By David Whitehead
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
This famous first line from A Tale of Two Cities is an apt description of church planting. One moment, things are going great. The next, it feels like you made the biggest mistake of your life. And this cycle can happen multiple times a day. This is the nature of church planting.
The challenges of starting a new church come from all directions, and church planters are rarely prepared. Seminaries do a great job training students in theology, but most don’t offer advanced training in leadership or management. As a result of their lack of preparation, many leaders suffer missteps or missed opportunities.
So where does preparation come from? Church planters need someone to walk alongside them and help them navigate obstacles—someone who has past experience in church planting.
They need a coach.
Coaching Takes Uniqueness Seriously
Here’s one way to look at it: church planting is chemistry, not math.
Math is consistent: 2 + 2 = 4. In a desire for successful church plants, church planting networks often unwittingly train church planters with the assumption that the pathway toward a fruitful church follows a certain map. They’re told, “Just use this pattern or work this equation and you’ll get the results that we’ve seen in the past.”
The problem with this approach is that each leader is unique—and formulaic systems don’t take uniqueness into account. Trying to copy the strategies of others can have disastrous results. Here’s an example:
One young church planter started a church with 500 people from a large sending congregation. Those 500 people expected the new community to be just like the mother church, which had been established for over 20 years. Despite his efforts, it wasn’t. As a result, this leader experienced church movement — just in the wrong direction. Within two years, he was at 150 members. After three years, he was at 75. By year five, he had to shut the church down and start over. Simply trying to mimic the sending church failed. Leaders need to be aware of who they are in Christ and allow that to affect their plan.
“Each leader is unique — and formulaic systems don’t take uniqueness into account.”
This principle can be seen in 1 Samuel 17:38–40. David, a young and relatively unknown shepherd, has accepted the challenge of the Philistine giant Goliath to a battle for supremacy. Israel’s king Saul equips David with his own armor to fight this battle, but it doesn’t fit him. In a move everyone else considers foolish, David faces Goliath with a sling and five stones instead of a sword and suit of armor. As we know, David was much more effective with those stones than the finest armor Saul could offer. What worked for one didn’t work for the other.
Our desire to see quick success often causes networks to send out church planters who are more aware of past strategies (the armor of Saul) than their own abilities and limitations and how those things uniquely equip them as a leader.
A chemical compound is made up of different elements. Change one element and you have a different compound. The social makeup of the launch team, the leader’s family, the neighborhood, and even the expectations of the sending agency are major elements that influence the effectiveness of a church’s launch. Learning how to handle these elements — and many more — is a delicate dance that can’t be taught in a classroom. It has to be navigated in the field.
Coaching Takes Support Seriously
The challenges of church planting will humble a church planter. It’s a stark dose of reality when a planter realizes people aren’t filling the building to hear his great sermons. Or when a key team member moves away. Or when members realize this church looks nothing like they expected and begin to criticize the differences. All of these factors chip away at the hubris of the leader.
On top of that, most new church planters haven’t experienced the pressures of leading such a big project. Many served as associate pastors or another ministry position at an established church, which allowed them the liberty to critique the systems they were given. Once they take the role of lead pastor, they become aware that their decisions will impact many — and as a result of this pressure, many leaders become vague or indecisive. It takes a coach to help a new planter understand this dilemma and overcome it.
Another leadership disorientation can come when the church planter realizes he has less liberty in certain areas of his life now that he is the lead person. The planter has to represent the diversity of the community he’s trying to reach, so he experiences feedback from people with different viewpoints. In order to become effective in a community, the leader has to subject his past freedom of opinions to the present challenges that come with stewardship.
And though many planters may have plenty of help leading up to their church’s launch, many find themselves alone to sink or swim soon after. I’ll never forget when a leader said to me, “I received support at every step of my development until I became the lead pastor — then all of that support disappeared.”
But what would happen if church planters had someone to walk alongside them during those critical first years of starting a church? Someone who could assist with the challenges of church planting, help planters discern their unique story, and assess what’s important to do next? Someone to instruct leaders and their families so they can remember to breathe when they’re struggling?
The result is that the many challenges of church planting become opportunities to learn, grow in faith, and understand the gospel better than ever before. In some cases, a sensitive, godly coach can be a life preserver to a sinking church planter. They affirm biblical truth to the planter. They keep their motives in check. They keep their vision focused.
By offering personal attention and a wealth of experience, a good coach can make all the difference in the vitality of a church leader and his congregation.
For more information on coaching, email email@example.com.
About the Author
David Whitehead brings over 37 years of ministry experience to City to City, where he has served as a Coaching Catalyst for over 16 years. David has coached a wide diversity of Christian leaders and helped establish coaching networks around the world.
David and his wife, Kathleen, have two daughters and live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.