As a new believer, my wife and I joined an older, well-established church. It had been planted decades earlier by a man with a huge personality, a deep love for the Lord, and a ton of wisdom.
We were the youngest members in the church. We listened with interest to the older saints, who spoke fondly of the “old days” when the church was growing, and they were a community marked by bold faith. As the pastor aged and his capacity decreased, the church seemed to follow suit. Several years after our arrival, the lead pastor went to be with his Great Shepherd. Sadly, his death plunged the church into a lasting season of depression, division, and decline.
I fear many young church planters may be leading their churches in a similar direction. For all the good this brother-pastor did, he hadn’t prepared his church for the inevitable—the day when he would no longer be their pastor. And the effects on the church were painfully evident.
For all the good this brother-pastor did, he hadn’t prepared his church for the inevitable—the day when he would no longer be their pastor.
Church-planting pastors need to prepare for their eventual departure. They need to pave the way for the next pastor.
‘Better Is the End’
As I’ve moved into church planting myself, I’ve tried to take Solomon’s advice to heart: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccles. 7:8).
Solomon’s structure creates a poetic parallel in which he compares two leaders and the range of their vision. The leader whose focus is solely on the beginning stage of his church plant, according to Solomon, is proud in spirit.
As a church planter, I’m tempted to get defensive at this point. I’m wired to navigate chaos, solve problems, and see and take hold of opportunities. In order for a young church plant to survive, church planters have to be focused on and responsive to the challenges of the day, right? How is this a manifestation of pride?
I don’t think it has to be. But as Solomon makes clear, pride can be present if my vision is truncated by ego or fear. It could be:
- Pride in my own ability—I’ve worked with superhuman strength to plant this church and no one helped me. Why should I have to help the next guy?
- The pride of youth—I’m young, and, yeah, I know I won’t live forever, but there’s always time to take care of that stuff later.
- The pride of recognition—I love the attention and sense of importance that comes from people depending on me, and I feel threatened by the idea of transferring some of that trust to someone else.
In each case, pride can blind. It can keep us from the vital task of preparing for the future.
A wise church planter will seek to create a gospel culture that doesn’t die with him.
Unlike the prideful, short-sighted leader, Solomon says the leader who focuses on the end result of his labor is patient (and better). The application is clear: A wise church planter will intentionally build a leadership culture in the church that can be handed off to a new generation of leaders.
A good pastor will pave the way for the next one by patiently fostering a culture centered on the gospel, which creates in us an impulse to honor and love others more than ourselves. A wise church planter will seek to create a gospel culture that doesn’t die with him. And in order to do this, we must be “patient in spirit.”
But that’s often the rub, that word “patient.” We hate it. As church planters, we tend to live on the far right of the “Ready-Aim-Fire” scale, and people who sit on the far left slowly kill our souls, since they don’t do anything quickly.
How can we—driven, entrepreneurial, change-oriented people—lead in a way that’s “patient in spirit”? And how will this help prepare our churches for our eventual—inevitable—departure?
Here are three things we can do to prepare our churches for the future while still charging the hill, solving problems, and maximizing current opportunities.
1. Give Away Power
Pray for and seek to raise up faithful elders to serve alongside you. If you are suddenly hit by a bus (physically or metaphorically), these leaders will be responsible to steward the mission of the gospel and—when the time comes—help find a pastor to replace you.
If these leaders have been shaped to simply rubber-stamp your leadership, they will flounder when it comes time for them to lead through turbulent transitions.
If these leaders have been shaped to simply rubber-stamp your leadership, they will flounder when it comes time for them to lead through turbulent transitions. If you believe God has raised them up, then trust and empower them.
2. Spread Trust
Highlight other leaders. Empower others to preach. Share the spotlight and tell other people’s stories. Reject the alluring lie of the solo, superhero church planter. Make it a regular practice to transfer credit to others, celebrating their meaningful contributions.
Remind yourself, pastor, that you are most fundamentally a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12–31). This will both reinforce your true dignity—which is defined by your union with Christ—and also root you in true humility, for you are no more valuable than any other member.
3. Lead the Church in Mission
Church planting doesn’t end when a church becomes viable and self-sustaining. A healthy church will keep growing in grace. Let’s constantly remind ourselves—and our churches—that true generosity flows from God’s generosity to us (2 Cor. 9:6–15).
As leaders, then, we must see it as critical to the church’s health to empower new leaders, send out missionaries, plant new churches, and stay in the flow of generosity at the heart of grace. Embracing the generosity of grace will help the church center its culture on blessing others instead of mere comfort or personal preference. And this will help set the stage for a successful leadership transition.
The Way Up Is Down
Pride makes us delusional. It makes us near-sighted. It makes us forget our lives are like withering grass (Isa. 40:6–7).
Humility, on the other hand, gives us far-sighted wisdom. The humble pastor doesn’t only fixate on the challenges, opportunities, and glories of the immediate. Rather, his eyes are on the horizon, recognizing the need to prepare the flock for the man who will replace him.