Unsustainability: A Lament

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 23, 2007

As Amy and I drove back from Chicago, after spending time with David Fitch and his family (who are great, by the way) Life on the Vine, and up/rooted, we were feeling good. We were confident in our calling and things felt right with the world. Sure, there have been struggles. But most are behind us. Our neo monastic experiment to live out the radical Jesus life in the margins has been difficult, but things are beginning to look up. Missio Dei is getting stronger and going deeper. We have new opportunities all the time to do some really amazing ministry. And people are being transformed. Things with InterVarsity are good…my fundraising efforts aren’t paying off as well as I’d hoped, but I enjoy InterVarsity, get opportunity to impact students lives all the time, and recently received a chapter planting grant. Speaking gigs are becoming more frequent, and I’m working on a book that has lots of potential. On top of all of that, I’m exploring new ways of empowering people to follow the radical path of Jesus through Chirstarchy! Things are getting better.

Or so I thought. This morning, the roller coaster plunged. The price of our mortgage–which we can’t afford as it is–has increased. Unforeseen bills and expenses have arived. And we find ourselves closer to the brink than ever before. Our personal financial situation is on the brink. And for all the signs of promise, things haven’t changed on the home front. One moment, you’re optimistic. The next, you’re in despair. My heart is overwhelmed. I don’t know how much longer I can take this roller-coaster ride. It is unsustainable.

Often, when I share these sorts of laments with fellow church leader types, they commiserate and say “welcome to church planting.” Screw that. I’m tired of having my lamentation stolen from me. I’ve done church planting before…and what Amy and I have gone through in the past year isn’t the same.

Our grief is amplified by the recognition that it doesn’t have to be this way. This morning, I’m plagued by the recognition–and the temptation–that it still isn’t too late to scrap everything and do church in the urban-hipster, gather-the-upwardly-mobile-urbanites, let’s-draw-a-crowd-of-cultural-creative-savvy-people, sort of way. That isn’t to say that such an approach is EASY. It is just EASIER. And I have no doubt in my mind that I could pull that sort of thing off…if only. If only my heart were in it.

Being faced with poverty (Amy and I have been operating at about 1400 a month or less for over 9 months) is made all the crueler knowing that we have taken this path with full recognition that this could happen. But in my pride, I think, I denied that it WOULD happen. I assumed that my skill and grit would kick in and, once again, I would pull it off. I would have thought that my fundraising with InterVarsity would be much better. But I miscalculate. I miscalculated just how “fringe” our activities seemed to folks. I miscalculated how many people I thought would love to share in our ministry on the West Bank. I miscalculated my own ability to raise support. I was arrogant.

And so I lament. I lament this situation. But, in spite of it all, I don’t think I would have done it any other way. Even still, Amy and I embrace our calling. We love the West Bank. We love the University of Minnesota. We love Missio Dei. We love the possibility of the impossible breaking through–the God of Redemption sweeping in at the final act. Deus Ex Machina.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an announcement that we’re quitting. But it is a cry of lament. Things have been bad before. And I’ve griped a number of times on this blog. But, for the first time in my life, I’m worried that my house will be foreclosed. I’m worried about where Amy and I will be in 2 months. I’m worried that I’ll fall over the edge. I’m worried that there is a chance that all that we’ve been working towards might crumble. So, while ministry looks good, our own financial struggles jeopardize it all. And that feels horrible.

How long, O Lord?

UPDATE: After chatting with a good friend, I’ve decided that I need to explore a couple options: 1) I need to refinance my house. We are simply unable to break even if we sell right now. 2) I need to beg my InterVarsity boss to increase the financial flow. If he isn’t able to do that, I need to discuss pulling back from IV for a while and get a part time job. The problem is that my current time commitments to InterVarsity make it almost impossible to get a part time job. So I need either more money from IV or I need to cut back on my commitments to IV and get a part time job. 3) I need to cut back on speaking and writing and meeting with various folks and focus most of my energy on fundraising. That means that I have to 4) rethink how I do fundraising and try an approach that will actually work for me.

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12 Responses to “Unsustainability: A Lament”

  1. Anna on April 23rd, 2007 4:11 pm

    Read this when you think your lamenting in nearly through or you can’t bear to wait any longer…

    This morning, I’m plagued by the recognition–and the temptation–that it still isn’t too late to scrap everything and do church in the urban-hipster, gather-the-upwardly-mobile-urbanites, let’s-draw-a-crowd-of-cultural-creative-savvy-people, sort of way. That isn’t to say that such an approach is EASY. It is just EASIER. And I have no doubt in my mind that I could pull that sort of thing off…if only. If only my heart were in it.

    My naive question would be, Why can’t you plant a church/community which is both creative-urban-upwardly mobile and down-and-outsiders? Perhaps I do not see the demographic topography well enough to see the impossibility. Maybe Missio Dei could be a bridge between the two groups? Would this be a Jesus-way to accomplish His kingdom building in the West Bank?

  2. markvans on April 23rd, 2007 4:20 pm

    Sure, one can do that. Just not on the West Bank, not unless you want to attrach urban hipsters from outside the neighborhood to a cool event. If one assumes that church starts with gathering a group of interested people around a set of ideas, then one can try to do both and have only about 20% of the church actually involved in the neighborhood. If, however, one starts with the assumption that the best way to start a church in an urban diverse, largely lower-economic status neighborhood is to be incarnationally present and have the gathering become an expression of stuff that is already happening relationally, then you can’t have a lot of both in the beginning. The temptation I’m facing (which honestly isn’t that tempting for me…it is more like a harassing thought) is whether to start putting on a big show for cool people that lets uncool people attend if they want. That is the quickest, most economically impressive, and shiniest way to start an urban church. But so many people are left out of that approach.

  3. Dave C on April 23rd, 2007 5:38 pm

    While I may not agree with the style of church you are planting, I’m behind you because I see that your heart is truly for the people of the West Bank. That’s why you get my money and prayers.

  4. Anna on April 23rd, 2007 9:24 pm

    Other related thought:

    Your financial woes and otherwise are a way of joining your mission field. Believe me, I KNOW how you feel. Been there, have barely broken even this last year. I’m even starting graduate school in a discipline I don’t care for to get out of loan payments. *Wince*

    Maybe you need to recognize that you ARE one of those urban-hipsters (though not in the financial column), coming in from the outside to the West Bank. Now you really really know how it is to be flat broke and make painful choices, just like your new neighbors.

    I’m part of a rare church that has both types of folk, and somehow it works. Now, it isn’t growing all too fast because of other factors, but the core group is really tight. They are still friendly and diverse. It is possible.

  5. John Smulo on April 23rd, 2007 10:22 pm

    Dang, I can relate to this totally. Frankly, I wish I couldn’t. But since misery loves company I thought I’d let you know.

    The last church I planted was more of a typical type of church. I had naive hopes of it being somewhat different, but I was wrong. That said, it was a lot easier to draw a crowd, and way easier to raise funds. However, I kept feeling like a sell out, and that’s worse than not being able to pay our bills–or so I keep telling myself.

    We’re planting a church now, and I’m involved speaking and writing on subjects that are also seen as more fringe, at least to the wider church. The result is we simply cannot pay our bills. We’re trying to work things out, I know God is somewhere in the midst of all of this, but to be honest I’m not really sure where on the financial end of things.

    Recently we were supported very generously with one-time gifts from the blogging community, which was extremely encouraging–yeah, God was in that. But a long term solution is yet to be seen.

    Here’s to hoping for a long-term solution for both of us.

  6. dlw on April 24th, 2007 8:19 pm

    glad to hear you’re being proactive.

    I get upset that you were denied the ability to teach your course again at Bethel Seminary this quarter!!!


  7. Nathan on April 25th, 2007 12:34 pm

    Mark I was kind of thinking what anna said. What if this broke poor thing isn't something that will ever go away. What if it's a way of life. The life that a lot of the people you want to minister to have. A way of life that for them isn't going to go away anytime soon. I know it doesn't sound pleasant, but could it be that this might be helpful in ministering to these people. To be truly incarnational. Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. That's because he was poor. Alan Hirsch uses the word "interpathy" in the shaping of things to come. Interpathy goes beyond sympathy and empathy. "It describes the depth of relationship when an outsider (you) to a particular host community develops a burden in his heart for that community. It refers to the capacity for an outsider to pick up a community's sense of values, what has hurt them and where they're headed as a people group. It's a form of identification so deep that the guest/missionary has almost become one of the host tribe." If you know what it is to be poor, to poor for a long time, with no probable end in sight, you may be feeling the same things that your community feels. Just my thoughts, I don't know you very well, so I could be totally wrong, but I thought I'd share.

  8. markvans on April 25th, 2007 1:05 pm

    Hmm…I wish people had read my earlier thoughts about giving people room to lament. I hate to sound like a jerk…but when someone is on the brink of having their house go into foreclosure, you don’t say: “it is good for you…it will help you be authentic.”

    I understand the heart behind your thoughts.  And I don’t disagree.  But I’m not an urban hipster.  At least not a real one.  I’ve lived in the lower economic status for most of my life. For most of my marriage, we’ve done ok financially, but never great. Going for 9 months with an income between $1000/month to maybe $1500 a month is well below poverty. We live simply…we share our house with lots of people. We live generously. I have no problem identifying with the people we serve. But I do have a problem with the idea of losing my freaking house…not because it is a luxury that I oh-so love, but because we are currently taking care of 5 other people who will be out of luck if we lost our home. I’m also lamenting the potential loss of our home because my wife and I desperately want to adopt siblings out of the county system…and need to qualify as foster parents in order to do so.  If we lost our home, it would probably put all of that on hold for a year or more (because they have certain housing and credit requirements).

    God may be doing some stripping away, tis true.  We’ve cut back as much as possible.  It may even be God’s plan for us to lose our home.  But I doubt it.  I think what God is doing is increasing my faith.  I think what God is doing is helping me learn to balance my life better and refine things to what is most important.

    What I’m looking for with this post is some sympathy and prayer. Not platitudes or answers or solutions.

  9. markvans on April 25th, 2007 4:40 pm

    Sorry for the tone of my last post. I completely get what you’re saying and tend to agree. But there is more to the story than you know. The whole matter is a question of sustainability. My wife and I personally live sacrificially, but tend to cover a lot of ministry out of pocket. Please pray for us if you feel so inclined.

  10. daniel on April 25th, 2007 9:10 pm


    We come before you this evening with broken hearts, distressed psyches and empty pockets. We lift up Mark and Amy to you who dress the lilies of the field and provide for the birds of the air. Grant them continued wisdom and fortitude as they face concerns both intimately personal yet more common than most of us would like to admit. We pray that you would lead them and thereby provide for them a means to remain in their home. Grant us the courage and wisdom to be whatever help we may be as the hands and the feet of Jesus in the world. Save us from easy answers and empty words that we may share in Mark’s lament and mourn with him who mourns even as we rejoice in that which he and Amy rejoice. As we await your victory may we know
    the peace that surpasses all understanding
    the joy of the martyrs
    and the courage of all who whisper “not my will but thine…”

    it is in the name of Jesus, firstborn from the dead we pray,

  11. Richard Daley on April 25th, 2007 10:34 pm

    Hey Mark, I don’t know if you want to post this publicly, and if not you can email me. But how much would you need the financial flow to increase by?

  12. markvans on April 25th, 2007 10:40 pm


    I don’t mind posting that (since I’ve let it all hang out already anyways). For us to start “getting by” we’d need about $700 more a month. We’d need more than that to start climbing back out of the hole.

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