Crushing Expectations in Church Planting 

By Matt Felton

Pressure points in church planting conspire to overwhelm us. We must draw these things up to the surface and examine the sources – healthy and unhealthy – before God.

“Matt, what in the world is going on?”

My family and I were driving from the latest Church Planting Residency session to my brother’s house in Raleigh, where we were staying the night. I’d just burst out in anger toward one of my kids. Then, seconds after bursting out in anger at my wife, she asked the question. Her tone was more concern than chastisement: “You’re not normal. What’s going on?”

I did my best to describe what I was feeling. I don’t remember what I said – something about my heart feeling like it was about to come out of my chest – but I remember my wife’s response: “You’re describing anxiety.”

Anxiety surrounded me in ministry, but I’d never personally dealt with it, at least in this form, until that day. Somewhere between normal worry and a panic attack. And just where was this uninvited guest coming from?

A couple months before, I’d moved my family halfway across the country to plant a church – something I had never imagined I would do. And as the honeymoon of naïve excitement (new city, new adventure, all the time in the world) began to wane before the new realities, pressures started to mount. Evidently, they mounted pretty high.

So here I was. The expectations hardened into pressure points along the following lines:

  • Money – I left a very comfortable job at a very established church, for a job that didn’t exist, where I’d have to fundraise for an indeterminate period of time. Few things sounded worse to me than fundraising!
  • Gifting – I’m supposed to be gifted at this (at least, that’s what all the dear older ladies repeatedly told me at my last church). How humiliating is this going to be to prove all of them wrong?!
  • Career – My resume was entirely ministry. From college to seminary to church. If I fail at this, am I done with ministry forever? Am I doomed to a hard reset at the very bottom of a new career field in my mid-30s? Did I just commit career suicide?
  • Partnership – I’d convinced a pastor-friend to join me on this insane venture. What if this didn’t work? What if we were the wrong fit? What if I had to fire him before we even started? What if he had to fire me? Who even gets to fire who on the “staff” of a church that doesn’t yet exist?

Now you may be reading those things and thinking, “Why in the world did you think it was a good idea to plant a church?” And I guess my answer would be, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking!” I’m glad we’re on the same page!

I’m sure there were other pressure points I’m not even aware of, but they all conspired together to overwhelm me. The best thing I did was to draw these things up to the surface and examine them – before God. I didn’t do it as a healthy exercise; I did it in desperation.

That’s what I’d like to help you do now: Examine some of our expectations and especially where they come from. I’m interested in sources – healthy and unhealthy.

Unhealthy Sources of Expectations. These all are closely related to each other, but from different angles. Pastors like me are prone to drink from these wells. Each is dangerous to the soul.

  • Trophy Stories. I’m convinced that every church planter has the same “disease.” We’ve all devoured church planter stories. You read two types of stories: failure stories and trophy stories. This is where the disease kicks in. A rational man would look at both, measure both and come to a sober perspective about his own prospects. But we aren’t rational; we’re diseased. And our disease is a bizarre ability to exclusively identify with the Trophy Guys. We don’t say it aloud. We wouldn’t. But inside we hear the great success story and think, “Yeah, that sounds about like me.” We’re insane!
  • Comparisons. This is pretty cliché by now, and for good reason. Church planters can live on other church planters’ social media. How many people are coming to their church? Also, we can see right through their crafty picture-angle tricks (You know what I’m talking about, that angle of the room which makes 50 people look like it could be 200). If I drink from the well of comparison, one of two things is going to happen: Either I’m going to see somebody else’s apparent success, feel envy and rivalry and lose gratitude for what God is wonderfully doing in my life and in my church. Or, maybe even worse, I’m going to see somebody else’s apparent struggle and feel a surge of pride and self-trust swelling within.
  • Social Media. This obviously overlaps with the first two, but I just want to point out that it’s not exactly real. I remember picking up on a bizarre correlation during my first year of planting: (A) Every social media account I’d see projected great success and joy (God is on the move!) (B) I’d attend church planter gatherings and hear again and again how hard things were. Many struggling, some ready to quit. (A) and (B) often were the same people. But (A) was social media and (B) was a human being. (B) was reality and (A) was something south of that.

Healthy Sources of Expectations. So where else can we look? We’ve all been catechized to drink from the wells above. Are there any other options out there? I offer you three healthier sources to drink from.

  • The Biblical Story. Church planting has its own Prosperity Gospel (follow X steps and, if you’re gifted, God will shower you with Y blessings). The Bible is wonderfully honest – including about churches, pastors and even church planters. Listen carefully to the stories of Acts and the varied testimonies of Paul, perhaps history’s most prolific planter. If I let the biblical story shape my expectations, I’m going to be expect:
      • Sufferings and persecutions (Acts 20:22-23, 2 Cor. 11:23-30)
      • Church-related anxieties and sorrows (2 Cor. 11:28)
      • Both reception and rejection of gospel preaching (Acts 13:48-52)
      • God’s abiding presence through it all (2 Tim. 4:16-17)
  • Trusted Support Systems. When a young marriage encounters its first significant conflict, it makes a big difference whether those around them encourage reconciliation and mutual love and respect or choose sides and pour more gasoline on the fire. Healthy marriages need great support systems. So do church planters! Planting can bring many new relationships and introduce many new voices, many of them a blessing. Some, however, can be unhelpful. I love swapping stories and talking shop with other church planters, but how easily that can turn into a cesspool of comparison and rivalry (often after the fact)! I need trusted voices and relationships around me. Wise and mature pastors. Family. Trusted friends. Since I started this church, my dad has never once started or moved a conversation to “So how big is your church now?” That’s really healthy for me. We all need that. Find those voices and turn up their volume.
  • The Last Day. I don’t mean your last day at your church. I don’t even mean your last day alive on this earth. I mean the Last Day, where we meet the Lord, our Judge. The Bible often forecasts that day and what we should expect of it. That day is meant to shape today for the Christian – including the pastor. Among other things:
      • We should expect to be judged for our deeds (Rom. 2:6)
      • We should expect to give an account for those souls we’ve pastored (Heb. 13:17)
      • We should expect to be pardoned and received with joy, not on account of our church successes or even on the account of our pastoral faithfulness, but by nothing else than the mercies of Christ and through His cleansing blood. (1 Cor. 1:8)

When I think of that day, it reshapes my priorities for today. It recasts people from numbers into persons with names and souls. It recasts Sunday morning from a contest into a preview of eternity. It recasts me  from a performer into a son. From an entrepreneur-builder into a worshipper. It reshapes my entire vision.

Expectations matter. In life, in marriage and in church planting. Examine your sources and may God help us to choose wisely!

Published March 14, 2022

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Matt Felton

Matt Felton grew up in North Carolina and, after college (NCSU) and seminary (SEBTS), entered the world of pastoring. After a brief detour to complete a pastoral internship in Washington, D.C., Matt headed for Oklahoma City, where he spent the next 6 years as an associate preaching pastor at Henderson Hills Baptist Church, while also overseeing the pastoral residency. Matt is married to Natalie and they have four daughters: Harper, Emersyn, Iris, and Ivy.