June 15, 2021

Church Planter: Which core team member do you need to know best before you plant?

The answer of course, is you.

You need to know you the best before you even think about planting a church. If you don’t, you’re heading for a fall.

I was asked that question this very morning about what a planter needs to know about the core team, and my answer was simply that. Unless you know who YOU are before you go through the tough, beautiful, difficult, precious process of planting a church, then you could be headed for disaster.

Yet as activists and optimists, so many times church planters go into the task missing that vital first step and then looking for the core team that they think that they can plant with.

My experience, in coming a cropper with our first church plant, was that I probably did not know myself – and certainly saw less need to – than was necessary. Necessary not only for the plant’s survival, but for my survival too!

Nowadays there are far more rigorous and mature processes in place for planters. But that’s precisely because we’ve been able to look back at the heady days starting two decades ago and realising that there was an incredible naivety around what was happening.

And that naivety is cute and funny and full of faux horror stories, IF, and it is a big IF, we make it through to the other side more or less intact.

But I have heard other horror stories that are real horror stories, including stories of suicide, marriage break up, prison time and everything in the gaps of all of that. And those things were certainly not the intention at the outset when a young planter and his young wife (and that’s mostly the way it is), decide to plant a church.

Unless you know yourself, your weaknesses, the weaknesses you did not know were weaknesses, but which others had to point out to you, then you can train-wreck that thing not long after it gets out of the station. And it won’t be a train you are wrecking by the way, that’s just a nice euphemism. It will be people. People such as your core team. People such as your spouse or yourself.

So what did I need to know about me before planting, that I either wasn’t fully aware of, assumed of myself, or was just plain ignorant of? There are plenty of things, but for the sake of brevity I will throw out a couple that I have found to be important.

My Functional Justification. I was pretty clear about my actual justification, because I’ve read the books, done the theology and committed to the gospel. But I am not sure that went all the way down. And I’ll tell you how you know if it has: Your reaction to something not going the way you want it to, or someone not responding the way you had anticipated that they would.

Church planting is hard, but too much of the early push to plant was based around the false idea that it was an easier way to do church, and that all you had to do was send out the call for missionaries to your suburb, and a whole bunch of Ninja Christians would appear from the woodwork. I had always assumed I would seek my justification in Jesus at all times, but that was an untested assumption. When things got hard, and disappointments hit, it was noticeable to me that I had not locked away the justification issue as much as I had thought I had.

My Relationship to My Father. By that I mean my Heavenly Father. But sooooo much of how we relate to God as our Father springs from our own relationships with our own earthly fathers. Now I had a fairly disastrous relationship with my own dad – who I loved deeply – from about the age of 17. We did mend a lot of things along the way and I was with him the night he died, and conducted his funeral, but I missed a whole chunk of fatherly years from him that I still regret not having. We did not have a really affectionate relationship when I was younger, cos he just wasn’t that bloke. And older – well he was gone.

And by the time we reconnected it never felt like father and son as much as I wanted it to. Yet I suddenly realised when doing church planting that I needed a Fatherly affection and approval more than ever. In God, of course, we have that in spades. What more could He give to us that He has not already given? But to avail myself of that? I found myself being somewhat transactional with my Heavenly Father to the point that, although it was unspoken, I could imagine myself saying “All these years I have served you and you have not given me a young church plant that I might celebrate with my friends!”

The older I have gotten, the more I realise that how we view God directly colours how we view others. If our relationship with a core team in our church plant is transactional, and we value them, primarily, for what they can give us, then check upstream. It could be that you have an older brother syndrome about you that has been untested and unchecked until things get tough. Sort it out early for the sake of your spiritual and mental health, and for the spiritual and mental health of the sheep under your care.

My Besetting Sin. if you have a problem with porn, then the cold winds of leadership in the church will exacerbate it. If you have a problem with greed, the challenge of ministry will make that more problematic. If you struggle to forgive people, then you risk creating a culture of almost silent unforgiveness in your church plant, and you will have all of the theological tools available to you to mask it. That will turn your church toxic. As the saying goes” The fish rots from the head.” You will create a culture that reflects your leadership strengths, and your leadership weaknesses.

The simple truth is that you must be putting sin to death – putting one in sin’s brain so to speak – because your unguarded weaknesses will be exploited by your enemy (note, your enemy is Satan, not the wife of your core group member who you think is a difficult character).

But perhaps it’s the “good” sins that will most trip us up. We value “excellence” and we want to see “gospel growth”, so we will push and push and push to get those things, all the while not realising that we are supposed to take the sheep with us. I have heard the word “gospel” weaponised so many times to push an agenda or shut down an alternate viewpoint, that I am leery of it being used without some serious explanation. A “gospel-centred” this that or the other can cover a multitude of preferences. And I have come to the conclusion that is sinful to use the word in order to shut down dissent or push an agenda.

My Psychology. Well I am married to a psychologist so of course I am going to say that, but I am going to say that because it’s so often over-looked. Church planters need to know where their triggers are; what their emotional framework is and how robust it is; whether or not they have tendencies towards being narcissistic (and that’s never something we self-diagnose!), and if we have a pattern of emotional response in given situations.

For my wife Jill and I, we have had to sit and discuss at length how our psychological selves were fitted for the task of church planting. And to be honest, there’s no shame in saying that they are not fitted for it, and then looking to guard against a psychological meltdown by either putting a depersonalised pre-determined end point on your role (“If we get to this situation and life looks like this for us, that’s when we plan an exit strategy”), or by doing the ongoing work psychological intervention in your lives.

Psychological assessments won’t do everything, but they are often under-rated by go-getting church planters. We know that, because planting networks have now embedded such assessments in their programs. There are just some things in us that we will be blissfully unaware of, and that will ride along with us, only to trip us up when (and not if) things get tough.

Of course there are plenty of other matters that we need to be aware of, but at the very outset the first person in the core team that you need to assess is you!

The happy trade-off of doing that well, and of being aware of yourself and your predispositions, is that the core team you eventually do form will mirror your self-knowledge in a positive way. By that I mean you won’t end up attracting people who are in some way drawn to the unattended and dysfunctional aspects of your character. I have seen that happen too often, especially when younger, less experienced people join planters who unwittingly seek their justification and their relational fulfilment in the approval of those who have gathered around them.

Remember most, to trust yourself to the LORD, for as we must remember, he knows us better than we know ourselves:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,[b]
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:9)

That’s a sobering reminder of our blindness, but also a clarion call for us to throw ourselves upon God who graciously will give us the self-insight we need, if we ask Him. He will use His Spirit-empowered Word, His people, and our circumstances to craft a level of self-awareness in us if we are willing.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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