“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Albert Einstein
I’m no Einstein, but I do resonate with this quote. I have only been a church planter for 4 years. Village Church is not quite 3 years old and I’m still a relatively young man. The last few years of church planting have shown me how much I have to learn:
1. You will say no to some really great things.
When you are the new church in town, lots of people want to know what you are about. They may have a list of things they think you should be about: some noble and good, others consumerist and agenda driven. All things must be evaluated in light of the vision and mission of the church, taking into account the season of life that your church is in. The hardest opportunities to pass up match your vision and mission but not the season of life your church is in. This requires patience.
Sometimes a young church has to say “no” to mission trips, or a youth group, or a homeless ministry, or an after school program. Not every opportunity will be easy to pass on, and you will need to be diligent in seeking the wise counsel of others before you bite off more than you can chew. Sure it’s easy to say no to a Puppet Ministry or Bell Choir, but the choices are rarely that clear.
2. It takes a long time before your community wants to hear from you.
This is particularly true if you are an “out of towner.” Dr. John Perkins, leader of the Christian Community Development Association makes this point often. Establishing credibility takes time and cannot be rushed. People want to know that you are going to be around for a while before they are interested in your opinion. They want to know that your kids go to school with their kids, that you sleep in the same neighborhood they sleep in, that you shop where they shop. If you ever want to be one of “them” you have to follow the lead of Jesus and be with them. This involves a lot of listening before speaking.
You must also seek to serve long before you seek to lead. Partner with those who were at work before you arrived, even if they are not perfect. You may have a solution to their problems, but if they are not ready to hear from you, your solution is unwanted. If you push it, you will be unwanted too.
3. You must take breaks.
It is sinful to work without resting. We have all listened to talks on Sabbath. We mark a day off on our calendars, but then don’t honor it very often. Certainly, some seasons require extra effort and extra hours, but these should be the exception not the rule. There will always be more work to do.
Find an activity that is challenging to your mind and requires your attention. Read something that has nothing to do with theology or leadership. Tell your friends to yell at you when you try to “talk shop.” Take your vacation time.
During our second summer as church planters, my family took a vacation together that was less than fancy, but necessary. We waited just a bit too long before taking that break. In retrospect, we should have rested sooner. Some of the things we wanted to accomplish suffered because we were tired. When we returned, our energy was renewed and we were far more efficient.
4. Keep raising money, even after the offerings start being collected.
It took 14 months for me to complete the fundraising portion of our business plan. I planned for six months but it took 14. It would be easy to come up with excuses. The fact is, raising money is hard work. Stay in contact with your supporters regularly. Send them email or snail mail- they are not checking your website or Facebook page. It is a small token that says you have not forgotten them and it honors their investment into your church.
Even if you hate talking about money, it’s essential. I was never going to preach about giving/stewardship more than once a year. I discovered: that’s not enough. It’s not just about having enough in the bank to pay rent and salaries. The people who come to your church need to know how to manage and steward their money. Jesus talked about money a lot; next to the “Kingdom” it’s the most frequent topic that shows up.
5. There is a huge difference in planting a church and planting a church service.
Sunday mornings are incredibly important. They are the biggest “front door” a new church has. Sermons should be prepared, rehearsals held, greeters prepped to be on point, signage should be clear, and kids stuff should be awesome. If, however, you only spend time putting together a gathering you will have failed to plant a church. You will have settled for planting a church service.
Planting a church is harder than planting a service because you have to pastor people, not just preach to them. The church I pastor looks pretty good on the surface. What I am realizing is that everyone has issues (including me) and pastoring people is harder than preaching talking points. I wasn’t prepared for that.
There are folks in my church dealing with addiction, depression & anxiety, mental illness, loss, debt, broken relationships, promiscuity, doubt, divorce, and abuse. Every church contains liars and cheaters and convicts and workaholics and perfectionists and approval hounds. Pastoring these folks, actually involving yourself in their lives and their issues is difficult and exhausting. It is work worth doing, but it’s hard. Sitting with someone when they have made a huge mistake and potentially destroyed a relationship is much more difficult than preaching a sermon about making wise decisions.
I would also strongly recommend that you, the church planter, have someone who pastors you.
I am learning these things now. They would have been helpful to know before we started. By God’s grace our church is still here, and we are still learning to listen.
Here’s to not having to learn every lesson the hard way.
Jeremy Hazelton is the Lead & Teaching Pastor of Village Church in Buffalo, NY, where he lives in the “skinny jeans” neighborhood of the city, with his wife Audra and their 3 children. He blogs at The Village Idiot.