I have been a church planter for going on 11 months. That isn’t a lot of experience, especially in light of the 12 years I spent as full-time staff at established churches (6 years as senior pastor). Nevertheless, I would like to give myself some advice. That is to say that I want to give my old self advice. Church Planter Me has a few things to say to Pastor Me.
You don’t have to own it
I am quickly learning that a church will not start or grow based on my ideas. Instead, I have to constantly watch to see where the Lord is moving. That is not always in my ideas and my planning. Sometimes the Lord moves in different ways through other people and I have to be ready to involve myself in what he is doing.
Small groups are the core of our church planting effort. My plan is to see several small groups form and them come together to launch a church. I started the first small group in October and ever since I have been carefully planning where new ones can be. Not a single one of my plans has come about. In our community there is a neighborhood that is isolated from the rest of the community. It is gated and it sits in a remote location such that one never happens to just drive to it or even near it unless they intend on going there in the first place. I knew at once that we needed a small group there. My plan was to get a family from our sponsoring church to host it. They live there, it was the perfect plan. The problem was that they were so busy with things at our sponsoring church that they did not have time to host a small group. I saw no way that I could launch a group there and began to wonder if it was God’s will that I even think of doing so.
Then a new person in our group came and said “I want to have one of these in my house. What do I do?” They live there. They are 4 adults sharing a house (not uncommon here in paradise where housing costs keep skyrocketing). It was not my plant, but it seems to be the direction that the Lord is moving.
When I was a pastor, I always tried to plan for the next way our church would accomplish its mission. I was always careful to check my plans with others, but that was it. I checked. My plan was either a go or it was tossed out. What I want to say to my old self is this, “You don’t need to own it.” It never had to be my plan. It is God’s plan all the time, and as pastor my job is just shepherding the people according to that plan as it unfolds. That may even mean going with the plans God lays on their hearts rather than constantly pushing my own.
It is ok to admit your struggles
I am the master of the brave face. It is important, maybe even crucial to put up a good front when speaking publicly about ministry. I have always believed that if I am negative, everyone else would be as well. As a pastor, I always made sure that I celebrated victories, championed ideas, and spoke of things in their ideal states.
As a church planter, I have learned that sometimes there are just not enough things to celebrate. Do not get me wrong, there is plenty to celebrate but this is hard, hard work. The spiritual warfare is intense. The pressures on my family are enormous. The realities of our progress do not look so good when I compare them to my expectations. This is hard.
At first, I hid all of that. I made sure to voice prayer requests, but I knew that things must be positive. That is how you keep people excited and on board. That is how you keep partners running along with you.
One day, I changed that. I typed one little line in my monthly report/blog post that broke my rules about being positive. I said, “sometimes I am discouraged.” I thought about taking it out but decided it was one little line; it would go unnoticed.
It was noticed. It was noticed a lot. For the next few days, I got tons of calls, emails, and messages about that one little line and I learned something. If people do not know when you are discouraged, they cannot encourage you. Those emails, calls, and messages were full of encouragement. I needed that and by trying to be positive all the time, I was denying myself that bit of grace that my brothers and sisters were ready to give me.
Pastors are pressured to be perfect. As a pastor I saw every one of my weaknesses as a potential deal breaker for the church. If they knew I struggled with this or if they knew I had my doubts about that, they might not want to follow me. In retrospect, by hiding my weaknesses, I most likely hindered the strengths of others. If I am going to proclaim grace, I better start living in it!
Be a student of culture
In 11 months I have learned one thing: Hawaii is a foreign land. Yes, we are the 50th state. Yes, we have congressmen and senators. We have interstates. We use dollars. All that aside, Hawaii is a foreign land. How else can you account for our love of Spam?
In order to minister effectively here, I have had to become a careful student of culture. I watch, I listen, and I try to embrace what I see. I try new foods, I follow the unwritten rules of the supermarket, and I try to learn pidgin. I do this so that I can go from being an outsider to being a local; so that I can go from being a stranger to being a friend. It requires a lot of effort and it never stops.
The things is, this is not the first time I have lived in a foreign land. I have served churches in Arkansas and in rural Missouri. Both were very different than where I grew up. For the most part, I probably surrounded myself with people most like me. That was not very effective.
Pastor, become a serious student of culture. Study it, learn it, practice it. Do not be an outsider, but become a friend to those in your community.
It isn’t “us” and “them”
In ministry it becomes easy to see two kinds of people: church people and non-church people. The world becomes a group of people who are either us or them. As a pastor, it always seemed as though the debate was do I lead us to go to them or do I train us to go to them. It was always us and them.
As a church planter, I have learned that everyone is on a spectrum in their relationship to Christ. Some are far away. Some are not so far away. My goal is to walk with them as they move closer, where ever they may be. I have found that this completely changes my perspective in a lot of ways. It removes the annoying similarities that evangelism can have with high pressure sales. It also removes the division between discipleship and evangelism.
Pastor, you will never find that balance in your work between us and them. Instead, see each person as one loved by Christ along a path to Him. Guide them a bit further.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my pastor self these things, but as it is, I’ll just move forward this way and prepare to learn a lot in the process.