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A church too far

Lifestyle | It's easy to publish success stories, but we also learn through 'failure'

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

For more than 20 years the Presbyterian Church in America had wanted to plant a church in the Detroit area, the largest U.S. metro area without a PCA church. Brian Sleeth, a successful church planter in Maryland, took up the challenge after much prayer and counsel. In 2005 he headed to Michigan with his wife and three children (a fourth would be born there).

The Sleeths decided the best recipe for success was to plant the church in a still-growing northwest suburb that was strategically located near highways. It had a brand new high school and plans for more schools and housing developments. Not long after they bought their house in one of the new developments, the "housing market took a tumble." The planned developments stalled.

Sleeth knew the Detroit area (see "Centers of the battle") would be tough even in the best economic times. "I didn't know how tough . . . I knew the Big Three automakers were in trouble, but I thought, what an opportunity to reach people for Christ." Instead, Sleeth found people to be "spiritually comatose," and Christians were struggling just to "survive spiritually, let alone being spiritually healthy enough to go on this great adventure of starting a new church."

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The church started with about 20 people. It gained some and lost some as the downturn accelerated. Even though the work eventually grew to 50 people, by October, 2008, the financial crisis and looming bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM overshadowed progress. When the stock market plunged, church giving declined and pledges from outside the congregation dried up.

Like many of their congregants, the Sleeths were stretched financially. Their house, bought before the housing bubble burst, had declined in value by $90,000. With the church plant floundering, they were unable to keep up payments. Sleeth wore himself out with constant fundraising, networking, and ministry. Looking back, he said, "There was a point where my wife thought I would probably work myself to death. The amount of energy that was required was like running 70 miles an hour every day from the moment I got up to the moment I went to bed. . . . It was overwhelming. There was no way to keep it all afloat, to keep juggling all the balls and spinning all the plates."

The stress affected his health and family. "Our family situation was an absolute wreck . . . I can't sacrifice the relationship with my children and marriage to keep pushing." At the end of 2008, Sleeth and the denomination agreed to end their attempt.

The Sleeths struggled with their house. A buyer was willing to buy it for its lower appraised value, but in a weird turn of events that Sleeth can't explain, the bank bought the house back for $7,000 more than the Sleeths owed on it. They didn't have to make up any money: "It is still a fore­closure. Our credit still sunk like a ship, but we have no deficiency. That's clearly to me of the Lord."

After the church plant closed, the Sleeths moved to southern Louisiana, to be closer to family. They moved in with a sister and her family, 11 people sharing a 2,800-square-foot house. Sleeth has now accepted a call to pastor Covenant Presbyterian Church in the economically distressed Mississippi Delta.

Sleeth won't use the word failure to describe his Michigan travail. "Lives were changed. Fifteen came to repentance." He's learned "to live and keep living absolutely by grace." He's learned also the importance of practical help: "You lose your job, you lose your home. A lot of people step up, but some say, 'Be warmed, be filled.'. . . Not on my watch will it happen that we don't help people in practical ways."

"Failure teaches us a lot," Sleeth says. Paraphrasing Thomas Edison, he adds, "I didn't fail, I just figured out a thousand ways not to make the light bulb."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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