Life Is Hard, Prayer Is Simple: Adam Weber on Church Planting, Burnout, and Talking with God

April 18, 2017

Pastor to Pastor Interview

Adam Weber planted Embrace 11 years ago as a 24-year-old seminary student with just 32 people attending. The Sioux Falls, S.D., church now welcomes some 4,000 people each Sunday through five campuses plus an online venue. Outreach Magazine has named Embrace one of the fastest-growing churches in the country for four years running, and this innovative congregation is the fastest-growing United Methodist church in North America.

Yet this thriving church nearly burned up on the launch pad when its young pastor almost burned out from the crushing workload. The 35-year-old husband and father of four talks candidly about the experience in his new book, Talking With God.

Adam, welcome to Encouraging Pastors.

Thanks, it’s great to be here.

You write about the moment when Embrace literally doubled in one week, but that came after years of slow progress. How did that rapid change affect you spiritually?

I went from a season of not seeing God move to seeing him work in powerful ways. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to do both seasons completely on my own. I was prideful in my work ethic. Every time I came up against an obstacle, I just put my head down and worked harder. Becky would say, “You’re not Jesus, so quit trying to replace him.” Finally I hit a breaking point where I knew I needed his help. Thankfully, I had a wonderful church who gave me room to breathe.

I know lots of pastors who feel like they have to “do it all.” Any advice for them?

If you’re in that season, know that it will take more than a single change to fix things. It takes consistent, intentional changes and time with the Lord to get beyond that place of struggling in your own strength. And you have to feed yourself before you feed others. It’s like the safety talk they give on an airplane. If the cabin loses pressure, be sure to put on your own oxygen mask first, then help someone else. Spiritual leadership is like that. You have to pay attention to your own heart first.

You’ve been transparent about your battle with being a people pleaser. Why do you think so many pastors struggle with this?

I think it flows from a good intention. We want people to connect with God, and we do everything we can to help them. But it’s also our vocation, so we have some ego attached to it. And I don’t like conflict; nobody does. We want to be liked. When you add those three factors together, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster. We need to pray, “Lord, you are God, and I’m not. Help me to serve as you want me to, then trust you for the result.”

We’ve talked about the downside of ministry, but I know you’re a fan. What do you love about being a pastor?

There’s so much to love. For me, I value the privilege of being able to tell people about the greatest joy in my life, which is Jesus. Also, I’m constantly humbled by the honor of being allowed into people’s lives during both their most wonderful moments and the hardest times they face. That never ceases to amaze me.

I was called to ministry when . . .

I came to Christ as a junior in high school, and it was a huge transformation. I went from being outspoken about how crazy Christians were to being outspoken about Jesus. Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I filled in for a pastor who was on sabbatical. Within the first week, it was crystal clear to me that this was what I’m supposed to do. I went back and finished my business degree, then enrolled in seminary.

What have you discovered about taking care of yourself in ministry?

The most important thing for us is our connection with God, but that often gets neglected. If you feel like you’re all alone in this, go out of your way to find someone to walk alongside you. Get an accountability person. That doesn’t have to be a rigid or formal arrangement. Just find someone of the same sex who can encourage you and spur you on—someone who will ask you hard questions when you need it, and then celebrate with you unashamedly when there’s a reason for joy. We all need people. Make sure you have people in your life who know you and can both love you and challenge you.

What made you decide to plant a church?

I was told that church planting is one of the hardest ministries you can do, so I never wanted to do it! But during my last year at seminary, the pastor who led me to Christ called and asked, “What if?” I wasn’t interested even in exploring the possibility, but I didn’t have the courage to say no to this man I loved and respected so much. He convinced me to send out one email to my contacts, and he did the same. On the next Sunday, thirty-two people showed up. After that, I flew home from seminary on weekends to continue meeting with them, and we just kept going.

You were called to ministry while serving a traditional church. Obviously, you love and appreciate something about that environment. Yet Embrace is highly contemporary. What’s the same about those settings, and what’s different?

I can enjoy any type of worship. I went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve after preaching ten times last Christmas! I love hymns; I grew up singing them with my mom. Also, the Word of God is the same in both kinds of churches. Pointing people to Jesus is the same. And any church can do that regardless of style.

I think a distinctive of Embrace is that we are willing to do anything to tell one more person about Jesus. I think people sense that; Embrace is clearly not about the people already here. Our hope is to tell as many people as we can about redemption, about the hope, joy, peace, kindness, and forgiveness found in Jesus. We’ll do anything to make that happen. If it’s not biblical and it’s a barrier to reaching people, we get rid of it.

You’re really passionate about this. I can hear it in your voice.

I am. When I heard the good news about Jesus it was the greatest news I’d ever heard. A lot of people think of church as something other than good news. They think of being a Christian as getting confirmed, reading your Bible, and not driving your old lady crazy. There’s no good news in that.

I want to tell people what the angel told the shepherds—a savior has been given to you. I’ve never seen a culture and people who were more desperate for a savior. I hope that regardless of the type of church a pastor leads, they are heartbroken for the people who are not there.

Adam, Becky, and the Whole Weber Clan

What would you say to someone who is considering planting a church?

First, I’d say try to do anything else first. If you still feel like you’re still supposed to start a church, then start a church. This is hard work, and you’ve got to go into it with the right motivation.

Also, make sure you or someone on your team has the heart of an evangelist. If you’re more of a shepherd-type pastor, starting a church will be challenging.

And if you’re not in a healthy place spiritually and emotionally, don’t do it. You have to have your foundation rooted in Jesus, like a tree planted by streams of water. That’s the only thing that will keep you upright. If you’re just trying to do something interesting or trying to make a name for yourself, this isn’t for you.

At the same time, we need lots of people to start new churches because new churches reach new people. Just check your heart and life. Can you, your spouse, and your family handle it right now? It is a full time job and then some.

You just wrote a book on prayer. Why that and not leadership or church planting or something similar?

When I came to Jesus as a junior in high school, prayer was the first thing I heard about. I had mumbled words in prayer my whole life, but a young pastor explained that I could go beyond reciting words and actually talk with God. I’m so grateful that I can cry out to Jesus, and he will listen. I can ask for what I need, and it will be given. It’s so amazing that before a word is on my tongue, the Lord knows it completely.

I’m heartsick for anybody who is trying to go through life and doesn’t know this. I can’t imagine trying to cope with life not knowing that I can ask God for his help, redemption, peace, goodness. I want to tell people about that.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

I hope they’ll understand just how simple prayer is. We try to make things so complicated, but prayer isn’t. I want to make it so simple that someone can actually find themselves putting the book down and praying. Or maybe a Christian who has gotten stuck in a rut will find this book pushing them off center—maybe helping them rediscover their first love. I hope it will help people talk with God more freely.

This blog is called Encouraging Pastors. Is there anything you’d like to say to encourage pastors today?

On behalf of the church, not just Adam, I say thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness and for the work you are doing.

And as a church member, not Adam the pastor, I’m sorry for the expectations I’ve put on you that aren’t realistic. Keep going. God can use you at your lowest, even when you feel completely inadequate. The work you are doing is so important.

Adam, thanks for encouraging pastors.

I’m grateful for the opportunity. Thank you.

Pastor to Pastor Interview
Embrace Church
Talking With God: What to Say When You don’t Know How to Pray

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.