The following is an edited excerpt of FROM ONE CHURCH PLANTER TO ANOTHER, available in its entirety as a PDF by clicking on the title. It is given here in hopes that it will be a blessing to a church planter/pastor somewhere who is going through some of the heartache we went through in the early years of our church planting experience:
A prominent church planting pastor in the Northwest said, “I have started seven churches in the last twenty years – all in the same location.”
Before we started Lighthouse Baptist Church (in 2000), my pastor, Dr. Bob Smith, told me that we would most likely start with one group of people but build with another. I did not want to believe that this was true, but I knew better than to question my pastor’s wisdom. Sure enough, on our church’s fifth anniversary there were only four original charter families remaining. The first group got us started, but they did not stay.
In some ways, starting the church was easier than pastoring the church that I had started.
Some men of unusual character, personality, and gifts have started churches and seen a steady (sometimes spectacular) growth every year. I respect and admire these men of God. But it does not always work out so. New churches can split. In a small church, one out-of-line member can cause serious damage. A church planter I know watched half his church walk out one Sunday (fifty people) due to one member. These things can happen.
By our third anniversary, we were running in the 80’s and 90’s and over 100 on big days. We had started multiple ministries from scratch and had over 30 out soul-winning every week. We were “flying high.” However, in the fourth year, we lost almost 50 of those people for various reasons. Some moved, some dropped out altogether, some got over the excitement of a new church. Some became disgruntled, some got mad, and some took others out with them. This was a “year-long split” that hurt our church (and me) very deeply. Thus began three very difficult years of struggle.
Was part of it my fault? Absolutely! I was still in my 20’s, naive, and inexperienced. Looking back with experience, I can see that easily. Was it all my fault? No. Did that matter? No. I faced a decision: leave and start over, or stay and start over. The Lord did not tell us to go, so we stayed.
Here are some thoughts on starting your church, again:
- Do not attack troublemakers or defend yourself against them. Always take the high road. Remember that those people still have friends in your church. Do not make your people choose between you and their friends. You would be surprised how often you will come out on the losing end. This is one area I failed miserably in when I was a novice in the ministry. I let things “under my skin.”
- Do not allow yourself to become so close or so dependent on anyone that losing them devastates you or your ministry. People, even good people, come and go in this transient society. Lean upon the Lord.
- Do not fail to strengthen your relationships with those that remain.
- Remember that when prominent families leave a church, there will always be those who are on the borderline wondering “why?”
- Reorganize and reshuffle your ministry to cover the losses. Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two steps forward.
- Try to find some way to recapture any lost motivation. Plan a great campaign or a big day.
- Get new people in. Nothing encourages a church more than new faces.
- Keep on preaching and teaching.
- Keep on loving. The ministry is the easiest place in the world to become bitter! Do not allow yourself to become calloused or jaded because of the hurt others have caused. Keep on putting your heart out there. Refuse to become cynical.
- Encourage your wife and children. Every pastor’s family has to taste heartache and disappointment. Take care of your family. Watch diligently for roots of bitterness.
- Do what you have to in order to keep the church financially above water. A new church does not usually have a great financial reserve to fall back on if half the drive-ins quit coming. Can you stretch a buck? Are you willing to work outside the church to get the church through if necessary?
- Limit your personal debt.
- Listen to a lot of encouraging preaching.
- Build hope for the future. Leave the past in the past. Look ahead.
- Do not let your frustration frustrate your people.
- Do not compromise your convictions, but do honestly evaluate your methods. Maybe you need to look in the mirror. Maybe your way of handling people and problems IS the problem, or part of it. Maybe you need some coaching or counsel from a wise, elder man of God.
- Do not seek vengeance against those who are hurtful, or allow a spirit of vengeance in your heart.
- Resist the incredible urge to go somewhere else and start over.
- Do not become paranoid about people leaving the church.
- Keep on soul-winning and visiting.
- Keep on praying.
- Keep on supporting the missionaries. During that stretch of 3 years, I worked outside the church, 7 days a week, and repeatedly cut my own salary. But I never missed a missionary’s support check.
- Learn your lessons.
After the last of those first families made their exodus, I hit rock bottom. I was 28 years old, 3 years into my first full-time ministry. I went to my two trustees separately and asked them if they wanted me to leave the church. Both adamantly said, “NO.” But the second trustee looked at me and asked, “Did God send you here or not?” I had the towel in my hand, ready to throw it in. Instead, I threw it in the fire! And almost 9 years later, in a strong, solid, loving, soulwinning church that has seen many saved since that day, with students in Bible colleges and more on their way, I am thankful that I made the decision to STAY AND START OVER.