Church Planting Lessons I Learned
By David A. Posthuma
Church planting can be the “toughest job you will ever love”. It can be highly rewarding, yet equally devastating. On the average, only 68% of church plants survive into their fourth year1. Beyond survival, far fewer churches may be considered “thriving” ministries. While many factors may contribute to the survivability and success of a church plant, healthy core-development is a leading dynamic2.
I learned this truth the hard way. My first church plant began with a small core of twelve people. We met weekly in various living rooms as I attempted to lead my core members through a spiritual and leadership development process. However, after three months, they began insisting that we “go public”. I resisted this appeal for approximately two months explaining that we needed to become stronger as a team because of the challenges that lay ahead. Finally, one core member (who ultimately inspired and led the core meltdown I experienced a year and a half later) suggested that we take a vote to see if we should “go public”, all but myself voted “yes”. I was now forced to either go along with the crowd or resign. I made the wrong decision.
In our first year as a public ministry, everything seemed to be going great. We grew from twelve core members to over 135 people in regular attendance. We had our own building, a full band, and ten small groups. We experienced people coming to Christ nearly every week, and new attendees weekly. I was amazed at what God was doing. It did not appear that anything was going to stop our momentum…and then we experienced a core meltdown.
Core members began to complain that I was spending too much of my time with the “new people”. They also complained that they were over-worked, yet they did not trust the “new people” sufficiently to delegate ministry service responsibility to others outside the core and resented me when I did so. At the time I felt frustrated by my core’s self-centered attitudes and simply challenged them to adopt a “servant spirit”. Eventually, the core splintered, and ten of the twelve founding members left the church. I was devastated. Our church attendance was cut in half. The church stopped growing. One spiritual seeker told me, “If this is how Christians treat each other I don’t want anything to do with Christianity”.
As I look back on that experience many years ago, having since matured through several church plant/church growth ventures, I now realize how common it is for church planters to experience a core meltdown. Many church planters report that they have lost most or all their core members by the fifth year of the church’s existence. Core meltdown is a painful and damaging experience for all involved. However, the potential for core meltdown can be minimized by implementing a few simple principles into the core-values of your developing ministry.
Principle 1 – Find Their Fit
It is very common in the early phases of a church plant that ministry leaders and ministry core adopt an attitude of “do whatever it takes” to accomplish the mission of launching the new church. While this slogan sounds motivational, it, in fact, violates a foundational principle rooted in scripture…gift-based ministry service. When people “do whatever it takes” and do not serve based upon God’s divine design for their life, it can only result in a severe increase in the individual’s stress level, and a decrease in satisfaction and motivation. The longer the level of stress and dissatisfaction is allowed to build, the more likely the individual will contribute to an eventual “core meltdown”.
This is one of the reasons why I developed the AssessMe.org ministry mobilization assessment program…First, so that church planters can be assured that God wired them for entrepreneurial ministry; and second, so that leaders can be equipped to mobilize their core members in a manner that honors and respects God’s design. When people serve based on God’s ministry design for their lives, they are self-motivated, experience minimal negative stress, and feel a greater sense of personal satisfaction. To determine a person’s divine design for ministry, I believe it is important to use objective assessment tools. Don’t give in to the deception that “we are small enough that I know each individual well…I don’t need to use assessment tools”. In almost every case where pastors have related this sentiment to me, upon using an objective evaluation tool with their core team, the pastor’s perceptions have been proved inaccurate. Objective assessment tools are not only an educational medium they also provide an opportunity for leaders to affirm team members for their many wonderful attributes. I personally believe it is essential to learn the following information regarding each servant within our ministries:
- Ministry Temperament (Personality Dynamics)
- Leadership Style (Preferred manner of influencing others)
- Spiritual Giftedness (Focus upon practical ministry gifts)
- Skills, Previous Training, and Experience
Principle 2 – Responsibility Must Match Maturity
Church plants often experience a unique dynamic not common among established ministries…they can quickly become large spiritual nurseries with few mature care providers. And if this challenge were not difficult enough, just imagine what happens when leaders discover under the pressures of real life ministry that many of their core members are not as spiritually mature as they had previously assumed. In fact, often times our core members are mere spiritual toddlers who try to project an image of spiritual maturity. I have found that when asked, most Christians cannot explain what defines a biblically mature Christ follower. (NOTE: Try this simple experiment with your core members. Meet with each one individually, and ask them to describe what defines a mature Christ follower, and to support their descriptions with scriptural evidence. What does this experiment reveal about your core?)
There is a direct relationship between ministry mobilization and spiritual maturation. We know that it would be irresponsible to make a two-week-old new convert an Elder within the church. So how long should a person be a Christ follower before placed into leadership? Does your new ministry have in place a clear spiritual formation strategy so that people know where and how God is challenging them to grow? I encourage church plant pastors to “test” their core members individually by having them participate in real-life ministry situations under the direct supervision of the church plant pastor. In addition, in order to determine each member’s true level of spiritual maturity, and to develop an intentional spiritual formation plan customized to the needs of each core member, I recommend using a spiritual formation assessment tool. One such assessment tool can be found at https://www.assessme.org/assessments/discipleship/. I recommend that core members re-take this kind of assessment every six months, with the support and accountability of a spiritual formation coach or their church plant pastor. In this manner, the assessment tool provides the necessary exhortation we all require to stay on track as we seek to grow spiritually and serve faithfully.
Principle 3 – Some Core Members can be Rotten to the Core
People often get involved in a church plant venture because they are dissatisfied with every other church in town. Dissatisfaction can at times be an appropriate motivator for helping start a new ministry. For example, I know of one town where there is not a single evangelical church within the entire community. Evangelicals within this community may be justified in their spiritual dissatisfaction, and having failed to influence the liberal churches in their community to change, may appropriately initiate a church plant venture.
Dissatisfaction, however, can often have less to do with the quality of the churches within a community, as it has to do with the quality of an individual’s spiritual condition. Some people will never be satisfied until they have control. Some people will never be satisfied until everyone agrees perfectly with their personal theology. Still, others will never be satisfied until they feel that people view them as a big fish in a little pond.
We hate to admit it, but some core members can be rotten to the core. At the core of every person is the reality that we are damaged by sin and in need of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work within our lives. We all have a responsibility to confront our sin and inappropriate behaviors by addressing them in a biblical manner. However, when core members leave their previous churches in a negative manner, causing damage to the leadership and its people, and do not address their divisive sin biblically nor seek relational restoration, then we can be sure that these patterns of behavior will inevitably repeat themselves within our current church plant. While rotten core issues are always painful and difficult to deal with, it is far better to address these issues before your church goes public, while only a few people are affected.
To protect a church plant from rotten core issues, I recommend that church plant pastors conduct a background check on all potential core members. If it becomes apparent through these background checks that core members are responsible for unaddressed sin issues which have damaged previous ministries and/or individuals, I urge church plant pastors to not allow these members to participate within the core until the issues are biblically addressed, remediated, and time has proven that these individuals are no longer a serious threat to the local body.
Principle 4 – Committees Are Core Killers
When a church plant pastor first formulates the ministry core, it is common that the pastor and core members make decisions in a democratic fashion…they vote. Or even worse, inexperienced church planters may initiate a value that “nothing happens unless we all agree”. This is a serious foundational error because these practices unintentionally construct an oligarchic (rule by committee) precedent. Once this precedent is established, core members become used to being consulted on every issue within the church. As the church grows, and core members are no longer consulted on every issue in the church, a power struggle typically ensues that ultimately results in a core meltdown.
The solution is to initiate team-based ministry structures long before the church ever “goes live”. What I mean by “team” is very different than is often practiced within most churches. I am referring to “Three-Strand-Cord” leadership teams established over every ministry area of the church. Using a Leadership Style assessment that evaluates each person’s preferred style of influence (Note: I will use actual profiles from AssessMe.org in my explanation), we construct leadership teams comprised of the following:
- Team Leader (or Pioneer in start-ups) to mobilize the ministry team
- Administrator to handle the details associated with the ministry team
- Nurturer (Pastoral or Encouraging leader) to address the emotional and spiritual needs of the team and of the people the team serves.
While the Team Leader may display some dominance within the leadership team, each team member has a specific area of expertise and responsibility based on God’s divine design for their life. And each member of the leadership team provides accountability and a differing perspective for each other member of the team.
The Team Leader is 100% about the mission, Team Leaders do not like getting bogged down with the administrative duties the Administrator highly values, nor are Team Leaders highly sensitive to people’s feelings and spiritual needs are leaders in the Nurturing category.
Administrative Leaders love to address the many details associated with any mission. However, they are not typically as motivational or missional as Team Leaders and are even less sensitive than Team Leaders when it comes to the emotional and spiritual needs of others.
A leader in the Nurturing category (Pastoral or Encouraging Leaders) are very focused on the needs of individuals and have less concern about accomplishing a mission or addressing administrative responsibilities.
In the case of the Pioneer profile above, we would seek to support the Pioneer with an Administrator to handle the details, and a Pastoral person to compensate for the Pioneer’s lack of pastoral skills. The Pioneer is now properly supported to launch a new ministry. The use of Three-Strand-Cord leadership structures is supported in part by The Church Plant Survivability and Health Study 2007, released by the Southern Baptist denomination. Its surveys demonstrated that one of the leading factors associated with the success of any ministry start-up venture was the use of multiple leaders3.
While there can never be a guarantee that protects your church plant from experiencing a core meltdown, the principles outlined in this article will help significantly reduce the potential of core melt-down, while significantly increasing the potential of your new ministry’s survival and eventual ministry impact within your community and throughout the world.
About the Author
David Posthuma is the author of Made for a Mission and eShift, founder of E-Church Essentials, LLC, and the chief architect of the AssessMe.org online ministry assessment program. David has served as a church revitalizer, church plant pastor, church growth consultant, and since 1998, has designed software solutions for the church market.
David resides in Holland, Michigan with his wife Tamara, and their two children, Joshua and Alyssa.
1) Church Plant Survivability and Health Study 2007, by Ed Stetzer and Phillip Connor, Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, February 2007. Page 13
2) Church Plant Survivability and Health Study 2007, by Ed Stetzer and Phillip Connor, Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, February 2007. Page 3
3) Church Plant Survivability and Health Study 2007, by Ed Stetzer and Phillip Connor, Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, February 2007. Page 3