Church planting

Church planting: Counting the cost

Significant personal issues for the church planter (and the average pastor)

Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

Excitement filled me as I saw 130 enthusiastic people walk through the open doors into our newly planted church. I couldn't have been happier.

But just two and a half years later, I sat outside the room where the church board was discussing not only the future of the church but my future as well. The door opened, and a board member, sent to appraise me of the Board's progress, said to me, "You might as well go home, Doug. We're a long way from being done."

On the way home, alone in the car, I fumed, I cried, I kicked myself. How could a mission launched with such great hope and greater fulfillment be about to evaporate into thin air? Hidden in the darkness of the long drive home, I wrestled with questions too painful to ask aloud. Some were the wrong questions, some have not yet been answered, and some have led to deep insights and discoveries . . . discoveries, perhaps, that can help other church planters who find them selves in a similar situation.

There is a cost

Jesus said, "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost?... Or suppose a king is about to go to war.... Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able?" (Luke 14:28-31).* In anything we do, there is a cost. Church planting is no exception. In one study 80 percent of leaders surveyed in a study of church planters reported a major family crisis (usually marital) within the first five years of the church plant.1 More than 50 percent said they would not plant again because of the emotional pressure on themselves and their families.2 The same study showed that "a significant number of pioneers whose church plants 'failed' have left the full-time pastoral ministry. The planting experience was so personally destructive that these pioneers have entered different careers. Some have resigned their ordination and have little to do with their former sending agency."3

Carl George, church growth consultant, said that 50 to 75 percent of new church plants will fail within the first five years.4

Counting the cost

Because, to say the least, this sounds daunting and discouraging, it is important for us to count the cost more thoughtfully. The most significant way to do this is to redefine success and failure. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36) and "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15).

"Society teaches us otherwise," contends Wayne Jacobsen, in Leadership magazine. "Our management-conscious culture impresses us with flow charts and agendas.... No wonder we fall prey to the notion that our ability to carry out our vision depends on the number of people in the orbit of our voice or under our box in the organizational chart."5

Unwittingly, I fell into this trap. I re coiled and disagreed when a fellow pastor chided me early in my planting venture, "Admit it, Doug, you just want to make a big enough splash to hit the seminar circuit!" But when a visiting well-wisher from a neighboring church predicted that "In three years this is going to be the largest church in the area," I surprised myself with the secret satisfaction I found in savoring that fantasy.

I was an accident waiting to happen. I had reduced life to a small package. It consisted of performing well as a church planter so that I would succeed at creating a vibrant and rapidly growing congregation. Much of my vision was noble. But gradually the focus shifted. One by one I placed all my "emotional eggs" in the basket of my church-planting success. I desperately needed this project to succeed. I had too much emotionally invested for it to do any thing else. And without realizing it, I came to the place where I defined success almost exclusively as the increase of my influence and prestige.

But there is another definition of success. For the church planter, success does not necessarily mean a large, thriving church within two or three years. Success means faithfulness and obedience.

Church planter Richard Erickson said it well: "Jesus is the Lord of the church, not subject to the planter's plan. The pioneer needs to be willing to work hard and smart, and if the effort does not lead to the establishment of a healthy new church, that is God's responsibility. The pioneer needs to continually affirm that the future success or failure of the ministry is not a result of the amount of effort he or she invests, but it is a miracle of God's grace."6

A reality check for the church planter is to ask the simple question, "What if everyone here had my experience?""A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40). It is a sobering thought. What if everyone at this church had the same quality of family life as mine? What if they all had my anxiety level? Or my spiritual life, fatigue level, emotional unrest, or physical health? Church planters must realize that the most basic tool they bring to the task is wholeness and balance in their own lives. The significance of this factor cannot be overlooked.

Set clear goals

I tackled my church-planting project with a stack of goals and high expectations. Many of those goals gave excellent focus and direction. Yet I learned there is more to goal-setting than challenging myself or the church with neighborhoods to reach, ministries to start, or deadlines to meet. Here are some points:

Don't make church planting number one in your life. Only God deserves that spot. "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:3). "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). Any church work, especially church planting, can grow into a "holy idolatry." Fight the inclination to build your life around the new church plant.

Make major adjustments? Yes! But make it the center of your life? No way!

Don't start until there are "clear mutual expectations." Each person involved in the church plant, from the administrative supervisor to the planter's spouse, needs understanding and ownership of the goals and expectations. Together they can discuss: Why is this church being planted? Who is the target audience? How long might it take? What essential preparation work must be in place before opening Sabbath? What does it mean to be a part of the planting team? What organizational structure will be used? How will leadership roles be determined? Who will decide major expenditures and direction? Are the goals realistic? How will accountability be assessed? What do we do if we don't agree on some of these expectations?

Be clear on the why. I was amazed to discover how many different motives brought our team together. Some wanted a church closer to home. Some wanted a clone of their previous church. Some wanted to be part of anything new and novel. Some wanted to start a church for the unchurched. Some wanted a smaller church family. Some wanted involvement they hadn't found elsewhere. Each motive carried with it a set of unwritten and largely unconscious expectations for the church, the pastor, and those who attended. It was months before I even realized the vast difference between our official mission statement and mission statements people carried around in their heads and hearts.

Set goals for the entirety of your life (and know how church-planting fits into them). The role of church planter is only one role among many that the pastor will fill. First and foremost, you are a child of God. You are also a neighbor, friend, citizen, son or daughter, and possibly a parent or spouse. A little reflection will likely reveal other roles. During the first two or three years the planting role will need a disproportionate priority. But again, the temptation is to make it the only priority. Goal setting for the other areas of your life will lessen that danger. It might be well to set goals first as an individual then with your spouse and children. Write the goals on paper but not in stone!

Assigning and attaining goals

Make sure that the forces assigned can attain the goals. The first "assigned force" is you, the church planter. Prioritizing your own fitness is anything but selfish. Airline attendants instruct parents traveling with small children to always put on their own oxygen masks first in an emergency. Why? You won't be much help to another if you are unconscious. "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26). For spiritual fitness, church planters need a hunger for God, not just a hunger for God to make them better church planters! Take a fresh look at classic spiritual disciplines and decide how you will practice them even while church planting. Perhaps Sabbath rest is one of the most challenging. Allow the planting process to lead you to new riches in listening deeply to God and hearing Him as He searches your heart for attitudes and motives.

For emotional fitness a frequent self-inventory is helpful. Alice Brawand in Secrets of Your Family Tree lists seven common denominators of pastors at emotional risk.7 Here's an adapted version:

1. Endless living in the fast lane. Do I often feel pressured and overcommitted?

2. Harboring hidden anger. What is my relationship like with my parents and siblings? Have I "forgotten" old hurts or grudges?

3. Projecting a superstar syndrome. Do I try to excel at everything and be all things to all people?

4. Habitually hiding one's own deep needs. Do I enjoy others' perception of me as a person who has it all together? Do I feel useless when no one needs my help?

5. Operating without a personal support system. What two or three people know my deepest feelings, fears, and dreams and love me anyway? How often do I meet and pray with them?

6. Establishing only superficial relationships with others. How close am I to my extended family members? What friends, other than church members, does our family enjoy regularly? How does my spouse feel about our emotional closeness?

7. Allowing expectations to drive life to exhaustion. How aware am I of the power of unspoken expectations? What motivates me? Do I allow comments and opinions of others to affect me personally?

If you are married, the second "assigned force" is your spouse. The church planter's spouse feels all the trauma and stress of the project and yet often can do nothing directly about it. His or her only access to effect change is probably through you, the church planter. That can be explosive, given certain critical factors! If your spouse will be actively involved in the project, define roles based on your past record. Ask yourselves, Are we easily threatened or defensive when working together? Has one partner built his or her identity around the career and success of the other? If you are unsure of the answers, it might be well to sort out the issues with a professional counselor or a wise and trusted friend or colleague before you hit a crisis.

An additional proposal may further assist a church planter's spouse: Consider establishing another place to worship, fellow ship, and be spiritually fed besides the church you are planting. It could be a small group, a nearby midweek service, or even a church that meets at a different time than yours.

The third "assigned force" is the church-planting team and/or parent church. A church-planting friend once told me, "I'd rather have a handful of loyal soldiers than a whole army shooting me in the back." Nothing could be more vital for the planting team during the first 12 months than developing a clear and mutual vision/mission statement. Find ways to move it from paper to heads and hearts and narrow the team down to those who internalize the vision. Then model the vision in your own life and train the team in the essentials of that vision.

The final "assigned force" is the administrative supervision. Here are nine things a church planter should cover as he or she seeks to clarify crucial issues with church administration:8

1. "Please learn enough about church-planting so you can help me with resourcing."

2. "Please be alert to the unique risks to me and my family from church-planting."

3. "Is there any way I could have access to an experienced planter as a mentor?"

4. "Is church-planting a priority for this conference/union? Does budgeting reflect that commitment?"

5. "Can you help me develop a supportive network with other church planters?"

6. "How safe is it to talk with you if I feel I'm just not making it?"

7. "What do you expect of my spouse?"

8. "Can we dialogue about job description, lines of accountability, conference expectations, and then meet regularly for accountability and consultation?"

9. "What happens if I really 'hit the wall' or the church does not thrive or even survive? Is there some provision for that?"

Don't get distracted

Fortunately, despite the ignorance I dis played by not covering these things with my administrators at the outset, they were a step ahead of me. During a pastoral retreat I approached one of them with a terse message, "I'm in trouble and need help." Glaring dis tress symptoms had finally broken through my denial. Immediately they made referrals and set in motion the wheels to start a long recovering and regrouping journey for me. I did eventually leave the initial church plant project but have returned to church planting with new energy and vision.

Distraction comes in many forms. For some, it is insufficient focus on the task at hand or inadequate support from administrative headquarters. But perhaps the most ironic distraction is the relentless pursuit of a goal that eventually strangles both the goal and the goal setter.

During my journey back, I have rediscovered power and beauty in words I copied years ago into my Bible flyleaf, "As activity increases and men become successful in doing any work for God, there is danger of trusting to human plans and methods. There is a tendency to pray less and to have less faith. Like the disciples, we are in danger of losing sight of our dependence on God and seeking to make a savior of our activity. We need to look constantly to Jesus, realizing that it is His power which does the work. While we are to labor earnestly for the salvation of the lost, we must also take time for meditation, for prayer, and for the study of the word of God. Only the work accomplished with much prayer, and sanctified by the merit of Christ, will in the end prove to have been efficient for good."9

*All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.

1. Richard A. Erickson, Protecting, Promoting, and Prospering the Pioneers: Using the Experience of Church Planters to Strengthen Their Support System (Fuller Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry Dissertation, 1992), 36,135, 270.

2. Ibid., 63.

3. Ibid., 64.

4. Carl George, "Perspective On Winning a Continent" in How to Plant a Church syllabus (Pasadena, Calif.: Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, 1985), 5-9.

5. Wayne Jacobsen, "A Case of Mistaken Ministerial Identity," Leadership (Winter 1992): 93,94.


6. Erickson, 307.

7. In Dave Carder, ed., Secrets of Your Family Tree (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 117-121.

8. The majority of these ideas are from Erickson, 352-362.

9. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 362.

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Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

December 1998

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