The Thistle

On Curbing Your Expectations: An Interview With Alumnus Duff James

When I first spoke with Duff James (MDiv/MAC ’02), City Church had just 30 members. That was after three years in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, where Duff and his wife Kristi had moved from Columbia, South Carolina. First Presbyterian, their home church, had released them to accept a call to plant a church in Asheville; there were no other Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) churches for 25 miles. Duff knew it was going to be a hard road for them, but he hadn’t expected this.

As it turns out, God would be turning over a lot of Duff’s expectations. When Duff graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary in 2002 with degrees in divinity and counseling, he was setting his sights on a new church and a new town. He certainly didn’t have in mind returning to Columbia, nor to First Pres. But sure enough, that was exactly his first call. And even though he never expected to become a parachute planter, one day First Presbyterian asked him to do just that—basically drop out of the sky right into the heart of Asheville.

Duff never thought it would be easy to plant a church. But having only 30 members after three years would cause a lot of people to throw in the towel, or at least to really question God’s call on their lives. When I asked Duff why it had been so hard to build up a church in that area, he had two things to say. First, when he and Kristi arrived in Asheville, they didn’t know a soul. “We had to raise money, build a core group, cast a vision, and convince others to join us,” he said. That’s a challenge for every church planter. But in a city like Asheville, it’s even harder for several reasons.

Asheville is a romantic city. It has an attractive feel and a reputation for being a hip town, with pottery shops, art galleries, breweries, restaurants, and open-air events—not to mention the fact that it’s buried in the beautiful heart of the Appalachian Mountains. But, as it turns out, these characteristics that make Asheville so attractive also make it a city with a very transient population. This merely adds to the challenge of trying to start and grow a new church there. Duff notes, “A lot of people are coming and going, moving into the city to try to make it their home, only to move out within a couple of years. Often this is because they can’t find good long-term work. It means people are constantly moving in and out of City Church, too.” It was painful for Duff and Kristi to watch newly beloved church members move away.

So City Church remained small. But Duff’s faith, instead of shrinking, began to grow. Despite what would appear to be slow progress, his backers remained with him, continuing to fund the plant. Duff and Kristi continued to feel a burden for the city, and continued to believe in God’s call.

Duff’s expectations began to change, too. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in church planting is that the real definition of ‘success’ is not the numbers of people in your ministry or popularity among your peers or in your denomination. Success is not your preaching. Success is not your counseling. Success is faithfulness to God and his call on your life.” Duff recently wrote to me, “The challenge for me—and it’s one I’ve been dealing with all of my life—is learning to trust God.”

Since I last spoke with Duff, in the summer of 2014, City Church has tripled in size. Duff can’t say that he expected it, but somehow, it wasn’t unexpected either.

Joseph McDaniels (MDiv, Spring ’15) is an intern at the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute and regularly teaches Sunday School at Kirk of the Hills. He and his wife, Rachel, enjoy spending time with their first-born son, Benjamin, who is just four months old. Joseph loves coffee and regularly filches cups from the Admissions office.