By Jim Tune
I recently heard a church planting consultant tell a story about seal rehabilitation. Apparently the average cost for dry cleaning a seal and reintroducing it to the wilds after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was $80,000. At a special ceremony, two of the most expensively rehabilitated animals were released into the wilds amid cheers and applause from onlookers. Less than a minute later, in full view of all those in attendance, a killer whale came up and ate both of them!
This experience is well understood in church planting circles, as many planters face a similar fate. They’re prepared, they’ve been invested in by a parent church or equipped by an association. They have been commissioned with prayer, encouraging words, and cheers, only to go out into a church planting situation and be immediately swallowed up! Church planters need to be especially prepared for their release into the wild.
In 2001 I planted Churchill Meadows Christian Church in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. The success of this plant is widely known. Less widely known was my own deep personal struggle to survive the demands and pressures of such a challenge.
For a while I felt false—amid the celebrations, high-fives, and pats on the back, I harbored my own little secret—I was being swallowed up! Swallowed up by fatigue. Swallowed up by the pressure to continue to “deliver the goods.” I had significant and prolonged periods of discouragement during our first year—a year in which by all measurable data our new church plant was booming.
Our opening-day crowd of 459 people was unprecedented in Canadian church planting history. Offerings and finances were strong and growing by 40 percent per quarter. With 65 baptisms in the first 12 months we were averaging 1.25 baptisms per week.
My church planting association singled me out as a success, but I frequently felt like I was hanging on by a thread. I was all over the map emotionally; exhilarated one moment, depressed and overwhelmed the next. For the most part I kept this hidden, but inwardly I was saying to myself, “If it’s always going to be this hard, do I really want to spend my life this way?” Let’s face it, a roller coaster is fun for three minutes, but not as a lifestyle!
So what kept me in the game? Grace. Grace from God and grace from people, along with a few essential principles that I got mostly sorted out before I ever planted. Most of these principles hold true for all preachers, but for church planters the following principles are essential.
First, an unshakeable conviction that God has called you to this work. In other words, calling matters! A clear sense of call will keep you in the game when every bone in your body cries out, “Quit!” It provides staying power and creates confidence. There is an incredible sense of reassurance and security in the midst of adversity when your call is certain.
Studies show that half of those leading failed church plants were uncertain about their call to church planting in the first place! An unshakeable conviction that God has called you to plant will act as a shield around your life, deflecting Satan’s darts of discouragement. It will shield you from escapist thoughts when other attractive employment offers are tempting you.
There is, of course, a mystical component to the call that begins and ends with God. God’s part is to initiate, invite, stir up, position, and intervene. The leader’s part is to listen, pray, seek counsel, respond, and then order or reorder life around that call.
My own call to church planting was “co-discerned.” In other words, my wife, Claudia, shared in my calling and was equally committed to it. She did not require coaxing or persuasion. Claudia sensed that God was leading us to plant a church and make the sacrifices required. Our call was also confirmed through independent assessment involving professional counselors and seasoned church planters.
This experience of the personal call, combined with professional assessment and spousal confirmation, energized and emboldened my sense of being set apart by God to plant a church. Did I get discouraged? Often. Tired? Incredibly. Did I quit? No.
Next is the discernment to know whose church you’re planting. Chances are, if God has called you, he has called you to be yourself. The church you plant will be his church, filtered and expressed through your unique combination of vision, gifts, and personality.
I’ve noticed a tendency among planters to want to plant someone else’s church.
Bill Hybels and Rick Warren have influenced an entire generation of baby boomer preachers and planters. While Hybels is an exceptional leader, his autocratic style may or may not work with your staff or launch team. Warren is a master of church growth, but unless you’re planting in Orange County, California, “Saddleback Sam” isn’t likely to visit your church anytime soon! “Postmodern” planters may attempt to copy the ministries of Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll and become frustrated when the Mars Hill phenomenon doesn’t thrive in their setting.
I have seen church planters fail because they were determined to re-create the ministry of their favorite Christian leader, only to discover that they lack the gift mix or local context that enabled that model to thrive elsewhere. They become like David, trying to put on Saul’s armor.
My advice? Apply the principles of others where appropriate, but allow ministry to express itself in a way that is uniquely you. No planter or pastor needs the added pressure of being someone they’re not, or living up to a set of unreal expectations. Authenticity and the satisfaction derived through the creative expression of my unique gifts and personality kept me in the game and freed me to enjoy myself.
Finally, what the experts say is true: Planting a church is hard work—expect challenges! Dean Pense often told church planting candidates, “If you can do anything else, you ought to do it.” Church planting will test your endurance, challenge your theology, keep you up at night, and strain your marriage.
Before we planted, Claudia and I served an established congregation for nearly seven years. Over that time we grew to love the people in our church. Claudia especially had close relationships with other women who would be there for her in a supportive role. When we left to plant Churchill Meadows, those relationships became much less accessible. Our move to a new community meant personal support and encouragement was no longer close at hand.
The careful stewardship of a limited project budget required us to house the church offices in our home. In fact, our house became a center of activities ranging from band practice to drama rehearsals to storage of our portable church supplies between Sundays. The pace of life, long hours, and lack of privacy in our home took its toll on us in many different ways. Boundaries got fuzzy. Marital tension mounted. Increasingly my day off got squeezed out. Crisis-mode management became our new lifestyle.
Things have improved since then. Four years later we are still married and still in the church planting business! We have struggled to restore healthy boundaries and reclaim our home. While the pace of life is still very fast, we have learned to carve out regular days off and vacations.
I would en-courage all po-tential planters to answer the following questions before planting: Is my spouse as called to this as I am? (Agreement is not enough. A shared conviction about church planting is essential.) Do I have reasonable expectations and a clear vision for what God is calling me to do? Have I set boundaries to protect my home and my marriage? Do I have a coach, mentor, or management team member who is concerned with my personal care and development? Am I willing to work harder than I’ve ever worked without giving up?
Church planting can be gratifying, fulfilling, and even fun. The exhilaration of seeing hundreds of spiritual wanderers come to Christ is a great privilege. But this privilege is reserved (at least over the long term) for those whose call is certain and footing is firm! Adversity, marital strain, and fatigue are, to some degree, inevitable, but successful release into the “wilds” of church planting is possible through God’s grace poured out upon a persevering and prepared planter!
Jim Tune ministers with Churchill Meadows Christian Church in West Toronto, Canada, and serves as director of the national church planting organization Impact Canada.