Sometimes I don’t like getting advice, even when I ask for it.
Our church recently celebrated five years of life, and this milestone of God’s sustaining grace has made me reflective about the path our church has taken.
I’ve been particularly mindful of the advice I didn’t listen to, that I now wish I had. So, here’s some advice I wish I had heeded:
1. Listen when people tell you where you are weak
In the arena of church planting, entrepreneurial machismo is in ample supply. What I mean by that is few planters will say they think they are better than other churches, but the dirty secret is this: We all kinda think we’re God’s gift to our area. We look at other churches, pastors and even other church planters and secretly think, “I am way better than that guy, and my church will be so much more amazing than his.”
For sure, church planting takes a great deal of strength, but it actually doesn’t require your inherent awesomeness. You need to humble yourself, especially when people who desire to help you tell you hard things about your plan, personality, giftings etc. If you have a mentor, advisor or pastor who is pointing out areas where you need to grow before planting … listen!
Turn down the volume on your ideas, plans and dreams and turn up the volume on helpful critique. Those seeking to build you into a better planter are actually loving you well when they point out areas of weakness and opportunity for growth.
If you can’t handle someone with more experience pointing out flaws and weakness, you probably shouldn’t be planting – at least until you are humble enough to listen and take advice about your opportunities to change, adapt and grow.
2. Plant with a pastoral partner
I planted as the solo elder; I wish I hadn’t. I believe God is sovereign and will use the painful experiences of our first few years for my eternal delight in Jesus, yet I am no spiritual masochist and I wish I had waited to find a co-elder to plant with me prior to starting a church.
What makes it worse is that I was advised to find a pastoral partner before building out the plans for our church plant, but I ignored this advice. I even snarkily dismissed my mentor when he talked about Jesus sending out the disciples in pairs. I thought and probably said, “That’s not what that text means, tighten up your exegesis.” How arrogant!
It’s actually not hard to see that the Bible teaches that churches are led by a plurality of elders. Yet in church planting this basic biblical premise is downplayed or ignored.
Sometimes even with biblical ammunition. It goes something like, “Paul told Titus to appoint elders in ever town, so Titus was one church planting elder who started churches and then later raised up a plurality.” Robert Thune, in Gospel Eldership, highlights this reality, “In a church planting or pioneering missions context, one man often serves as the lone elder until other qualified men are raised up.” (p.21)
Yes, I get that. I actually agree with the reasoning, but are you a Titus? Maybe? Maybe not? Furthermore, just because something is done “often” doesn’t mean it has to be done that way, or is best done that way.
Listening to this advice may not have spared me painful situations, in fact, I believe painful situations certainly still would have come. Yet I would have had at least one other pastor to pray with me, speak with me, to fulfill the command of Galatians 6:2 – “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
And brothers, if you’re married, and you are the lone elder, there is someone else who will inevitably bear the pain. This piece of advice may not only shield you, but also may be a means of shielding the one you love.
In mercy and grace, the Lord has given our church solid elders, but those first years were brutal and lonely.
3. Be comfortably uncomfortable
Theologically, I’m a Calvinist. Ecclesiologically, I am a Baptist. Knowing those two realities, you could probably narrow down my tribe, but suffice it to say I am one who has strong doctrinal convictions and a tendency to think I have the right biblical answers – and I can be arrogant (see #1 and #2).
Early on, I thought it the height of foolishness to plant a church with a messy ecclesiology. We needed a robust Statement of Faith, church membership structure, elder pipeline and constitution and by-laws. No activity of the church could happen without clear structure and biblical warrant.
Now a healthy church does have all of those things. But a church plant is an infant, a church in the making. If we are reaching the lost who do not know Christ, or immature Christians who don’t know their Bibles, expecting them to understand the orthodox ecclesiology is a high bar. Furthermore, expecting that knowledge to come easily and quickly is a bit starry eyed.
Church plants not only are new, they are messy. I couldn’t stand the mess and I wanted to make sure anything our church members did had structure and approval (by me, the lone elder). Even when an elder statesman in the church planting game, who had planted churches many times over, advised me to be a bit more fast and loose and try more things outside of my comfort zone, I would (quite full of myself) fire back a favorite quote of mine, “But what you win them with is what you win them to.”
I believe that statement is true, but I used it as a means of control and I wanted the church to be my best church now. Feeling uncomfortable shouldn’t have been something to avoid, it should have been a normal part of the church’s beginning. In fact, it was my inability to flex that actually brought about more discomfort in the first years than had I been a bit more flexible, a bit less rigid.
Here’s the point: There are more pieces of advice I have ignored, wisdom I have shunned and ideas I have dismissed, and there are some pieces of advice I am glad I did not take. This article isn’t to convince you to plant a church by committee, but rather to weigh the wise words of counsel from others carefully and slowly.
In one word, listen.
This hard-headed church planter didn’t and, though God’s grace has been shown in my life and in the church I serve, I wish I’d remembered the old adage: “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk.”
Published December 20, 2021