Finding the Person Who Can Plant

By Justin Horey

One of the most popular axioms in church planting is that new churches are the most effective means of reaching the lost. It is often the first defense given to the skeptic who questions the need for more new churches in North America.

10_Horey_JNBut among church planting leaders, another idea is just as prevalent: the most important factor in determining the success of a church is the church planter himself.

Brent Foulke, mobilization executive at Stadia, puts it this way: “The single most indicative factor for a church plant’s survival and health is the capable leadership of the church planter. Hiring the right person to lead trumps every other factor we can identify.”

Thomas F. Jones Jr., who serves with Foulke at Stadia, goes even farther: “There can be millions of dollars available with the most cutting-edge strategies in a great targeted area, but if the leader is wrong, the plant will fail.”

But wait! First Corinthians 3:7 says, in part, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Isn’t all of this emphasis on the church planter misplaced, even unbiblical?

George Johnson, executive director of the Christian Evangelistic Association (CEA), doesn’t think so. He believes effective church planters are endowed by God with what he calls “The E Gene”—evangelism and entrepreneurialism. When it comes to identifying people with those traits, he said simply, “Past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.”

While God alone gives the growth in any church, new or old, Johnson and many other church planting leaders argue it is wise to hire only church planters who have proven themselves to be effective evangelists. In fact, the practice is consistent with the apostle Paul’s admonition to use our “different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6).

Jim Penhollow, who led the church planting ministry of East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and now serves with Johnson at CEA, said, “We’re looking for people with character, competency, and call. That’s a tough thing sometimes.”


Core Competencies

So how can an evangelistic association or church planting organization hope to identify leaders who are likely to thrive as new church planters? R. Paige Mathews, a director for the Center for Ministry Assessment, said, “Effective leadership in church planting is directly related to an individual’s ability within a specific set of core competencies. These core competencies, 13 of them, were originally researched and established by Charles Ridley in the 1980s in a study that crossed denominational lines.” (See sidebar, p. 23.)

Prior to Ridley’s research, hiring a church planter was much like hiring any other ministry position—and sometimes even less systematic. Johnson recalls an approach known as “the pizza test,” in which a church planting executive would evaluate the prospective planter over an informal meal like pizza and “decide if he liked him.” (Johnson jokes that the approach was sometimes enhanced by sharing the pizza with the executive’s wife and seeking her opinion on the potential church planter, as well.)

Foulke points out, not surprisingly, that methods like those just didn’t work. “A church planter must create culture in a new church. This is different than working within an existing culture or even changing an established culture.”

Today, Ridley’s core competencies are used across denominations to evaluate, or assess, potential church planters. Once again, there is consensus in the church planting community about these core competencies. Mathews said, “Six of the 13 are considered to be nonnegotiable. One of these, a desire and heart for lost people, is absolutely paramount.”


Not a Simple Process

But determining whether or not a given individual possesses the core competencies is not a simple process. The Center for Ministry Assessment, where Mathews serves, provides a component called the Church Planting Assessment Center (CPAC) to accomplish this, using techniques pioneered by Thomas Graham, a psychologist, in the 1980s.

Graham was instrumental in developing assessment centers for the Peace Corps and first applied the technique to church planters at the request of the Presbyterian Church in America. Over the past 30 years, Graham’s methods for assessment (and especially his ideas about assessment centers) have been adopted by a wide range of denominations seeking to improve the selection of church planters.

Johnson and the CEA rely on an assessment system known as Church Planter Profiles (CPP), developed by Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas. That process measures four categories: church planting experience, entrepreneurial leadership, ministry experience, and relational evangelism. Johnson believes the last category is the most important.

“We start churches for the purpose of reaching lost people,” Johnson said. “The higher the failure rate, the fewer people we reach. The more healthy, successful churches we plant, the more people we reach.”

Both CPP and CPAC use online preassessment tools to arrive at a basic understanding of a candidate’s aptitude. In CPAC’s case, if the candidate shows promise, he is invited to a three-day assessment event. Before the candidate arrives onsite, a detailed questionnaire, references, and a psychological test all must be completed.

Though the methods may differ, all modern church planting assessments are multidisciplinary.

“Rather than relying on a single technique, say interviewing, or a singular professional discipline like psychological profiling,” Foulke said, “the best assessment processes use multiple techniques.” Typically, interviewing, professional psychological evaluation, interactive simulation modules, performance evaluation, and peer feedback are all employed to provide a comprehensive assessment.

An important consequence of this approach is that assessments do not depend on the skill of an interviewer or change with the bias of a single evaluator. CPAC’s assessment, for example, asks the candidate (and spouse, if applicable) to voluntarily engage in a series of tasks and tests—all of which are observed by a large group of professional evaluators. Mathews likened the process to looking at the same item through multiple lenses. “Each lens is designed to reveal a different aspect of character, competency, maturity, and marriage satisfaction,” he said.

A typical assessment lasts three to five days, and includes exercises and observations. A clinical psychologist interviews each candidate, exploring answers to the questionnaire and other documents, and comments by the candidate’s references. The prospective planter then undergoes a series of group modules that allow assessors to observe the candidate working with and leading others. (CPAC also employs both the DiSC personality profile test and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter to evaluate behavioral and relational tendencies.)

Candidates are typically asked to preach a sample sermon or teach a mock lesson. Finally, the candidates form teams and present mock church planting proposals to “seek funding” from a group of assessors who play the role of elders or missions team members.

Assessors observe prospective planters throughout the process at all times and in all activities, including meal times. In addition, the candidates evaluate each other several times during the experience, giving the assessors an idea of how each candidate is relating to his peers.


The Result: a Plan

Regardless of the system used, candidates walk away from the assessment process with a detailed recommendation and development plan. Not everyone who enters a church planting assessment is advised to plant a church. But church planting leaders are quick to shy away from a “pass/fail” characterization of the process.

“We do not prefer a ‘pass/fail’ mentality about assessment,” Foulke said. “Each candidate couple receives a development plan, whether they are affirmed to plant immediately or strongly discouraged from planting. Approximately 70 percent of candidates who make it to a complete formal assessment are affirmed for planting within the two years after their assessment.”

Johnson said a nearly equal percentage of candidates have been approved to plant by the CEA in the last 10 years. Like Foulke, he said, “Healthy assessment isn’t ‘red light/green light.’ Sometimes the timing just isn’t right. Everyone is blessed by the process, but not everyone is recommended.”

“Assessment, ideally, is a win/win situation,” Penhollow said. “Whether the candidate moves forward with starting a new church or not, the goal is to make them more effective in ministry.”

Of course, church planting organizations find it important to assess the effectiveness of their assessments. Of CPAC, Mathews said, “I believe our greatest strength now comes from having done assessment for over 20 years and the quality of our observer teams. We now have a large pool of assessment observers who themselves were effectively assessed years ago, started successful churches, and have continued to grow them over time. They bring their wealth of hands-on experience to the evaluation of new candidates.”

Foulke was more pragmatic: “Stadia’s track record of churches that are sustainable after five years is over 90 percent. This is consistent with the fact that our assessment resources have risen to a very high level. Ten or more years ago, sustainability rates were 50 percent in a good system.”

Like Foulke, Jones credits the survival rate of Stadia’s churches in large part to its thorough assessments, and he cautioned against underestimating the importance of accurate assessments.

“Church planting organizations that don’t pay attention to assessment will have a low success rate,” Jones said.

Today, church planting organizations across denominations are working together to improve assessments to make them more effective. CPAC, for example, has participated in two research projects that have contributed to further study by Ridley and the recent book Wired to Plant, available at

Johnson pointed out that there are some things a church planting assessment does not cover—like doctrine—and that there is currently no method available for assessing ministry teams. But the biggest downside is cost; an assessment can easily top $3,000. Said Johnson, “The process needs to be less expensive in order for us to plant a larger number of churches.”

Ultimately, church planting leaders agree that the most important result of assessment is the final outcome, as Jones put it succinctly: “Are successful new churches being started, and have candidates been helped in ministry because of the development plan they received?”


Justin Horey serves as vice president of marketing with Church Development Fund in Irvine, California.

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