Report Prepared by Exponential and Ed Stetzer
This report is adapted from a series of blog posts from edstetzer.com, based on a research report from the Exponential. Introduction
I have partnered with my friend Todd Wilson, Director of Exponential, to do quantitative research alongside a group of well-known church planting leaders/experts who share their insights.
We listened to more than thirty national leaders with over 500 years of cumulative experience planting and working with hundreds of planters. Individual planter interviews, online surveys, and volumes of real world experience were also included in the discovery process.
Almost all of those who responded were connected to Exponential, which in many ways describes the sample: most (though not all) were planting contemporary churches in the way that is often described at the Exponential Conference. That means the report is influenced and shaped by its sample. So, this report won’t be applicable to everyone in every context, but it will be helpful to many.
Although it is not a scientific study, it is a helpful one—filled with advice that every church planter should consider. This information will help you plant, or help you help others plant for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom. As you see the names quoted in the report, you will see hundreds of years of church planting experience represented. Such wisdom is worth considering.
I planted my first church in Buffalo, New York in 1988. Ready for a blazing flash of the obvious? The world has changed since then and so has church planting. Michael Rowe would likely classify church planting as a "dirty job".
I did not have much support back then. I was young and confident at a delusional level. I had little to read and no significant experiences or research from which to draw. I was left alone to try desperately to figure it out. God was there and blessed beyond what I knew or deserved. Yet I can't help to wonder how things could have been different... better for the Kingdom's sake... for the men, women, and children in inner city Buffalo where I planted.
Today, I am amazed at what solid help (coaching, websites, books, networks, training, etc.) a motivated church planter can find. Conferences like Exponential continue to provide environments for God to shape a new breed of planter-- equipped and prepared to make a difference for His Kingdom without losing family and sanity in the process.
Don't get me wrong, the job is still dirty-- very dirty. Leadership, finances, volunteers, systems, vision, evangelism, discipleship, and health of the planter and his family are jugular issues. The church planter graveyard remains ominously over crowed. Yet things are changing for the better.
Over the next two weeks you will see some priceless information. No matter your role in the world of church planting you will want to grab hold of this research. I have partnered with my friend Todd Wilson, Director of Exponential, to do quantitative research alongside some of the better-known church planting practitioners in America.
With input from Batterson, Bloye, Lovejoy, Mancini, Patrick, Nebel, Rohrmayer,Surratt, Sylvia and others.
You get the picture, I hope. We listened to over 500 years of cumulative experience planting and working with 100's of planters with the over 30 national leaders involved in this project. Individual planter interviews, online surveys, and volumes of real world experience were also included in the discovery process. This information will help you plant or help you help others plant for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom.
There are limitations to a study like this-- more on that later-- but there is also much to learn.
God has the world on His heart-- we will post information and insights from the 7 Top Issues church planters face based on the research. I will unpack the following "top" issues as a result of our research over the days to come:
1. Leadership Development and Reproducing Culture
2. Financial Self-Sufficiency and Viability
3. Launch Team Development and Mobilizing Volunteers
4. Systems, Processes and Cultures
5. Casting Vision and Avoiding Mission Drift
6. Evangelism and Discipleship
7. Spiritual, Physical and Mental Health of the Planter and Family
Leadership Development and Reproducing Culture
Planters face incredible pressure to find quality leaders quickly. Yet the limitations of money, critical mass, and spiritual maturity in new churches create an under-stocked leadership fishing pond. Planters can make critical mistakes as a result.
Think about the person who shows up on launch Sunday due to a postcard they just received in the mail. Your hope is that your first attendees will be seekers and people open to the first-time consideration of the gospel. And, that means people who are asking questions and starting their spiritual journey-- they are often not ready to be spiritual leaders since they are just considering things of faith.
This Sunday we had our first preview service at Grace Church, where I am serving as lead pastor. (I am not leaving my LifeWay Research job, this is a volunteer role working alongside a full-time team.) We saw a couple hundred people come Sunday. Many of them are new, seeking, and sometimes hurting on that first Sunday.
Simply put, many church planters find many open people but often have few prepared leaders.
Leadership development is the most frequently cited challenge of planters according to our research in this survey of church planting leaders and thinkers. Leadership issues included recruiting and developing leaders; implementing teams; creating a reproducible leadership development approach; developing a leader/oversight/elder board; hiring and leading staff; discerning changes required to facilitate growth; healthy decision making; and delegating and empowering volunteers.
So, based on our conversations and observations from those who responded to our qualitative survey of experts and planters, here are six key considerations church planters should consider and/or make in the process of developing new leaders:
1. Lack of Experience -- Many planters come from previous roles where a more established leadership development and volunteer mobilization processes are in place. As planters, they are now responsible for implementing a new process from scratch, often with little help. They are responsible for creating momentum where none exists versus maintaining existing momentum. They need to be aware of their own lack of experience and the lack of experience on the typical team. Our church planting leaders were concerned that they often lacked that awareness.
2. Feeling the Need for Speed (Volunteers) -- My friend, Stephen Gray said, "Every plant is a new adventure full of excitement and potential doom... they need to have nerves of steel and thick skin" [Stephen Gray with Trent Short,Planting Fast Growing Churches, St. Charles, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 2007 p. 23]. Planting can be lonely and messy. Amid the long hours and hard work, it is easy for planters to conclude that any "warm body" interested in helping is an answer to prayer. Planters tend to put leaders in place prematurely based on availability. More established churches are slower, vetting potential leaders before delegating responsibility.
3. No Core Leaders -- Many planters lack a strong leadership team, leader/staff/elder team, or other structure early in the church's life. Thus, they can lack an accountability team for the first few years. This can result in an increased burden of responsibility, a lack of ongoing encouragement, no one to "watch their back," a lack of advice on key decisions, and a lack of peer fellowship.
4. Feeling the Need for Speed (Paid Staff) -- In the absence of experience and a proven staff selection process, planters tend to hire too quickly (similar to consideration #2). Planters also lack the experience to fully understand the pitfalls of hiring family members and friends. Dealing with bad hires adds further strain and discouragement, creating setbacks in momentum. (Keep in mind that we recognize that we are talking about a specific kind of church plant there and this will not apply in all cases.)
5. Need for Resources -- Volunteers and financial resources are critical resources in the early days. The senior pastor of the average U.S. church (about 85 people) is at staff capacity. If a church waits until they can afford a second staff person they face the prospect of losing momentum due to a senior pastor working beyond capacity. Then leadership barriers prevent them from growing and hiring more staff. Studies show the average new church has about 40 people at the first year, placing a huge financial strain on the planter and delaying additional staff hires. When planting the type of church plant we are discussing here, this is a major challenge. (Note: other models, like a house church, would not have the same issues here, but that is for another study.)
6. Realities of Reproduction -- Planters have probably heard that if a church does not plant another church in their first three years the likely never will. Many have a vision for being a reproducing church and developing a reproducing culture. But the realities of implementation are discouraging. The same barriers (experience, budget, leadership shortage, spiritual maturity, and momentum, etc.) can cause the reproduction vision to move from vision to pipe dream.