8 Lessons Church Planting Has Taught Me – Part I

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I have learned a lot since January 2007 when Harvest Christian Fellowship began as a church plant. The truth is I never thought that I would be a church planter. I never sought to be a church planter. I never contemplated what being a church planter entailed or would be like until 2006. In spite of all of that, the undeniable truth is that being a church planter has taught me a lot about life, myself, leadership, faith, and people. There have been more surprises than I would have ever imagined, and I believe the lessons deserve to be shared with everyone.

I always perceived that I would one day be a senior pastor, but never thought I would be a church planter. I used to joke with friends that Bishop T.D. Jakes was holding my seat. I mused that he would retire soon and I would receive an unsolicited call to come and take my ordained spot as senior pastor of one of the largest churches in America. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he. I always believed that I would pastor an established church. I saw myself leading a church with history, structure, and resources. It had nothing to do with being afraid to establish any of those things from scratch. My role as a full-time staff pastor actually called upon me to do all of the above. I just didn’t see myself as a church planter until I sensed God saying something different in the spring of 2006.

My journey as the founding and senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship has been like a film festival. Not like a single movie, but like an entire film festival. It has featured comedies, love stories, thrillers, drama, documentaries, and even a few horrors. Trust me when I say that being a church planter will never be boring, and it will always be educational. Here are just a few things that I have learned over the years.

I have learned from cooking recipes from cookbooks that the finished dish rarely turns out like the picture in the book.

Lesson 1: Your Church Planting Experience May Bear Little Resemblance to the Books

The first thing that I learned is that reading books on church planting doesn’t begin to prepare you for church planting. Well, maybe reading does begin to prepare you for church planting, but that is all it will do…begin to prepare you. While there may be similarities in each church planter’s journey, each journey will be unique to the planter, location, and context of ministry. Much of what is written regarding church planting is written from a “best case scenario” point of view. If everything goes as planned it will turn out like the book. I have learned from cooking recipes from cookbooks that the finished dish rarely turns out like the picture in the book. While there are absolutely best practices in church planting, and while I learned quite a bit from reading about church planting prior to launch, my experience quickly departed from much of what I read.

Lesson 2: Have a Plan and Be Ready to Change It

As a church planter I quickly learned that  you need to be ready to adjust your plan. Post-launch life is church planting can be a whirlwind. You will spend months meeting and planning. There will be many nights meeting with different interested groups of people and leaders. Hours will be spent writing out a launch plan for the new church work that God is calling you to begin. Within 3 months of launching the new church, the plan we had spent months designing was out the window. Everything we thought that we would be doing had already been surpassed. The people began clamoring for more than we were not ready. We had to scramble to adjust and figure out what to do next. In hindsight, I would not trade the journey for anything, but the lesson is to be ready to improvise and adjust on the fly.

Lesson 3: People Will Leave and It Will Hurt…At First

The third thing I’ve learned from being a church planter is that people will leave! I believe that deserves repeating…people will leave! I was devastated when the first couple sat in our office and said that they were leaving the church. It didn’t help much that they had the conversation with my wife and me on a Sunday morning just before it was time to preach. The next several people and families who left didn’t say anything at all, they just stopped coming. Now you want to talk about hurt! One of the hardest lessons that I’ve learned as a church planter is that the relationships that are developed in church are meant to be for a lifetime, not for the length of church membership. A pastor’s call is to show the authentic love of God to people, even as they are leaving. It was a hard lesson, learned with a heavy heart at times, but a lesson that has made me a much better leader and follower of Christ.

As people transition in and out of the church, a pastor can sometimes feel isolated and unsure.

Lesson 4: It Can Be Lonely

The next lesson stems from the previous lesson, and that is church planting can be a lonely endeavor. Unlike pastors of established churches, church planters quickly come to depend upon the small band of people who launch the church with them. This group becomes an extended family in many ways. As people transition in and out of the church, a pastor can sometimes feel isolated and unsure. These feelings of loneliness, if left unchecked, can lead to destructive behavior or resentment of the call. There have been seasons through the years when I have felt like no one understood the burden. That isn’t true at all. God understood. He was there. So was my family; and there has always been a faithful group of men and women in our church who have not only understood but prayed and loved us. Every church planter has to understand that isolation and loneliness is not God’s desire, but a device used by Satan to attempt to destroy what God has built.

That’s the first four of eight hard but good lessons I have learned as a church planter. In the next post I will uncover lessons 5 through 8 that I have learned as a church planter. Are you a church planter? What lessons have you learned? Can you relate to any of these lessons? Are you contemplating church planting? What fears are you being called to confront? I’d love to read what you have to share or say in the comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • James D. Douglas

    Truly appreciate this post and will check for the remaining 4 of 8. I’m not sure if church planting is the will of God for me but in this season I’m trying be open minded. I feel confident in the call to pastor and feel that the points shared here are relevant to planters and “inheriters” (my made up word :-)) alike.

    • Thanks James. For sure, church planting is full of joys, blessings, and lessons. The two posts in this series only highlight eight of them. I am confident that what the world and the Lord needs are more “healthy” churches, whether new plants or transformed established churches. Stay blessed and thanks again for taking the time to read and engage.