Being the church every church planter needs

Lee Stephenson

Vice President of Church Planting

Point Magazine // May 2021

Have you ever had someone try to help you, but he or she ended up making a mess of things? 

I can remember when one of my friends told me his kids tried to make breakfast for his wife on Mother’s Day. The concoction was a strange mixture of cereal, oatmeal, milk and orange juice. It was a beautiful gesture of love but not very practical or helpful. In fact, it caused a big mess! 

For many churches seeking to plant, a similar experience can happen. Unfortunately, without the proper understanding of a church planter’s needs, a well-meaning sending church can be more of a hassle than a help.

As we explore this more in-depth, it is important to remember that qualified church planters are strong in their faith and value the local church to such a degree they want to start one. Not only is the church near and dear to their hearts, but they don’t want to take this gigantic leap of faith without an established church behind them. They want to collaborate, and they need your church’s help in key areas for them to succeed. 

Some experienced planters recognize their need for collaboration, and some do not know yet how much they need you. Well-trained planters have a deeply rooted passion for working together and leveraging multiple ministries to see the gospel come to bear in a new community among a new people. Those who are less experienced need to see the value an established church can provide.

Many church planters feel alienated and lost as they feel the church (and sometimes their church) has given up on them. Some established churches feel threatened by the very skills it takes to plant a new work. 

Also, it is easy to look around and see churches with incredible resources for kingdom expansion, yet no desire to assist in church planting. The last thing church planters want is to be abandoned as they walk by faith out to the front lines of discipleship and evangelism.

This article examines several ways an established church can be the “wind in the sails” for a church planter. However, the power is generated not through the eyes of the parent church but begins when the parent church places itself in the shoes of the church planter. 

In other words, what do church planters need? And what are they asking for? It is vital that a sending church knows how to come alongside a planter and be the church a church planter needs. 

Encouragement

Do you remember the feeling of being lost as a child? Maybe in the grocery store or at a public event, and the feeling of turning around and not seeing an adult you know and trust nearby?

I know from firsthand experience that feeling in the pit of your stomach is the same whether you’re a child or an adult. Rushing around trying to find something of familiarity and praying to see a person you know or recognize comes with the experience of being lost. 

Interestingly, the fears of loneliness and insecurity intensify the longer you are on your own. This pit-of-your-stomach reality is what many church planters feel as they leave the comfort of an established church to follow the call of God on their life.

And the more pioneering the church plant process is, the lonelier the endeavor can be for the planter. Ministry is difficult enough as it is but multiply that feeling by 1000 times, and that is the loneliness many planters feel when starting a new church. One of the primary things that a parent church needs to offer a church planter and his family is encouragement.

An established church needs to find ways to consistently encourage a church planter and his family, especially as they process the intense joys and pains of planting. This encouragement happens when the established church sees its ministry to church planters as an extension of its overall ministry ― and not as a distraction or hindrance. Consider some of the following ideas for encouraging and connecting with church planters:

  • Encourage church staff and attendees to have a meal or coffee with the church planter or the planter’s family regularly.
  • Bless the church planting family with gift cards to local restaurants or the movies. Some of the most meaningful gifts my wife and I received were gifts given directly to my kids with the note to do something special for their parents. Doing so engaged my kids and gave them a positive view of ministry and the church.
  • Allow the church planter to preach for you and/or have a significant role from time to time with the congregation.
  • Recruit a few families to “adopt” the church planter’s family as a personal ministry.

The best way to be an encouragement is to be consistent and intentional. A church planter does not need a list of what they are doing wrong; they need a trusted, established church and friends who will encourage them during the challenge of ministry. An established church has the continuity and people to create a balanced and healthy framework of encouragement for a church planter and his family.

Comfort and sympathy

To be entirely honest, one of the reasons I got into church planting was to avoid the existing conflicts of an already established church. In my thinking, established churches were made up of established people who were filled with pre-existing conflicts. I thought I would avoid all of this through planting a new work. 

I was 100% wrong! I found church planting to be filled with unique and nuanced conflicts and relational struggles. The only difference was that these problems were created under my watch, and that was a tough pill to swallow.

That reality, in and of itself, demands the need for a sending church to be compassionate, kind and gentle with its church planters. Often, they feel guilt for the problems in their church, thinking, “If I only did this better, then things would be different.” 

Offering comfort in crisis, and sympathy at all times and with all matters, is invaluable for the hard-hitting, self-starting planter who needs a safe place to be vulnerable and heal.

What I eventually learned was that challenge, crisis and conflict simply reside in all spiritual ministry. Any time people join together to accomplish a goal, these things are going to be present.

And I have experienced firsthand that in the first three years of a plant almost every church planter will face three major challenges/crises: financial, personal and leadership.

One of the key vulnerabilities of any family is its finances. We need money to survive in our world. And whether it be an unexpected tax bill, loss of personal missionary support, increased overhead without enough tithing to support it or a wealth of other issues, the devil will exploit any opportunity to thwart the work of a church planter and his team. 

Church planting is spiritual warfare. Any time a planter steps out of the fold and declares new territory for the kingdom of God, all hell breaks loose trying to rob and destroy this work from ever happening. Financial difficulties cause immense strain on a family, and I have seen church planters taken out of the playing field because the financial strain was too much. Many times this type of attack is rooted in distracting from the work of the ministry.

It is also not uncommon for planters to face physical and/or emotional hardship while planting. This is present even in my own story with both of our church plants. In the first, I went through a series of five surgeries in 20 months; one of those left me bedridden for almost 12 weeks and preaching from a wheelchair for two months. 

In my second plant, a month after our grand opening I had a total knee replacement at the age of 39. 

Not only were the physical challenges incredibly demanding and stressful, but they also created emotional heartache. Discouragement and fear are always tools in Satan’s arsenal, and attacking the physical or emotional state of a church planter and his family is always a “go to” strategy.

A church planter will also likely face a unique and nuanced leadership challenge during the first three years. If people aren’t following their shepherd, they’re lost. And if they lose confidence in their shepherd, they will wander. This is another way the devil will seek to divide and conquer a new work of the gospel.

At about the 2 1/2-year period in our church plant, I was recovering from a major knee surgery and an elder became publicly vocal against me and my leadership. There was pressure to change how we were being led, and this person wanted more voice and influence and was willing to stir up questions about me to get it.

I was out recovering and relearning to walk, obviously away from the church, but was gifted by God with a solid elder board and a team of wise counselors who challenged him on his issues, fought for unity and kept me informed while I was healing. This person ultimately left the church and we moved forward, but it was an incredibly difficult season for us.

Understanding and expecting these challenges is important for any parent church as it sends someone to plant. Now, these things already exist in the life of established churches, but most established churches have leaders and systems in place to help in these moments of challenge and crisis. Church planters are often new, leading from the front where they don’t have the systems, structures or support to soften the blows. Every challenge hits a planter square on the jaw. 

Parent churches need to be sympathetic to what the team is experiencing and find ways to comfort them in the midst of it. Here are some practical thoughts as to how a church can show sympathy and comfort:

  • Create a prayer team that stays in touch with the planters/leaders and commits to weekly praying for the family’s needs.
  • Create space for both lead pastors to connect regularly over coffee. (Tip: Keep it more relational than making it a coaching relationship.)
  • Practically support the church plant by sending people to stop in and attend/serve on a Sunday. Create the avenue for the planter to feel that the parent church leadership is safe.

Encouragement must be sympathetic and carry the comfort of a shepherd. When you leave a meeting with a church planter, you want them to be supported and assured he is not alone in this journey.

Fellowship

In my experience, I found that church planting creates opportunities for crisis. This means that church planting can be one of the most discouraging and frustrating works in ministry, but it can also be the crucible for change and the development of character unlike any other environment. 

Church planters can turn a crisis into growth if they have good fellowship with a pastor who will consistently motivate them to go to Jesus with their pain, receive his grace and then mature through the crisis. You cannot have this level of spiritual direction without consistent fellowship and the trust that sprouts up through it.

Paul writes to the church in Philippi and asks them to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). The word that can be used to describe what Paul was referencing is the word fellowship

Fellowship is rooted in relationship, not in an activity or program. The common ground that allows fellowship to take place is a shared sense of partnership centered on faith in Jesus Christ. True fellowship is something that doesn’t naturally just happen, but has to be fostered intentionally over time.

Church planters are naturally independent. They like venturing into the unknown, enjoying and even taking pride in living life with a self-reliant attitude. The strength of this mentality is they walk by faith into the unknown, but the shadow to this is a fierce pride that doesn’t ask for help when necessary. 

Additionally, it is easy for a parent church to enable self-destructive independence by simply forgetting about the needs of a church plant. Often the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” rings with an established church unless intentional structures are put in place to prevent that from happening. This forgetfulness often creates a relational gap between the sending church and its church plant.

The solution to burnout and something that an established church pastor can provide is proximity. Proximity breeds trust. Proximity and trust over time breeds intimacy. And this fellowship provides a support structure that is one of the biggest blind spots ― yet one of the most impactful things ― for a church planter.

The key to keeping fellowship is to recognize that different philosophies and methodologies should never get in the way of this fellowship. Of course, a church planter will do things differently — that’s why he’s planting! But the intentional fostering of an ongoing fellowship between established and new churches can be a huge gift to both.

Having a place where the planter feels connected and known in the early days gives a naturally independently minded leader a place to feel connected until this new work gets more relationally established. Over time, fellowship between churches will look differently, but especially in the beginning it will be well worth the time investment. 

Here are some ways to develop fellowship between a parent and daughter church:

  • In the first couple of years, look for ways to spend time together.
  • Plan a few times a year to invite the planter and leadership team to staff meetings, trainings or celebrations.
  • Invite the church planter to make a video or come and share updates with the church from time to time.
  • Teach the church to talk positively about the other church as much as they can in the community.
  • Offer to serve on the board until the plant has time to develop internal leadership.

 

Being the church a church planter needs

Regardless of experience, age or methodological gaps, a church planter needs to be in relationship with and remembered by his parent church. As an already established church, look for opportunities to encourage, comfort, sympathize and spend time together. 

Most likely, your church has invested time, resources and people in getting this new work off the ground. But once the church plant is started, the real relational element comes into play. Even as they grow more independent, planters still need to know you are there and that they matter to you.

Recognizing the pitfalls of entrepreneurial leadership and the difficulties of church planting can go a long way in allowing an established church’s leadership to empathize with the extreme stress and struggle of a new gospel work. This requires laying aside what you think they need and truly seeking to serve your church plant in humility, as Jesus continually serves his church. 

An established church can truly be the “wind in the sails” of starting a church that has the potential to reach an entirely new group of people ― if your wind is blowing in the right direction. We need churches to come alongside for the long haul, and truly be the church a church planter needs.

Adapted from the book The church every church planter needs (Converge, 2019), available in print, on Apple iBooks and Amazon (Kindle).

 


Lee Stephenson, Vice President of Church Planting

Lee Stephenson has served as the Church Planting executive director for Converge since the spring of 2015. He earned both a bachelor and master’s degree in ministry from Bethel College (Mishawaka, IN). Lee also started and is lead pastor of Harvest Community Church, Orlando, Florida. He has also served on the Vision Arizona church planting LEAD team and is a go-to coach for church leadership and planting.

Additional articles by Lee Stephenson