your own. At that time, we had one, sort of, elder candidate and has become pretty close to my best friend, yeah, just been amazing since that. But I never leant on him before that.

Merida: So that was the main factor in terms of the anxiety, was you trying to shoulder all of this?

Lewis: Yeah, and feeling boxed in. So we went from just an emotional feeling boxed, in terms of, “I’m stuck in this church, I’m trying to transition it, I’m trying to change it, and I feel like I can’t get out or do it my way.” And then that turned into a physical experience of being in a room, being on a plane, being in a bus, being in cars. So it’s been, since 2015, so it’s been four years and I’ve only just started getting back on buses.

Merida: Wow.

Lewis: Yeah. So when I take my son to the footie, we catch a bus and I take a little tablet and it just helps get me through. So there’s still a lot of work to go with it. But I can be in a cafe now, downstairs, no dramas at all. And if anything ever comes up, I know what to do. I can walk out of the room and deal with it, initially . . .

Merida: So you’re still not over it?

Lewis: No, not over it. I still see my counselor once a month. Still on my medication and they’re still processing all the stuff I need to do. And, yeah.

Merida: Why do you think church planters have a tendency to want to, kind of, do it all?

Lewis: I think . . . Typically, I think, church planters are just typically driven. So we enjoy doing it. You know, the actual work, like a lot of people talk about church planting being hard. It’s also a lot of fun.

So I think we love to preach, we love to get out there and make things happen. So I think there’s an element of . . . There’s a good side to the wanting to do it, it’s that dichotomy of like, we’re called to do it. We’re called to work hard, and we love it. The other side is . . . Well, for me, particularly, it was actually a lack of trust that God actually builds his church.

You know, I could say it, and I could preach it, I could, you know, I can get out Matthew and quote it, but when it came down to it, yeah, it’s on me. And if I leave, if I don’t do this, who’s going to do it? So really it’s pride. And it’s interesting because we’re, you know, we’re supposed to be this gospel tribe, and we are, but there;s often a lot of gospel work to be done in our own hearts where we’re like, you know, “God can, but really, he needs me.”

I think that’s a big part of it. And yeah, and then even just delegating and learning to hand things onto other people who may not do it as good as what you think you do it, but realizing that that’s actually better for them. It’s better for the church, it’s better for you. It’s healthier.

Merida: Yeah. So a lot of aspiring planters listen to this and existing pastors. You’ve mentioned a few practical ways to fight this tendency to try to shoulder everything in terms of delegation, having plurality. Other rhythms, perhaps, that you’ve learned along the way—has your week changed? Has your calendaring changed? Any encouragement you would give planters, pastors as they think about how to have a sustainable long-term ministry? Any counsel there?

Lewis: Yeah, definitely. One thing I wasn’t doing was having a whole Saturday with my family. So I was doing sermon prep on a Saturday after this, sort of, lull and going down and coming back out and getting back into preaching. It was actually put on me by our elder that I was not allowed to do that on a Saturday. So he would actually ring my wife and regularly check in with her whether I’m having an entire day off to be with the family.

So I found that really hard. And now it’s the funnest day. It’s such a great day to be with my family. My wife and I do more, what I would call pillow talk. She’s an early bed girl. I’m a late, stay up late guy. So we missed simple marital conversations.

And as much as I don’t want to burden her with a lot of stuff, she’s just been someone who I can just regularly talk through stuff, and she’d be like, “Hey, how’s this going? How am I doing?” Giving her that space. And then probably my prayer time, devotional times are quite different now. I used to be able to really do the half-an-hour word prayer thing well. Nothing throughout the day. So I would just work, work, work, work, work. And then at night, I’m going to open up my Bible and now it’s me and God time. My wife actually was the one who taught me like, “Do you actually talk to God throughout your day?”

I was like, “No, I don’t.” And she’s like, “Well . . .” And she’s great at that. So she actually just helped me to just like, “Hey, regularly, every few hours, stop, pause, reflect, talk to God.” And I mean, you know this, you can do that with sermon prep. You sermon prep and you’re four hours in, you haven’t even spoken to God, you know? So for me, she’s been great with that.

So one of my rhythms is I try not to go more than four hours without pausing. Pause 10, 15 minutes, talk to God, pray, thank him, and then get back to work. And then another one that I’ve just started redoing again is putting my knees on the ground before my feet, so in the morning. So I’ve found if my feet hit the ground first, it’s, “Kids, let’s go, the breakfast, get ready for school.”

If my knees hit the ground, it’s God and it’s thanking him for the day, praying for him to use me and encourage me. And I know the weeks that I do that consistently, there’s a huge difference in my anxiety levels, my soul, how I feel, compared to the ones that I don’t do that. And that’s been hugely helpful.

Merida: I don’t know if you’ve read the book, The Common Rule

Lewis: No.

Merida: But it’s a book that’s . . . The author hits on some of these subjects about, you know, trying to build in some practices and essentially habits. You know, it was, kind of, the James K. A. Smith on how your habits form your loves. And he gets more practical in how he fleshed it out in his own life. And I think what you’re describing are those habits that; you know, it’s amazing how our regular routines shape us and how it has both spiritual and physiological impact on us.

And often, we do certain things without even thinking about it because it is a habit, you know? And the need to build healthy habits just can’t be overstated, you know?

Lewis: Yeah. It’s huge.

Merida: So whether it is the kneeling, which I love, in fact, the author of that book . . . I’m losing his name, advocates for three times a day, you know, but also things like turning off your phone at a certain time of day, limiting how much you consume media during the course of a week, taking a day off.

Reading the Bible before you look at your phone, you know, things like that. I think it would be really important for people to just to assess, “What do I do on a day-to-day basis?” And just consider that some of those habits are not healthy. And many of them may have some real damaging effects. You know what I’m saying?

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: So I think that’s huge. There is a real tendency, I think, in church planting, especially to feel the pressure of the first three or four years. And you feel like it’s make-or-break, and you don’t have a lot of securities that you do and perhaps an established church where you’ve got people, you’ve got money, and you can, kind of, look at long-term.

I mean, they’re hooking up your retirement plan when you, you know, get one of those jobs at a church, but when you’re planting a church, you’re like, “We got to go, man. We got to do it all.”

Lewis: Yeah, we’ve got to get this thing going.

Merida: Yeah. And it’s really hard to build in sustainable habits. So we really advocate for team in our church planters and encourage them to think about 30 years and not just three years, you know, when it comes to church planting. And I get it, man, especially if you’re a driven individual. Doesn’t help that you’re an athlete, right? And you’re a former athlete, right?

Lewis: Yeah, former . . . Well, no, let’s keep with athlete. I’ll go with that one. I’ll take it.

Merida: Yeah. But the idea of hard work is just second nature. You want to succeed. Yeah, so I think your transparency is super helpful, and I think church planters really need to consider not just, you know, things like a quiet time, but their own daily habits, their own physiological disciplines—things like exercise, a day off, conversation with your wife.

Just having conversation with a friend for an hour, things like that, because ministry can dehumanize us if we don’t watch it. And you can even, I think, begin to believe that you’re different than everybody else. You can actually do more than everybody else, but you can’t. You are still a human, therefore you need rest. You need sleep, you need to play, you need to have conversation. You need to . . . you know. So I think there’s a real temptation to have, sort of, a view of pastors and then if we are a pastor, to begin to view ourselves as individuals who produce and who, you know, we produce content and people begin to see us that way.

And it’s very dangerous if we don’t begin to first see ourselves as those made in the Imago Dei. And we need to experience the stuff of life like everyone else does or else we’ll be in deep trouble.

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: Yeah, including our families and our ministries. So may the Lord help us to, you know, have a marathon ministry. So what excites you now about the church, kind of, where you’re at, testimonies to the Lord’s grace?

Lewis: Man, so many things. We’ve just planted our first church, out of ours at the beginning of this year.

So there, up at Caloundra. So it’s about 45 minutes north of us. So for us, that was a huge win to be a small church, part of the Acts 29 church planting network, but actually, weren’t a church plant itself to, kind of, be this replant that’s then gone on to plant, it’s super exciting.

Just seeing a lot of the new families coming through, new young adults, young marrieds coming through. Baptized a couple of people recently. And then we’ve just . . . we’ve got non-Christians in the room every single week.

Merida: That’s awesome.

Lewis: So, you know, and that’s just super exciting.

Merida: How does that impact your preaching? Because I know you love exposition and talk to us about preaching in a church-planting context where you know you’ve got unbelievers in a setting.

Lewis: It’s been a shift, actually to, even in my prep, think about them. You know, initially, it wasn’t because you’re preaching just to your crowd. So now, it starts with prep, you know, praying for them, considering them in, you know, just the objections to what they’re going to think through. So yeah, thinking on those ramps that you’ve just . . . you’ve got to take a little off-ramp there for a couple of minutes to explain something, but also something I’m trying to do a lot more is just actually acknowledge that they’re in the room.

So “if you’re here and you’re not a Christian, fill in the blank. If you’re here and you’re not a Christian, this is why we do this.” And throughout some of our teams as well, encouraging our music team just to be like, “Hey, there’s non-Christians coming in the room.Why don’t you explain why we’re singing that song?” The Christians know it.

The people in the room don’t know why we’re singing a song to the Son of David. They don’t have a clue what that is. So yeah, we’re really at that point where we’re just, we’re thinking through a lot of that and how much do we say? And then some of our Christians are like, “Why do we keep repeating these things?” And just reminding them why as to, “You know why we’re doing that. You understand it, you’re all on board, but there are non-Christians in this room who haven’t had church experience.”

Merida: And it’s a reminder to the Christians, right? You should bring your friends.

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: Because I think that’s one of the great benefits of addressing unbelievers directly, is people begin to think, “Hey, I should have brought so and so,” rather than this massive assumption that everything’s for believers, right?

Lewis: Yeah. And even just spending that extra bit of time explaining something. So we’re preaching through Jonah. So I know in that room, some Christians are like, “Is that legit? Is that not legit?” But I know every non-Christian is like, “That is not legit. That didn’t happen.” So just give them some time then to explain, “Are we supposed to take this literally or not?” And show them that we even are willing to wrestle with that question ourselves and think through that.

You know? Yeah, so there’s lots of . . . We got a ways to go in improving on that, but yeah, it definitely makes a difference.

Merida: Man. Planting churches, baptizing people, preaching to unbelievers, and all of that after a really tough season and the Lord has brought you through and still dealing with a lot of challenges like the rest of us. But it’s great to see you, bro.

Lewis: Yeah, you too, man.

Merida: And just great to be here to see what’s going on down under. I haven’t seen any Outback steak houses. I have seen a target and an IKEA, but no Outback.

Lewis: Okay.

Merida: Yeah.

Lewis: Yeah.

Merida: They don’t exist, do they?

Lewis: No, they do.

Merida: They do?

Lewis: I’m pretty sure there’s . . . There might be one down the coast, I think.

Merida: Okay, all right.

Lewis: But typically, no, because we, kind of, have our own, you know . . . that’s your thing over there. We just . . .

Merida: And that’s us. You guys don’t even know what a bloomin’ onion is, do you?

Lewis: No, I don’t. What are you even talking about? Yeah.

Merida: Yeah. Oh, man. Thanks so much for spending some time with us and just pray the Lord will continue to have his hand upon the work here.

Lewis: Yeah, thanks, man. I appreciate it. It’s been good to be with you.

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Planting healthy churches that will go on to plant other healthy churches is an immense task. It will require far more of us than we have in ourselves.

As church planters, we have a propensity to function as though we can do it on our own. We tend to be highly driven—focused intently on the goal ahead. It’s right that the glory of Jesus Christ be our motivation for planting healthy churches—churches where his gospel is proclaimed and embodied before a watching world. 

But our tendency to take matters into our own hands—attempting to shoulder the many burdens that come with planting a church—can be detrimental.

In short, church planters need to embrace limitations and walk with humility. But how can we do this? I’m joined by my friend Kyllum Lewis to discuss these things on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.