What I’ve Learned in 15 Years as a Church Planter

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

I spend a lot of time with church planters. Whether it’s Acts 29 assessment conferences or Portico Church’s own residency efforts, I’m privileged to invest in the next generation of pastors. So many of these young church planters I encounter are full of David’s heart, Moses’s humility, and Elijah’s conviction.

A few months ago, I watched Ray Ortlund and Sam Storms answer questions about enduring in ministry. With more than 70 years of vocational ministry between them, Ray and Sam reminded me that church planting isn’t just about sowing seeds up front—it’s also about the harvest at the end. Many of us start strong but finish weak. As my first boss used to say, “Some say they’d rather burn out than fizzle out. But either way, they’re out!” The point is, stay in. Early zeal matters little if you fail to finish well.

After 25 years of vocational ministry—including 15 in church planting—I’ve at least learned what not to do. Here are three common pitfalls young church planters face, and some suggestions on how to remedy them.

1. Know when ‘good’ is good enough.

Author Eric Ries first introduced me to the concept of the MVP—minimum viable product—in The Lean Startup. When starting a business, you can’t afford to chase perfection. An MVP must have the necessary basic features for early adopters to lead you to the next stage of development. This means that, early on, you can’t quibble over trivial concerns.

If you’re less than two years into your church plant, you need to think about your young church as an “MVP.” One can argue about what features are essential in a young church—things like clear gospel teaching, commitment to discipleship, and a healthy understanding of what constitutes a church—but your sermon series’ title sequence probably doesn’t make the cut.

Even the obsession over the “perfect building” is often misplaced. At Portico, we’ve been incredibly nomadic. We’re in our seventh location in 15 years. At one point, I preached in a dusty warehouse under a disco ball. Yet people kept showing up. Ensure your early priorities make sense when you factor in size and stage. And put perfectionism to death by the grace of Christ. Sometimes “good” really is good enough.

2. Get help in appointing elders.

Hopefully, you’re convinced of the biblical case for appointing a team of elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The necessity of the office, however, must be combined with an imperative concerning timing—as Paul exhorts Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22). That directive is part of his instruction about common problems that arise among elders and their congregations. Why do we keep rushing eldership before we and our churches are ready for it?

When you combine a godly imperative (appoint elders) and a sense of personal loss (I have no friends), it makes for a dangerous combination.

Many pastors parachute into a new place to plant a church. Some, like myself, come from a large church with a robust community. Suddenly, the phone calls and text messages stop. When you combine a godly imperative (appoint elders) and a sense of personal loss (I have no friends), it makes for a dangerous combination. Perhaps we too quickly gather people around us to cure our sense of isolation rather than to provide healthy leadership. But neither we, nor those candidates, nor our congregations are ready.

3. Emphasize character and competence.

Gene Getz was an adjunct professor at Moody Bible during my graduate days, and I was blessed to have him speak into my life personally and professionally. Gene’s emphasis on character has been my go-to for sanctification and leadership development for many years. His book The Measure of a Man is still my first resource in elder development. We’ll never graduate from the school of character.

We’ll never graduate from the school of character . . . but we also must not underestimate the need for pastoral competence.

At the same time, we mustn’t underestimate the need for pastoral competence. Paul talked about “rightly handling” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), and the apostles demonstrated a high level of strategic competence as they cared for neglected widows (Acts 6:1–7). The gospel-saturated ministry of the Word should yield workers equipped “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

I’ve seen much heartache caused by a lack of character over the years. I’ve also seen a lot of frustration due to lack of competence. I urge young pastors to stay curious and vocationally hungry. Never stop learning. Keep working at your craft. And then, as the Lord allows, develop an apprenticeship program for pastoral training. Pastors aren’t born; they’re compelled and trained. And that training should emphasize both character and competence.

It Actually Is About You

Church planting is about the glory of God. In that sense, it’s not about “you.” But church-planting pastor, it’s also true that your heavenly Father delights in you. In you. The psalmist tells us that God “takes pleasure in those who fear him” (Ps. 147:11)—which includes pastors. A wise pastor once reminded me, “God cares more about his work in you than your work for him.” Now there’s something to tell yourself daily.

We mustn’t forget that, before we’re conduits of God’s grace to others, we ourselves are recipients of it. That’s how God designed it. So, as George Mueller said, make your “first great and primary business” each day to have your soul happy in the Lord. After all, in Christ, he’s eternally happy with you.