Spire’s Myth of Isolation

The corporate leaders of Spire seem frustrated. Annoyed and frustrated. Seething about having to field so many questions concerning the nature of – what was supposed to be – Spire’s much anticipated leadership conference and platform launch. Instead, a dismayed Rick Rusaw told the Christian Standard, “I spend more time explaining what we aren’t than what we are . . . Questioners often assume Spire is merely an annual conference they are being asked to attend.”

The network rollout? Not going as planned. Rusaw is apparently bogged down with the niggling concerns of potential conventioneers, rather than advancing the narrative of Spire’s signature technological achievement – the online platform.

There’s only one problem with this pose (so obligingly transcribed by the Christian Standard). It was Rusaw’s own marketing team that caused the confusion. For months, Spire’s leaders have in print, on video, and by word of mouth tied the Spire conference to the coattails of the North American Christian Convention – betting heavily on the NACC’s brand loyalty to give them a running start.

The NACC?

“You would be hard pressed to find someone who has loved the North American Christian Convention more than me . . . The NACC is in my blood… and in my bloodline. . . I deeply love the NACC,” writes Spire’s Chairman of the Board.

“For many, many years throughout my life, I attended a gathering called the North American Christian Convention. And one of the reasons why that gathering was so important to me is I learned at a young age that ministry is just hard, and you need support, and you need relationships . . . people who can encourage us,” explains Spire’s Co-Director of Events in the opening moments of a promotional video entitled “The Spire Conference.”

Indeed, Spire’s marketing messages have consistently stated that Spire’s annual conference will “replace” the North American Christian Convention, and “will support everything the NACC has always upheld.” 

Now, after essentially portraying the Spire conference as a new and improved version of the old convention, Rusaw reflexively insists on playing the put-upon drudge because his target audience can’t appreciate Spire’s distinguishing genius, such as it is.

A true achievement in ostentatiously distancing oneself from responsibility: indignation over the audience’s incapacity to grasp something new.

Desperate to capitalize on the NACC’s clout and name recognition, Spire’s corporate leaders have kept the lines between the new and the old deliberately permeable. They cloak their effort in the suit of the past by regularly referring to the NACC in honeyed tones of respect and affection. But these shows of calculated emotion — which also serve to distance them from accountability for the NACC’s demise — are not just unconvincing but unamusing.

What makes the problem even more acute is that Rusaw et al. represent not just the Spire Network but a grandiose conception of the network as the prime mover of personal and professional life. The very purpose of this conference is to convince church leaders that Spire’s platform can and should be trusted to do great things. Therefore, church leaders should be prepared to hand over large chunks of their operations — from hiring staff to leadership development down to providing friends and mentors  — to Spire’s central control.

This presupposes a Leviathan not just benign but competent. So when it turns out that distant, faceless committees tend to be incapable, inadequate, hopelessly inefficient and at times dishonest, Spire’s leaders will, apparently, try to protect their brand by portraying failures as shocking anomalies.

Unfortunately, this pretense has the opposite effect. It produces not reassurance but doubt. Rusaw’s determined detachment conveys the feeling that nobody’s home. No one is leading.

With Spire’s launch now only weeks away, Spire’s CEO implies to the Christian Standard that his efforts have been hindered by a lot of misinformation, and a lot of confusion. He is right of course, the roll out has been mired in dishonesty and casuistry from the very start. And no one has contributed to this with more enthusiasm and with a louder megaphone than the leaders of Spire themselves.

Paradoxically, the very article reporting Rusaw’s concern about clarity,  goes on to distort a 2017 report by the Barna Group and Pepperdine University   According to Spire, the study shows 50 percent of church leaders drop out of ministry within five years of starting, 80 percent believe ministry has negatively impacted their family, 70 percent have lower self-esteem than when they entered ministry, and 70 percent do not have a close friend.

For anyone curious enough to check, exactly none of the aforementioned statistics appear in the report. Zero. 

Instead, it appears that Spire’s marketing team surfed the web, cherry-picking stats (regardless of origin or reliability), and then falsely attributed them to the Barna/Pepperdine landmark study. One such finding going back as far as 1998. 

According to the Barna/Pepperdine study, and contradicting Spire’s claim, only “42% of pastors believe ministry has had a negative impact on their family. Moreover, two-thirds of pastors are actually happy with their friendships, rating their satisfaction in the friend department as either excellent (34%) or good (33%).” Adding, “most pastors are not left alone to fend for themselves: Nearly seven in 10 say they receive direct support at least monthly (68%), and more than half of those do so ‘several times a month or more often’ (37%).”

Beyond the overstated statistics, and startling contradictions, Spire’s mischaracterizations of ministers (in their Together We Rise video) as “stressed, isolated, and looking for direction” are not only impertinent but damaging to our witness in the world – a haunting indictment.

The truth about ministers, fortunately, is “that contrary to conventional wisdom, most pastors are faring well: 91% report a good overall quality of life and 88% describe their spiritual well-being as excellent or good.”

Yet in typical self-serving fashion, Spire has disingenuously built a straw man based on, at best, questionable research so they could then present themselves as heroes. It is nothing more than a clumsy, almost farcical, attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

That Spire considered this a reasonable way of selling a platform which would replace our largest, most long-standing institution betrays either a fundamental ethical illiteracy or a deeply troubling readiness to mislead.

And even if Spire’s portrayal of ministry were accurate, where they lose me is with the idea that the solution to these maladies can be found online or by a de facto nationalization of our movement via their platform.

The idea of online community is a myth.

Conversation is done face to face and person to person, and so is community. The research is in. What we need are actual communities.  Almost all social media studies I’ve read report that the more time one spends on social platforms, the more isolated one feels in life. Platforms are no substitute for the encouragement and belonging one enjoys from flesh and blood interaction. Interactions not unlike what many experienced at the North American Christian Convention. 

Don’t get me wrong, many ministers live on the paper-thin margin of burnout, and certainly platforms can assist in addressing work related challenges. But the virtual community you share with others, on any social media platform, can not replace real relationships. And those who provide these platforms offering “free” interaction are not your friends. The more you interact with their platform, the happier and wealthier you make them – regardless of how it may affect you.

Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.

5 thoughts on “Spire’s Myth of Isolation”

  1. Very interesting read. I came to faith in a “Christian” church when I was 16, but have been away from the “non-denomination” denomination for almost 40 years and with the Presbyterian Church (as an member.) My perception is the “Christian” church has been inbred and too involved in navel gazing to be open to the idea that there really are other true believers in other places. I have a pastor friend (an Anglican priest) who finds his support not just from within his church but with me and some other believers from various church allegiances. He has confided in us, things he would never be able to share or unburden with members of his congregation. I attended CBS and always picked up this us,versus them mentality with other churches. I was in ministry for four years and was completely destroyed by elders of the church I was at.

    I think avenues, such as Spire, could be a valuable tool for ministers but can never replace true face to face fellowship. If Spire sells themselves as the only place a minister can receive support and fellowship, I think they find themselves on the outside looking in at scripture. “Christian / Church of Christ” ministers need to open up to the thought that they are not alone and look for support not just within their church but within their local community.

    I also attended a “seeker” church for a few years and had some very meaningful worship experiences there, but starved for personal, intimate relationships within that fellowship. I compare it to cotton candy: it sure is good for awhile but you’ll starve to death if that’s all you eat.

    What is needed is more organic, local or regional gatherings of men to add to and enhance the fellowship and support of not just pastors, but of all Christian men. I have attended on my brother-in-law has helped with and without a doubt it was one of the most meaningful experiences in my life.

    Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking writing!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think your suggestion about more regional groups is spot on and at the very heart of what I was trying to express.

  3. Why is this such a big deal to you?

    Hey Lee,

    thanks for the question. It’s a good one. What it all boils down to is this: I can’t keep quiet about leaders who are not straight forward about the truth of the Gospel. It makes a minister’s job all the more difficult. I am not motivated by the hopes of becoming a nationally recognized preacher, making a million dollars, or being the pastor of a mini-denominational mega-church. What motivates me is the challenge of ministry. Creating an environment where one can grow in relationship to God. I do not wish to push the envelope, I don’t feel the need to change the theological landscape, or to reinterpret the church in an ever-more-relevant way. I simply want to preach and teach in a way that speaks to a person’s soul. Thankfully, I serve a church where, in spite of my imperfections, I can do that. And we have never experienced a year where we didn’t experience growth since its inception.

  4. Here’s my issue: What’s wrong with the name Christian? In a movement that grew and identified around the name of Christ and as “Christians only,” and whose Churches and institutions have lifted up that ideal in their very monikers, why exchange that intrinsically (and intentional) biblical name for anything less at all? It’s been happening with many of our newer and mega churches for years? And now they have taken that same name away from that convention. I guess the crowd to whom they desire to appeal must not be comfortable with the name “Christian.”

    1. I completely agree Tim. The name Christian emphasizes our faith in Christ – a relationship. Spire deemphasizes that relationship by emphasizing a dead lifeless aspect of a church building – religion. Perhaps that’s one of the very few things that’s true in their advertising.

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