8 Reasons a Church Plant May Not Grow

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I’ve worked with a lot of church plants. And, I’ve been involved in two — as a planter. Every planter goes into the process hoping to see lives changed with the Gospel. Hoping to grow. Some work. Some don’t. 

Why is that? 

Well, of course, there are spiritual factors at work. Some sow seeds and others reap harvest. Sometimes God uses the plant in a unique way — that doesn’t produce huge numbers of attendees. And, frankly, sometimes the planter had no business planting. It was never really what they were called to do. It looked “exciting” from the outside — all the “cool” people are doing it, but God had a different plan for the planter’s life. 

But, speaking specifically about strategic type of reasons a church plant doesn’t grow, I’ve observed a few things. 

Here are 8 reasons a church plant may not grow.

You live by someone else’s rules. I’ve seen it so many times. A church plant has the rules of the denomination or an association and they simply don’t work where they are located. The plant doesn’t contextualize the structure to the culture and community around them. The exact same model won’t always work in two different church plants — even across town from each other. Principles are often transferable, but not necessarily practices. 

You try to be like everyone else. This is similar to number one but has to do more with the planter. The planter has a vision but it’s someone else’s vision. They have a desire to look just like someone else they admire. Every plant needs it’s own vision birth by God in the heart of its own planter. The truth presented should be the same as every other church plant, but the style of deliverance will have some uniqueness to the planter.   

You depend too much on outside funding. Rather than developing givers and volunteers from with inside the plant, the plant waits for the outside checks to come. The problem with outside funding is that it eventually disappears. It is rarely sustainable long-term. And, if not careful, the planter becomes dependent on these resources. Obviously there are exceptions. Some plants may never be able to fully fund themselves. But, in my experience, many times this problem exists because the planter has not discipled the people attending in the area of giving. 

You build programs over relationships. This is a common problem I’ve seen too. A church planter enters an area, implements a few programs, and believes that people will naturally acclimate to those programs. And they may for a short time. But in the end programs will not sustain people. Relationships will. 

You worry too much about structure. You’ll get there. And you need structure. But, especially in the initial days, focus more on loving a community. Then building structure. My advice, is to have some basic structure in place, but not have that structure so rigid or controlling that you can’t adapt quickly to the needs of the community. Then spend your greatest energy loving people. 

You waited for them to come to you.  You thought “new” would be enough. Build it they will come works in the movies. But, that doesn’t even work in established churches anymore, why would it work in church plants? The future attendees in any church are usually outside somewhere waiting to be asked. And, sometimes they don’t even know it. It’s our job to go find them.

You didn’t protect yourself and your family. We can’t count the number of church plants that never really accomplished all that they could have because the planter wasn’t healthy enough to see it through. It could be a moral failure, burnout, or a family that is falling apart under the stress of the plant. (Let me speak specifically into this one. Every planter needs mentoring, discipline and accountability. From the start. Not after the need is discovered.)

You held too tightly to your way.  Church plants can recruit entrepreneurial leaders. It’s a natural attraction. Given the authority to actually lead this can be one of the most powerful benefits of the church plant. When the planter ignores this and keeps people from feeling empowered, growth is limited to the church planter’s abilities. The planter should certainly control — or maybe the word is protect — the theological foundation, but implementation of vision should be shared  with others. 

Those are just a few observations. As with the purpose of this blog, they are meant to be helpful. If God has called you to a church plant — plant well. I’m pulling for you.

5 Steps When You’re Overwhelmed as a Leader

Frustrated office manager overloaded with work.

As a leader, there have been numerous times when I have been in over my head with the challenges and opportunities I was facing. God seems to call me to huge tasks.

I suspect if you’re a leader, you understand. I think He does that to many people! It keeps us humble. And, dependent — on Him!

Regardless of how comfortable a leader may be in his or her position…

  • There are times when the leader has no answers…
  • He or she has exhausted every bit of knowledge gained…
  • The current strategies don’t seem to work anymore…
  • The situation is beyond the current plans and systems…
  • People are complaining…
  • It seems you’re on a treadmill — getting no where…
  • Some days you leave thinking you accomplished nothing — maybe even most days…

Ever been there? Did you think someone was talking to me about you?

When the leader doesn’t know what to do and/or doesn’t have a clue what to do next, here are some suggestions:

Admit – The first step is to be honest with where you are currently as a leader. Pretending to know the answers when you don’t know them will not solve the problem. Most of the time, the people you are leading already know your inadequacies. Come clean. You’re overwhelmed. No shame. All of us have been there at times.

Pause - It’s okay to take a break to clear your head. It could be an afternoon, a day, or a week, but sometimes you just need to get away from the situation long enough to gain a fresh perspective. I often disappear from the office Thursday afternoons on especially difficult weeks. I may take a long run, mow my grass, pray or read. The busier the season — the more overwhelmed I feel — the more I need to pause. I know it sounds counter-productive. It’s not. At all. It’s life-giving.

Seek help – Find a mentor who has walked where you are currently walking. I have several older men I call when I’m maxed out with stress. There is a benefit in surrounding yourself with people smarter than you about a matter. This is the time for the believer to rely more than ever on his or her faith; trusting that the God who called them to the task will be faithful to complete it. (1 Thess 5:24)

Learn – Leaders should always be teachable. Again, assuming or pretending to have all the answers only slows or curtails projects and is quickly be discovered by others. Stretch yourself and learn something new. Read. Definitely be reading. Attend a conference. Listen to some TED talks or sermons from pastors you admire. Feed your mind. It needs some new energies.

Improve – Make better checklists each day. Spend more time planning. Learn to better delegate. I always say, you have to get better before you can get bigger. As you learn improvements needed, be willing to change. The tighter you hold onto methods that aren’t working the longer you’ll delay moving forward. Push through the overwhelming period and become a stronger, more capable and better leader. You can do it!

Do you need help? Are you overwhelmed? Start the process towards getting better.

I’m pulling for you — and I’ll trade you a prayer!

5 Things I Learned in Church Planting

Typical Rural Icelandic Church under a blue summer sky

I’ve planted two churches. In each plant, God overwhelmed us continually with what He did among us. I feel humbled and blessed to be a part of such healthy environments God uses to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I have learned a few things in the process. Some of these were new insights and some of were things I had confirmed, but all are things I would suggest other church planters consider.

Here are 5 lessons I learned in church planting:

Don’t shy away from leaders, even though they are churched — you’ll need them – When we started, if a person showed up who regularly attended another local church, we shied away from them. We weren’t rude to them, but we really didn’t pursue them as we did other visitors, simply out of respect of other churches. What I have learned, however, is that many times this was standing in the way of something God was doing in the person’s life. At the same time, we were suffering from a leadership void not having enough people ready to lead in a church setting. There’s a huge difference in recruiting and accepting people churched people into a church plant.

Don’t be afraid to talk about money — you’ll need it - I know this is a problem for many church planters, because a perception is that people church plants reach are repelled by money talks. Granted, some people wrongly feel that all churches talk about is money and so they push back anytime money is mentioned. We can know and tell people that Jesus talked much about money (some say more than any other subject), but in an attempt to be attractive to unchurched people, church plants often avoid any money talk whatsoever. What I learned, however, is that it takes money to minister to people. Additionally, part of the spiritual growth process of a person is how they view and handle money and one of my roles is to help them mature in this area. I can’t do that unless we talk about it. And, the pushback when we do, if handled with truth and grace, is far less than I expected it to be.

Surround yourself with some encouragers — some days they’ll keep you going - The work of church planting by itself is tough and places a strain on the planter and his or her family, but church planting also has plenty of naysayers. The church world can be very competitive and church planters are not always the most popular pastors among the established church world. And, because things are new and in the discovery phase of building a church, not everyone will agree with every decision. (That’s in every church setting.) I’ve learned I needed enough people around me who believe in me and the vision of the plant so that on the days when I was down they could encourage me to pick my head up and keep moving forward towards what God had called us to do.

Know what to control and what to let go of — you’ll be stretched if you don’t - There are some things to hold on to very tightly, such as vision or senior leadership positions, but I learned to let go of things such as how the vision gets implemented or what color we use for rugs in the preschool area. (I never would have stressed about that last one — but you get the idea.) The more I allowed others to do and take leadership of, the greater success we had in reaching our overall vision.

Embrace hurting people — as much as it hurts - We extended so much grace to people — and we were burned a few times. I have been personally hurt by people to whom I invested so much love and support, who quickly fell back into their old way of life. I know God rewards this sacrifice, but it still stings. The fact is however, that some of the best leaders we developed over the years were hurting, broken people when they arrived. God still does miracles with people when we extend His grace and truth. (And, those have to be extended on an equal basis.)

I am not sure these are unique experiences to church plants — in fact, they are true now that I’m serving in church revitalization, but certainly church planting was where these paradigms were shaped in me. It was a learning process every day — as all leadership positions are, but my hope is that others will learn from our experience.

Which of these do you most need reminding of today?

Should the Position Be Paid or Volunteer?

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I received a great question recently. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t give a good answer. 

Or, at least, not the answer they were seeking. They wanted an answer that would solve the issue. I couldn’t give that answer. 

This individual is being asked to do a part-time job at the church plant he attends. It would be launching a new ministry within the church. As with most plants, there is a limited budget, so they can’t afford to pay him. He agrees with the church’s philosophy to mostly have volunteers instead of paid staff. He believes, however, that this position is too involved to be volunteer — especially for his current life situation. He feels he should be paid if he agrees to take on the challenge, but the leadership disagrees. 

He asked me if I would write a post about when a position should be paid and when it should be volunteer. 

Here is my answer:

I wish I could tell you there are hard set guidelines here, but there aren’t — in my opinion. So much of this issue depends on context. 

The post I would write, and I think I might, would be more on principle than anything. 

It depends on the church and the individual. And, both should be part of the answer. And, the answers don’t always easily mesh. 

First, what is best for the church?

For example. Some churches are almost all volunteer. Sounds like this church plant is that way. So, I would want to know about other similar workload positions in the church. Are they paid or volunteer? 

It’s dangerous to start paying one person and not another with similar workloads, unless there is a valid reason for doing so. It causes tension and disharmony. 

At the same time, churches have to make decisions that are best for the church long term. Once a decision is made to start paying for a position, that usually locks the church into having that position and the ministry for a long time. If that person leaves the church, most churches will look for someone to replace them. It becomes a part of the annual budget process. That is a big commitment, which should be considered. The same is not necessarily true of a volunteer position. 

Then it also depends on the person.

Can that person commit that much time and be volunteer? Some can and some can’t. 

I know one very large church — several thousand people attend each week — that has a volunteeer executive pastor — and he is full time. He’s a self made millionaire and didn’t want the church to pay him. Obviously, this is an extreme example, and most churches couldn’t do that, but there are times the person simply doesn’t need the income for their volunteer efforts. That’s okay — and a huge blessing to the church.

I also know a church that had a single mom as a key volunteer. As her role grew she needed to be paid in order to handle the extra time she could have worked elsewhere and her child care. The church felt it would have been taking advantage of her otherwise. 

A church has to think what’s fair and equitable for the church and all the individuals involved. 

I advised this gentleman that I would probably be asking myself if I could afford to do this for free or, if I’m going to invest my time — in fairness to myself and family, do I need to be paid? 

The church needs to be asking a fairness question too, because it impacts more people than just this one person. If they pay him, will that open up a need to pay others with similar workloads? Will it set a precedent for this ministry and others?

But, that brings up a few thoughts about answering these type leadership issues:

I always try to go with principles first. What’s the larger principle guiding the individual decisions? Sometimes it helps to think in those terms. 

I try to think big picture. Almost every decision impacts more than one person or one situation.  

I am careful not to lock myself into one answer — on non-Biblical issues. One problem I have with a strict policy is that it often keeps the church from individualizing their response based on the unique set of circumstances at the time. In the case above, whether positions should be paid or volunteer, there are always parameters to be considered beyond that which a rule can be clearly written. 

Those are a few thoughts — long answer to a shorter question.

But, aren’t most leadership issues like that? Many times we find it easier to write hard, fast rules than to do the harder work of thinking bigger. Without the rules it’s messier too, but that’s why we need good leadership — to navigate through the messy to get to the best.

What do you think? 

If I Were God — Would I Hire Me?

Application for employment

I’m not trying to be cute or clever with the title or with this post. The thought occurred to me recently.

If I were God — would I hire me?

Now granted, I’m not God. You can say a loud amen to that. And, God is not like me. Bigger amen expected.

Everyone God calls is unqualified apart from His grace. And, God calls unlikely people to do extraordinary work.

But, just for my own thought and evaluation process, my thoughts pondered this question recently.

If I were God — like if for a minute I got to make a choice concerning my employment for God — what would I choose?

Would I choose me?

Do I often complain more than I try to find solutions?

Do I fail to see the long-term gain favoring instead the momentary personal pleasure?

Do I misuse my talents or do I invest them wisely for a greater good?

Do I consistently walk by faith or am I consumed with fear?

Do I learn from my failures or am I too full of pride to be teachable?

Do I obey quickly or find a million excuses why I can’t do what I’ve been asked to do?

Do I put others’ interests ahead of my own or am I selfish towards others?

If I were God — would I hire me?

The good news is — God did hire me — and yet I answer all those questions the wrong way at times. I’m so glad God is not like me — and that I’m not God.

But, the application of my thought process — understanding the grace extended to me — I want to be a good employee. A good servant. One who hears “Well done…”

What about you?

20 Life-Changing Acts of Courage

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One single act of courage can change a life…often many lives.

No doubt, if you live a “normal” life there will be decisions you have to make that take courage. You will often have to walk by faith, be willing to risk everything, and trust God for the results, which often seem slow to arrive.

Sometimes doing the right thing is not the easiest thing to do. Most of the time, it takes courage to follow your heart, conviction, or God’s calling on your life.

But, when we act with courage into the places where God leads, it always brings greater rewards than we could imagine.

I reflected recently on some random examples that I have seen people make over the last few years…some of them from within my own family…that took courage, but the results were huge. At the time, some of them may or may not have seemed to be that “big of a deal”…and some of them were obvious risks, but in the process of completing them, the courage required can be equally huge.

20 Random Life-Changing Acts of Courage

  1. Leaving the job you hate (or love) so you can start the dream you’ve hidden.
  2. Taking the first step towards your God-given dream when everyone else is saying it can’t be done.
  3. Confronting the unspoken conflicts in a marriage.
  4. Offering forgiveness even when undeserved.
  5. Trusting God with money you don’t have.
  6. Beginning a Christian ministry in a predominately Muslim country.
  7. Letting go of the employee who is holding back the team, yet refuses to improve.
  8. Attempting again something you’ve failed at so many times.
  9. Planting a church…or trying to change an existing one.
  10. Ending the friendship that always drags you down.
  11. Trusting one more time the one who has hurt you so much.
  12. Moving the family for a new “opportunity” when the outcome is unclear.
  13. Speaking truth in love when it’s politically unpopular.
  14. Releasing the right to get even, even at the expense of your pride.
  15. Surrendering your will to God’s will.
  16. Putting other’s agenda ahead of your own.
  17. Standing up for someone everyone else is rejecting.
  18. Reaching out to a stranger, because you felt “led” to do so.
  19. Admit your struggle, sin, or failure to someone…even though you are afraid of the consequences.
  20. Ask for help even though you’re embarrassed to do so.

As I stated, those are random examples and your examples will be different from mine. Granted, some of these “appear” harder than others…requiring more courage. I never know when I write a post like this which chord I will strike and with whom. I have learned, however, that context makes life relative. Your act of courage can be “equal” to mine if God is calling you to an unknown reality. Moving forward into uncertainty requires a courage you don’t always have initially. Choosing whether or not to move forward and mustering the needed courage, is often what separates the ones who achieve great things from those who remain disappointed with their progress in life.

Here’s a voice of encouragement to you today…if you know you need to move forward…but you are afraid…I understand. I’m praying you’ll find the courage to trust God with the outcome and do what you know to do next.

What is something you have had to do that took a great deal of courage?

I feel led to plant a church…What do I do now?

Rural chapel

About once a week…or sometimes more frequently…I get an email or Tweet from someone who says they feel led to plant a church. They almost always have the same question.

What do I do now? What’s my first step?

After answering dozens of times, I decided to put my thoughts in a post.

Step one: Run as fast as you can!

Just kidding. Although that does give you a testimony like Jonah. Just kidding.

Here are 5 immediate steps I would recommend:

Check your heart – Are you sure planting is what you are being called to do…or is it a desire because everyone else is doing it? It’s fine if you are. We need church planters. But, we also need people willing to help established churches thrive. It’s hard work to change what’s established already…but so is church planting. Make sure you know what you’re getting into is what God’s drawing you into.

Check your spouse’s heart – Church planting is not a sole venture. No ministry is for that matter. If you are married, you will need to be on the same page with your spouse. No. Doubt. About. It. Trying to do this without complete buy in from both parties will destroy one or the other…the plant or the marriage.

Determine where you feel called to plant – That’s an important beginning step. Much of your future steps will depend on this one. Many times you already know this and I think God gives tremendous latitude in this. We need churches lots of places. But, this will be one of the most difficult decisions you make if you don’t know. I once thought I wanted to plant in New York City. I still might someday. But, when I spent time talking to God about this, I sensed Him releasing me from the desire and pointing me in another direction.

Find others interested – This is critical. If you tell me you can’t find anyone…and I hear it often…I’d seriously question how successful you are going to be. Just as with Elijah in 1 Kings 19, in my experience, God is always “reserving” (1 Kings 19:18) people who He plans to use in the vision He is shaping in you. To build a body you need those who are part of the body to start.

Find experienced help – It can be a denomination, another church, or an experienced pastor or mentor, but don’t do it alone. Let me say that a little clearer. DON’T DO IT ALONE. Too much has been learned about church planting to miss out on someone else’s experience.

Those are my first 5 initial suggestions. What would you suggest?

5 Legitimate Fears of a Church Planter

Scared Afraid Man Wrapped in Red Fear Tape

Having participated in two church plants as a planter, and now working with church planters on a regular basis in a coaching capacity, I know first hand the fears associated with planting a church. It’s a leap of faith and one God is calling many to these days.

My theory here is that recognizing the fear and realizing their legitimacy is part of guarding our hearts against them. The fact remains that for a church plant to be successful, at least in Kingdom terms, God must provide His grace.

Here are 5 legitimate fears of church planters:

No one will show up – If we do all this work and it doesn’t work…what will we do? You’ll be thankful you were obedient to what you believe God called you to do and wait patiently for Him to provide. We had to consistently remind our core team that God was in control of numbers. Our job was to be faithful. That doesn’t mean you stop inviting people or investing in the community around you, but you trust that God will stir hearts for His work.

We can’t afford it - You probably can’t. There will seldom be enough money…or so it may seem at times. God calls us to big tasks. Church planting is hard…and not cheap. But, the Lord will provide resources for His vision. Again, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to educate people on the needs or help them understand the command, value and blessing of giving, but it does mean you trust God even when the checkbook balance is low. It also doesn’t mean you won’t have to wait to make major purchases or there won’t be times you have to wait until “Sunday’s offering” to get paid. Our paycheck was delayed several times the first couple years so other bills…and other staff…could be paid…but we were never hungry.

I don’t know what I’m doing – Isn’t it wonderful? It means you’re insufficient without His sufficiency. What a great place to reside! The great news is that many have gone before you. Learn from others and stay on your knees before God.

People will leave – True. Most core teams are cut in half in the first few years. At first I thought we were to be the exception. We weren’t. Other people will come and never return…But, some will stick. And, they will have hearts for the vision. And, in them we rejoice at what God has done. We build our teams around those who God sends to us and who remain steadfast to the journey ahead. That team may change several times the first few years.

We don’t have a building – No, but you probably don’t have a mortgage either. And, you’re raising up an army of volunteers for set up and tear down. You are building service and sacrifice into your DNA as a church. Isn’t it wonderful! Don’t lose that atmosphere and culture of dependency, even when you have a building someday.

Final thought. These fears are legitimate…real fears. Don’t be ashamed that you have them. The key is not to live in them, but to live and walk in the faith that God will complete His plans and enable those He calls.

What other fears have you experienced in church planting?

7 False Thoughts of a Pastor or Church Planter

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Here are 7 false thoughts of a pastor and church planter:

If we build it, they will come – They might. They might not. Actually when God builds it they will come.

We need to pay someone to do this – You could, but chances are there are people with margin in their schedule, looking for a place to serve, who don’t necessarily need your money right now, as much as they desire the opportunity.

Some people will always stay – They won’t. Period. Some will leave even if you do everything the way they wanted you to do them. And if you change anything you may be helping some make the decision they may have been talking about but just haven’t done.

I need to know everything that’s happening in my church – You could try, but the church would be very small and the potential will be very limited. And, I like to ask myself…is it my need to know or my need to control?

They couldn’t do this without me – Yea…that sounds impressive. Not true. At all. The more we think it the less it’s probably true.

People will give when they are ready – They won’t. Period. You’ll have to encourage them. Give them a reason to give. Provide them opportunity. Teach them.

I’m responsible for everyone’s spiritual maturity – You’re not. Period. You teach. God’s spirit grows as they yield to Him.

Any you would add?

5 Steps to Discern a Change in Ministry Assignment

Time for Change - Ornate Clock

How do you know when God is closing one door in ministry and opening another?

I get this question a lot and have previously addressed that, but recently I have received it more frequently so I decided to update this post. (I always note that this post is written about my experiences for people who may currently need it.)

Several times in my ministry, first as a layperson and since then in vocational ministry, God has called me to leave one ministry and begin another. It can be a scary place to face the unknown, yet know that God is up to something new in your life. As with most posts I wrote, I share out of my own life experience. That’s the best framework of understanding I have.

I think it is important, however, to realize that God uses unequaled experiences in each of our lives. Your experience will likely be different from mine. There was only one burning bush experience we know about in Scripture. At the same time, there are some common patterns I think each of us may experience, while the details remain unique.

This has been the process that I have experienced as God has led me to something new.

Here are 5 steps in discerning a change in ministry assignment:

Wonderful sweet success – Each time the door of a new opportunity opened it began opening (looking back) when things were going well in my current ministry. In fact, people who don’t understand the nature of a call (and some who do) have usually wondered why I would be open to something new.

Inner struggle – I usually have not been able to understand what God is up to, but there is something in me (and usually in my wife at the same time) where I know God is doing something new. While I do not know what it is, and not even if it involves a change in my place of ministry, I know God is doing a new work in my heart about something. Almost like the king in Daniel 4 who needed an interpretation, I know there’s something out there but at the time I can’t discern it. (I’m glad I have the Holy Spirit though to help me.)

Closeness to Christ – Brennan Manning calls it a Dangerous love of Christ. During the times leading up to a change of ministry assignment I will be growing in my relationship with Christ, usually in new depths of trust and abandonment. Again, looking back and I can see this clearly, but at the time I usually am just enjoying the ride and the closeness to Christ. Many times God is giving wisdom to share with others and (looking back) I can see that some of it was actually meant for me.

Opportunity presents itself – The opportunity often seems to come from nowhere, but with multiple experiences now I can see the pattern that has occurred each time. It is only after these first three experiences that God brings a new opportunity my way. That is probably because my spirit must be totally aligned with His Spirit in order for me to trust the new work He calls me to, because, again, it usually comes as a surprise. I have yet to be completely “ready” for the next step in my journey with Christ, because it always involves a leap of faith on my part, but this process prepares me to be ready to say “Yes Lord…Here am I…send me.”

I surrendered to God’s call – After I receive confirmation in my spirit, review the journey God has had us on, and Cheryl and I agree on where God is leading, I have yet to refuse the next assignment. I have certainly delayedy response, wrestled through the difficulty and comsulted many advisors, but never refused. That does not mean it is easy to leave my current ministry, but it has always been most rewarding to know we are in the center of God’s will for our life.

A special word to the spouse:

Cheryl has never been “ready” to leave friends in our current ministry, but she has always lined with me in knowing God was calling us to a new work in our life. I wrote about that tension from the spouse’s perspective HERE.

Have you shared these experiences? What other experiences have you had that have led you to step out by faith into a new adventure with Christ?