Should a Pastor Leave One Church to Plant Another One?

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

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Tony Merida: Welcome to Churches Planting Churches, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida. As church planters, we should make it our prayer to be able to say with Paul, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself. If only, I may finish my course in the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

We’ve all received this ministry from the Lord Jesus, namely to testify to the gospel of God’s grace, and sometimes testified to God’s great gospel will mean leaving the church we planted, led, and poured ourselves into. Naturally, this can be very painful, but it’s worth it for the sake of God’s glory among the lost. Seeing new churches established, and seeing existing churches revitalized is a beautiful thing.

But how do we actually do this? And how do we know if it is indeed right to leave one church in order to plant another church or to lead an existing church? Today, I’m excited to have Harvey Turner with me. Harvey has recently done this himself. He left the church he planted and led for about 20 years in order to lead Redeemer Burbank, and he did this in his 40s.

Harvey is the teaching pastor at Redeemer Burbank. And he also serves as an Acts 29 US West leadership team number. He’s married to Rachel and they have three kids.

Harvey, welcome to the podcast.

Harvey Turner: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Merida: Harvey and I had the great joy of meeting each other, what? 10 years ago, maybe?

Turner: Yeah, something like that.

Merida: At Leadership Network. And he has been a dear friend of mine. And as we record this right now, our wives are actually at the pool hanging out together.

Turner: That’s right. Yeah, you’ve been a good friend me, man, and I always look forward to seeing you.

Merida: So likewise. Likewise, brother. Harvey, as I mentioned, has just taken on a new role. And so we wanna talk about that. I’m really excited just to hear from him and to share his story because on a few of the podcasts, we’ve actually touched on this idea of when you plant a church, and you lead it and it grows, it’s healthy, it’s established. And a lot of us hit, perhaps our 40s, like me and you, and we’re like, “What do we do now?”

And you and I’ve had some long conversations about this stuff. So I’m excited to capture it on the podcast. So why don’t you just, before we jump into that, tell the listeners about yourself, how you came to faith and your journey up to this point?

Turner: Sure. So, I grew up in Bakersfield, California. We moved to Reno, Nevada when I was 13. When I was growing up, we went to some churches occasionally. Oddly, Mennonite and Quaker churches. But I didn’t really understand the gospel. I mean, I’m sure somebody told me the gospel, but I never heard it clearly. I didn’t really think of Christianity as being about Jesus, thought about it more like rules and that kind of a thing.

That was my perspective as a younger kid. So when I was growing up in Reno I pretty much left church behind right around the time I was 15, 16. I wasn’t really interested in it. I did try out youth group a couple of times but didn’t like it. Mostly because they didn’t talk about God. They played games. And I was actually, always interested in God, just I’m not being goofy.

Especially when you’re a teenager, I was all about trying to be cool. So, when I was… So, I played sports and different things but I really got into partying. And I also was into music. And I actually rapped a little bit, and mostly freestyle rapping.

Merida: A battle rapper.

Turner: Yeah. Anyway, that whole scene got me into an interesting crowd. And I was not just doing drugs and partying, but I ended up selling drugs as well. And about the time I was 20 I was in jail for the third time. And it kind of rocked me because I was in a jail cell with a real gangster. And then I was…when you go out to get your meals, I was realizing I was around some people that were actual criminals and kind of scared me a little bit.

And so I remember being in jail calling out to God. And then got out of there. And my parents had given me a Bible, so I found the Bible and I started reading and I didn’t know where to read. But there was this rap song by a rapper named E40. And he said, something to the effect, “Our father who art in heaven, that’s the prayer that I pray so spread the word. And when you’re feeling down, read Proverbs.”

Now, it’s probably not the advice I would give anybody. But that’s what I did. I flipped open to Proverbs, started reading. Then I started wondering where Jesus was, found the gospels, started reading about him. I was fascinated by him. And basically, over the next few months, started going to church, started to… I was going to Sunday services, I was going to Bible studies every night of the week that I could go.

I was hungry and ended up…you know, I was hungry for the Lord, I think I’d read through the Bible in the first three months. And I read through the New Testament a couple of times, I was just so hungry. And right around that time, a month into being a Christian, I just had a sense that I was called to ministry. And so that’s the nutshell version.

Merida: Our stories are very similar. I didn’t go to jail but I did have a very similar experience of deep hunger that was formerly not there. And chasing the scene and being cool and all of that. And the Lord, by his grace for his glory changed our lives. And so, praise God, man. So, tell us about how the church then was planted. Lead us up to that point.

Turner: So I had all these friends that I hung out with, and they didn’t know Christ, and they were not interested in coming to church. And honestly, the church I was going to, I was pretty sure that if I invited them, they were not gonna be into it either. It just wasn’t for guys that I was hanging out with, really. So I started talking to them about God, and usually while they were partying. And eventually, I said, “Hey, why don’t we start a Bible study?”

And so we started a Bible study at the party house, where all my friends would get together and party. And it would be on, I think, at that time it was on Wednesday nights. And there would be beer bottles and stuff everywhere. And I think there was, might have even been a bong on the table or something like that. There was pornography in the bathroom. And I’m starting a Bible study in this house.

And that Bible study, a couple of those guys became Christians. And one of them is now a pastor at the church that I planted in Reno. And they started inviting their friends. And before long, we had this Bible study 15, 20 guys, most of them, they weren’t Christians. And I just started walking through the Gospel of John with them. And every week, just show them who Jesus is.

Merida: All right. Let me stop you there. Before you did John, though I think you told me before your second week was on Romans 9.

Turner: Yeah, actually. So I was a brand new, I was still in the cage phase of a Calvinist, like Spurgeon says something to the effect of like, when somebody becomes a Calvinist, lock him in a cage for a while, let him mature. Well, nobody locked me in a cage. So the first week was the gospel. And then the second week, I was like, for whatever reason, I was talking with my friend who we started this Bible study together. I was like, “Man, I was just so driven by election and I just knew I was elected.” So we went to Romans 9. And what’s great…

Merida: So what did a group of unbelievers say to Romans 9 when you got finished?

Turner: Oh, man, it was so crazy. So when you present that to a Christian who’s never really heard it, they’re in a fight. I mean, they’re pulling out all the stops and the guns, like any verse, they’ve even heard of that sounds like God’s gonna save the whole world, they…all that stuff comes out. But with non-Christians, they don’t know the Bible at all. I walk them through Romans 9, they just looked at me went, “Well, that’s what it says.” And I said, “That’s right.” Nobody had any issue with it at all.

Merida: That’s fascinating.

Turner: Yeah. Then eventually, we got to the Gospel of John, which had a lot of election in it too.

Merida: Yeah. So through the Gospel of John and that Bible study, as you were going through it, it grew, right?

Turner: Yeah.

Merida: Upwards of 100 people or so?

Turner: Yeah. So what happened is, it was a guys Bible study, mostly evangelistic for a couple of years. And when you have unbelievers, people are in and out, there’s not a lot of consistency. But at some point, as some of these guys started becoming Christians, it started getting more consistency. And then there was some…you know, we were all single, and there were some young ladies that were wanting to come too.

So we moved it to another house because we’ve kind of outgrown. And though there was a guy who was a pastor in the church I was a deacon at who had this house that he was, just come from the mission field, and had this house with this big front room, with no furniture in it. “So I don’t have any furniture in this room, you guys could just bring some fold-up chairs and use this room?”

Well, we did. And it just slowly started growing from like 20, 25, 30. We started setting up rows of chairs and in the room, and then there was a staircase, and people would sit up the staircase. And then on the top of the staircase, there was kind of like a look over balcony sort of thing. And people would sit up there. So one of the nights we had almost 70 people in this Bible study, and I realized I had stopped leading a Bible study and I was preaching.

Somebody gave me a box of John MacArthur tapes, and I would just listen to those and go, “Okay, that’s how you do it.” And I would just do that, and I would just go through texts. And I was just preaching with a little bit of dialogue thrown in there. And we maxed this house out. And we were doing a little bit of music too. We had two guys, one guy was learning a guitar, one guy was learning the bass, oddly.

And then, they knew about three songs. So we would do those three songs every week. And then they would learn a new one. And we were like, “Oh, we got a new song this week. This is so exciting.” So I went to the pastor of the church where I was a deacon at, and I said, “Look, I think I accidentally started a church.” And it was like, mostly young adults and college students at that point.

And he said, “Well, why don’t you bring it here to the church building?” At that time we were meeting on Friday nights. And I said, “Uh, that’s too big.” He said, “No, I think you should. God is doing something here.” So we brought us to the church building, and they just took off from there. And for a little while, we kind of functioned as a church within a church at that church, and then eventually planted.

And so the church that we planted, it’s called Living Stones, and it’s in Reno. And we actually planted four other Living Stones churches in northern Nevada that are…the model that we had was there were autonomous congregations, but we had partnered together for several things. They all had their own elders and leadership teams and that sort of thing.

Merida: So when you, from the Gospel of John, from the first Bible study to when you decided to leave Living Stones, you were there roughly 20 years?

Turner: Yeah.

Merida: So you poured heart and soul into it. It’s the only church you’ve pastored. You’ve trained guys, you’ve planted other churches. You were a leader in the West Coast Network. And then you get to this point on sabbatical. But perhaps prior to that, thoughts in your head about does the Lord have something for us next?

Can you walk us through that process? What that was like? What was in your heart? What was in your soul? Help guys out there who are thinking through similar opportunities, possible transitions?

Turner: Yeah. Well, okay. So there’s a couple of things. One, probably for the last 10 years and I think a lot of church planters have this. Almost every major city I would visit out, I’d go, “I can plant a church here.” And I would be scoping it out and be thinking it through. But I talked to my wife about it, and she’d say, “You’re crazy.” And it just kind of goes away.

I’d go back home to Reno, pastor the church. But I never could shake this idea that of planting again, because leading a congregation for a lot of years, especially the congregation that I was pastoring was pretty large, it’s a different kind of skillset. And I felt like some of my skills were okay in that context, and others of my skills were not. And I just kind of knew I was better at building things up from scratch.

Merida: Can you give example or two of what those skills are?

Turner: Yeah. I think that you… That church planters have, you mean?

Merida: Yeah.

Turner: Well, I think that a church planter has to be a theologian and has to be a preacher, I think. Because you’re going to a place where there is no gospel, and you are now going to plant the gospel there. And you’re gonna…and you have to actually form theology around that to build out a church. And so, those things I had a hunger for and learned a lot in.

And then also, I think, you have to be able to preach. In order to gather people, you have to be able to preach. And so those were a couple of things. I think also leadership development, that’s always something that I just naturally did, is develop others. And so those things always served me well.

But once the church got larger, and it really required somebody who was a good manager, somebody who is really good at leading systems, and structures, and developing that side of ministry, and that… I think I figured things out as I went along. I got a lot of advice from other people, but it was never a natural thing. And the church planting process was almost, it was almost like, it just came naturally to me.

Obviously, I think that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. And so I always kind of dreamt about, “Man, it would be great to do that again. It’d be great to, you know, plant again,” because that’s where I felt like I was in my wheelhouse. And leading a large congregation, I felt like I was just struggling along, and I was not thriving. Even my health was having issues as well.

Merida: So then, the Burbank opportunity came up, talk to us about that.

Turner: Yeah. So like I said, I’d been thinking about going to large cities for a long time because Reno’s a decent-sized city but not huge. And I always loved Los Angeles. And I’m a big Dodger fan. But I also grew up in Bakersfield a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles. So I was always fascinated with Los Angeles.

And I heard about this situation at Redeemer Burbank, and it was during a period of time where I really felt like God was inviting me to consider something else. And I didn’t know what to do with that at first, but I was just praying about it. Me and my wife, Rachel, were just praying about it. And I was talking to a few of my mentors about it. And one of my mentors let me know about Redeemer Burbank needing a pastor.

And so this situation is an older Baptist Church that merged with an Acts 29 church. The pastor transitioned and then, they were without a pastor for some time. So this is a… They have a building right there in Burbank. There was a core group of about 70, 80 adults. And this building sits across the street from Disney Studios. And a great location, great situation, right there in the middle of Los Angeles.

And I thought, “Man if I ever plant again, that’s a great situation.” The quarter, ready to go, hungry, ready to be led, and a building. So that was one thing, you know, planting again, replanting this church in my 40s. There were some things I didn’t wanna do again.

Merida: Like start from scratch?

Turner: Yeah, start from scratch, set up, tear down, like all of that.

Merida: You think like an energy level is different?

Turner: Totally. Yeah, my energy is just not the same. And I have to be really wise with where I put my energy these days. And so yeah.

Merida: Talk to us about what you left. What was the hardest thing about leaving Living Stones?

Turner: I would say the people, the relationships, the relationships I had with the pastors, the elders, the family of churches that we had established, all the lead pastors of those churches, I dearly love, and then just the city. We’d spent a lot of time really investing into the city and getting to know people.

And I knew business owners, and I knew politicians, people all over the city. I made all these connections. And so I would really just say it comes down to people. I really had a love for a lot of people, and then also these people and the location. And I had poured 20 years of my life into this thing. And so yeah.

Merida: What was the impact on your family? How did you seek to include your wife and kids in the decision?

Turner: Yeah. So when I first started to pray about it, I had the sense that, as I was praying that over the course of a few months, that God was inviting me to do something different. And then my work in Reno was, it was time to be done with that and pass that on to somebody else. So I went to Rachel and I let her know. And she knew in me this kind of like, this was always popping up.

And she thought it was just another one of those times, but then I came back with the specific of Redeemer Burbank. And at first, she said, “Nope. No way.” Because we’re connected and my kids are in school. She’s very connected in the city and the schools and things like that. And we had a lot of evangelistic relationships that we were still working on. And she just was like, “No way. And so she prayed about it.

She didn’t really tell me, she just said no. But she started praying about it. And so I said, “All right, Lord. If this is a view, then somehow you’re gonna have to show her.” So I didn’t say anything to her. A week later, we went out on a date. It was just me and her and she says, “I need to tell you something.” And the way she said it, I was like, “Oh, oh.” And she said, “Yeah, I’ve been praying about it all weekend, I think we’re supposed to go to LA.”

And I was just going, “Wow, really?” And so we spent the rest of that evening talking it through and praying. And I went on sabbatical during this period of time. And one of my friends and mentors, Brian Howard, encouraged me. He said, “You need to take a month and pray.” And so we were planning on going to Hawaii for my sabbatical, some Acts 29 churches there were very generous and set us up with some housing and things.

So we went there. And basically, I spent 34 days in Hawaii, not a bad place to pray about something. And I just prayed every day. Got up every day and just prayed, asked the Lord for direction. And by the end of that time period, I knew that it was… God was calling us to do it. So, Rachel and I just prayed together, conversated together, began talking to our kids about it.

Eventually brought it to the elders of Living Stones. They affirmed it. All the elders of all the churches that we had planted, the five churches came together. I think there was almost 30 men in the room and they unanimously decided to bless us and send us.

Merida: It’s awesome man. And obviously, the church was in a good position. There was healthy and good leaders in place. You weren’t leaving a bad situation, which really makes it…it makes it a special story to me. And it also makes it hard to leave when you’re not leaving drama. Obviously, all churches have some drama, but it was a good situation. But the Lord was drawing you to this new work, man. Same mission.

But I think in terms of practice, we learn a lot through the years. At Redeemer Burbank, I’m really interested in how you’ll answer this question. What will you or are you doing differently? What will you do differently? Or what are you doing differently than you…you did in your previous years? And it may be nothing but I’d love to hear.

Turner: Yeah. No, there’s definitely some things I’m doing differently. I think patience, I have more patience now and to let things develop. And I think, in my early years of planting as a young man, I forced my will on a lot of things. And often was able to get those things done. But sometimes in the process, I wasn’t very kind to people in the way that I could have been.

So I think I’m not as much in a hurry. In fact, the people in the church are more in a hurry than me at Redeemer. They’re just kind of like, “When are we gonna do this?” And I’m going, “Hey, we’ll get to that. We’ll get to that.” And I’m trying to lay certain groundwork right now, and then get to some other practical later. So I think patience is a big one. I think also, a lot of what I did in ministry is because I saw other people doing it, I would have conversations with people.

I would go to things like, you know, things that we’d been at together and learn from other mentors and pastors, and then you go home, and you implement those things in your church. But now that I’ve been around the block, I kind of know what I think and what I believe and what I would like to do.

And I’m building out a different type of discipleship structure than I had always built out in the past because I saw that there was some gaps in the discipleship structure that, honestly, most Acts 29 churches run.

And so I’m building it out slower with more patience, a lot more intention, a lot less reactive, and a lot more planning and intention this time. And then what I said about the energy is also true. Because I don’t have as much energy, and I have to specifically invest myself each week in the things that are, I think, what the church needs now.

Merida: That’s good. That’s really good. I wanna follow up on a couple of things there. One, the patience made me think of what Steve Timmis has said recently, that as an old man, and he’s a much, much older than you and me.

Turner: He’s really.

Merida: He’s really old. He said he’s learned to play the long game as an old man. Where when he was a young man, he didn’t. That wasn’t his default, to play the long game. And I can certainly resonate with that, I’m much more patient than I used to be. The gap in discipleship process, that’s a very interesting statement. What would maybe one or two of those be that you really wanna see happen at Redeemer Burbank?

Turner: Well, I think that in Acts 29, we have our convictions around gospel centrality, the sovereignty of God, and those things. And then we’re also very activistic. It’s a bunch of church planters. And so we go from the theology to the activism right away. And I think sometimes we mobilize before we catechize. So we start sending people out into the lost world without teaching them the faith.

And so I think this way, this time around, I’m gonna put a lot more intention on the front end of catechizing people, catechizing the whole church, before we send out. And so the model that I’m using, and I don’t think the model is the important part. I think the important part is catechizing before you mobilize. But the model that I think I wanna use is a process that doesn’t go just…

We have this process in a lot of Acts 29 churches, you’ve got Sunday gatherings, and then you have community groups and missional communities or whatever you have, gospel communities. And that’s a huge jump for unbelievers to make. They come on Sunday, they meet Jesus, and then it’s like, “Now you need to go to somebody’s house and get in a circle.” Man, it’s like, “Wow, that’s a huge jump.”

And then we send them into that in a conversation sort of setting when they haven’t even learned the basics of the faith. So I think I wanna build a process that has catechism as an in-between that will serve as both a leadership development tool to teach people theology, do some theological development. And then also, it will teach people the basics of the faith so that when they do get into one of these communities, smaller communities, they have some equipment to work with as well. So I think that that’s… I’ll let you know how it goes.

Merida: More follow up on that. Will you teach that or is that?

Turner: Mm-mm.

Merida: Okay. So you’re gonna do, you’re gonna invest your time. We have limited energy as old guys. So preaching and that kind of discipleship…

Turner: Exactly.

Merida: …piece.

Turner: Yeah, I think that that’s… That’s another thing I learned about.

Merida: What does that look like? Is it in the midweek?

Turner: Yeah. What I’m gonna do is I’m probably gonna do, so I’ll preach in the morning, and then, you know, I’m at a church now. For the past several years I was preaching three, four services a Sunday. Now I just preach one.

Merida: It’s glorious.

Turner: If you just preach one, I’m like, “Now, what do I do?” So I think what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna do like, service, some sort of lunch sort of thing a couple of times a month. And then catechism. I’m gonna use the New City Catechism. I wanna use the Heidelberg catechism, but the language is a little… So I’m probably gonna use the New City Catechism and just begin doing that.

And I feel like that’s a good use of my time because that’s where I’m gifted and I feel like I can be the most help to people. And I think that there’s another piece to it too that I think we don’t talk about enough, is pastoral presence. Especially when you’re preaching, you’re planting, you’re doing all these things, people really need our presence. They not only need our teaching, they need our…

There’s something that happens when we’re in the presence of another person who’s godly, and we absorb things that we don’t absorb other ways. And somebody who’s more mature in the faith, I don’t know about you, I don’t remember as a young Christian hungering to be around the people that were mature in the faith. I just wanted to see how they did life and how they… And so I wanna try and get as much of my presence to people as possible.

Merida: Did you feel like that was an impossibility at Living Stones?

Turner: Yeah. Because…

Merida: Did the distance really impact you?

Turner: Yes.

Merida: Emotionally, psychologically?

Turner: Yeah. I feel like that was part of the journey, is I think I’m a pastor. And I’m not a CEO of a complex organization, which is what Living Stones became. And the guy that’s gonna take my place at Living Stones is much better at those sorts of things.

Merida: Good work, man. It’s good work. What kind of groundwork you said you’re laying right now at the church? So let’s talk to the guy who’s, he’s young, he’s a planter, but he’s gonna find himself in a similar position in 10, 15 years or whatever, or maybe guys are there right now? What is some of that groundwork you’re laying and help us think?

Turner: So if somebody, they’re eventually gonna transition in 15, 20 years, I think that what I learned is this. Leadership development, giving that pastoral presence, especially Paul talks about, “Entrust these things to the faithful so they’ll be able to teach others also.” Looking for those people and investing in them. And part of the reason why I’m able to leave Living Stones in a healthy place is because I invested a lot in leadership development over the years.

So we did things like 6 in the morning, Pastor School. We’re going through “Lectures To My Students” by Spurgeon. And we’re going through all these different books and theology, and I’m teaching them how to preach and that sort of thing. I did a preaching cohort. Interesting, the last couple of years, I invested a lot in preachers, not even knowing I was leaving, but I just invested in developing preachers the last couple of years.

Other things I would have… I’d have lunch on Thursday for men who were not in full-time ministry, that were businessmen and that sort of thing, and I would just invest in them from a leadership perspective. Well, now a lot of those men are becoming elders at Living Stones. So, leadership development, leadership development, leadership development, throughout all those years put me in a place where I could transition without hurting the church, I think.

Merida: Harvey Turner, Pastor of Redeemer Burbank, and one of my best friends. We got to spend, we even celebrated our birthdays this past year together.

Turner: Yeah, man.

Merida: We got to get that back on the calendar.

Turner: That’s right. We got to go back to Wittenberg.

Merida: We’ve got to, we’ve got to. One of the best times of my life was Harvey and I led a little tour of Wittenberg, which was epic. So thanks for being on the podcast, brother. The listeners can follow you guys. You have a website at Redeemer Burbank?

Turner: Yeah. Rebuilding the website right now, but yes. Got a website and then I’m on all the social media stuff too.

Merida: Super, man. Thanks for giving us some time.

Turner: All right, man. Thanks.

As church planters, we should make it our prayer to be able to say with Paul, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

We’ve all received this ministry from the Lord Jesus: to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. And sometimes testifying to God’s great gospel means leaving the church we planted, led, and poured ourselves into. Naturally, this can be painful, but it’s worth it for the sake of God’s glory among the lost. Seeing new churches established, and seeing existing churches revitalized, is a beautiful thing.

But how do we actually do this? And how do we know if it’s indeed right to leave one church in order to either plant another or lead an existing one? Today, I’m excited to have Harvey Turner with me on the podcast. Harvey has recently done this himself. He left the church he planted and led for about 20 years in order to lead Redeemer Burbank, and he did this in his 40s.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.