As I reflect on my church planting experience at Mountain Lake Church in Cumming, Georgia, I am often amazed at how much God did and how much I learned through the process – and the ups and downs! As I reflect on everything that’s happened in my life and the lessons I’ve learned, here are my top 5 lessons.
1. The most difficult person to lead is myself.
As a pastor, the tendency is to think we need to spend all of our time changing the world by changing everyone around me and leading them. I must do that. However, what I’ve learned is that the best way to change the world is to change me and lead myself. This includes what we call “nurturing vitality.” Paying close attention to my own physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational vitality. Mountain Lake grew as I grew. Discipline is probably the most important characteristic of the spiritual leader in a church. Mountain Lake continued to grow as I continued to grow. I must lead myself.
2. It takes extraordinary courage to be the leader.
Followers make suggestions. Leaders make decisions. The senior pastor must possess a measure of courage and confidence that can only come from God. We must relentlessly protect the vision of the church and not allow it to be highjacked. I call it “being mean about the vision.” I’m not talking about being mean to people. Jesus wasn’t mean to people. He was mean about protecting the mission God had given Him and would not allow anyone or anything to get in the way or sidetrack Him. We must also be willing to have courageous conversations and make tough, sometime unpopular, decisions with our church and our staffs, if we are going to go where God is leading us. A leader must be secure in his own skin and be willing to please God over people no matter what. The senior pastor must choose daily to be respected over liked. That takes a ton of courage!
3. The Senior Pastor can only lead the church so far by himself.
The senior pastor must build a team. No, not just any team; a great team. If he doesn’t, it will stop the church from reaching its God-given potential. At a certain level, as a matter of fact at every level, of a church’s growth, the senior pastor must evaluate the team around him and the seats they sit in on the bus and raise the bar of the team. A church is not as good as its preaching and music. I know of some great churches who have average music and teaching. A church is only as good as the team that leads it. I say to think team: all the time; every day; every decision. Consistently thinking “team” will move the pastor to constantly examine and reposition his dream team for maximum Kingdom effectiveness. Mountain Lake is what it is today because of an extraordinary team. It will be everything God wants it to be in the future based on the team God leads it with.
4. Contemporary or traditional doesn’t matter.
I used to think that God wanted to use contemporary, cutting edge churches to change the world. I’ve learned that God wants to use healthy churches (regardless of music style or dress) to change the world. I know some traditional churches God is using greatly right now in our world, and I know some cutting edge ones that are too. I also know some dead cutting edge churches and many dead traditional ones. Health is what matters. Acts 2 is what matters. Not music style or video elements.
5. Vocational ministry is only for the called.
I’m really not knocking other careers and occupations when I say that I believe that vocational ministry is the hardest job there is. Before you say “Yeah, but …” let me unpack it. I’ve been in the professional world. I worked in real estate for three years before entering ministry. I know what it’s like out there. I have never questioned myself and my abilities as much as I have since entering the ministry. I never felt the emotional weight I feel in vocational ministry.
Think about all the hats a Pastor wears: counselor; therapist; cheerleader; prophet; preacher; marry-er; bury-er; CEO; CFO; real estate investor; board member; boss; friend; and tons of others, depending on the need of the day.
Above all, there’s the spiritual warfare aspect of my job. Satan knows if he can take me down, he can damage the faith of thousands of people. Would you say I am a target? Would you say he wants me out of the ministry? Would you say he wants me discouraged? Lazy? Prideful? Undisciplined? Unloving? Unfaithful? You bet he does. And, you can bet he’s got a host of demons assigned to me and every other pastor, because he can do a ton of damage through us.
All of this is why, as pastors, we must nail down our call. Now. Yesterday. If you’re thinking about planting a church, do not plant a church unless you know that you know that you know that God is calling you to do so. If you’re in vocational ministry now or pastoring a church and you don’t know that you know that you know that God called you into vocational ministry, do yourself and the church a favor: quit. Resign. Get out. Now. It’s only a matter of time before you quit anyway. Here’s what Jesus said:
“A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will leave the sheep because they aren’t his and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he is merely hired and has no real concern for the sheep” (John 10:12-13, NLT).
You must be called or you will run away when times get tough. If I did not know for certain that God had called me to do what I’m doing right now, I would have quit dozens of times. You will, too.
However, if we know we have been called, it means we know we can’t quit, even when it’s hard. I can’t do anything else. I’m called! Anything else would be disobedient to God. We must hold tightly to the call. When we’re called, this is God’s prayer for us:
“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NIV).
So, those are my top 5 lessons that I’ve learned after planting and growing a healthy, thriving church. What would you add to the list? Which of these are toughest for you?
Published June 3, 2017