How Residencies Prepare Emerging Church Leaders

By Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird

How and why residencies have become standard operating practice for all of NewThing’s new church planters.

When you think about a residency program, you might envision doctors in training, honing their craft under the tutelage of seasoned physicians. For NewThing (www.newthing.org, an international church-planting network birthed out of the Chicago-based Community Christian Church, www.communitychristian.org), a 9- to 12-month residency is required for any emerging leader who wants to start a church in NewThing’s network. It’s standard operating procedure for all of their new church planters.

01_ferguson2_jn“For us, residency is the chute before you launch a new church,” says NewThing director Patrick O’Connell. “It’s the final step before you plant a new church, not the place to determine whether you’re called to plant.”

O’Connell sees one distinctive that sets NewThing’s residency apart from other intensive leadership development programs: Instead of remaining in the local church, like Community Christian’s fold to fulfill a leadership role there, some of the church’s best leaders are pushed out of the nest, and new churches always result.

“A lot of churches develop really great leaders through residencies and hang onto them,” O’Connell says. “They plug them into existing ministries or into an existing campus. Those are good things; we celebrate that. But the purest essence of a church-planting residency is to start something brand new.”

Fishing in Two Pools

That’s the way it’s been for New-Thing since it was started 11 years ago as a catalyst for “a movement of reproducing churches.” Reproduction was a primary part of Community Christian’s DNA from the beginning, and NewThing’s residency has been a key driver of that vision.

“We want to plant new churches that plant new churches that plant new churches,” O’Connell says. “Our focus has always been on multiplication.”

O’Connell fishes in two pools for new residents. “Free agents” are ministry leaders—seminary or Bible college graduates, church staff members, etc.—who connect with NewThing through conferences, books, blogs, etc.

If O’Connell had a favorite child, though, it would be those who grow up in Community Christian’s “farm system”—leaders who come to Christ at the church, grow into ministry roles, and get bitten by the church-planting bug.

“We are committed to fishing in both of those ponds,” O’Connell says. “But we are deeply convinced that the next generation of leaders in the church can be found in our congregation because of our focus on reproducing at every level.”

Three Phases and Two Focus Points

NewThing’s 250 current residents are dispersed among other churches that are part of the NewThing network, and all of the residents are being mentored by senior pastors or ministry leaders in those congregations around the world.

All residents go through three phases of development at their pace:

• “Unlearning” things they thought they knew about ministry that might make them ineffective church planters. “Just because you did some kind of ministry doesn’t mean you will make a great church planter,” O’Connell says.

• “Learning” the key elements to getting a successful church off the ground—leading teams, reproducing, teaching, communicating, vision casting, and fund-raising.

• “Sending”—reproducing out of their current role and finishing well, leading a new team of people, fund-raising, and moving onto the church-planting field.

“We find the process usually takes at least nine months, but it could run longer,” O’Connell says. “It’s up to the speed of the leader, what they need to learn to be ready, and the learning plan they put together to prepare.”

NewThing residents go through a two-pronged development process. The bulk of the time is spent in life-on-life ministry at the field location, with an additional three hours a week in a classroom environment around a 40-week curriculum. Residents can earn master’s degree credits for classes from Wheaton (Illinois) College, and NewThing started a leadership training center to centralize some of the learning modules.

“We think it makes for a fantastic residency to live in the intentionality of doing life and engaging in ministry and being in the classroom,” O’Connell says. “But so much is dependent on the leader in the field being willing to mentor the residents and involve them in reproducing ministry in their setting.

“If we have a great classroom experience, but a poor experience in the field of ministry, it’s all for naught,” O’Connell says.

Some Vital Lessons Learned

Since NewThing has been around for many years, it can pass along lessons it has learned to churches that would like to follow a similar path.

For starters, O’Connell says there have been times when residents needed a longer incubation period and they planted a church too early. “They didn’t have the time and space to learn what they needed to learn before we sent them out,” he points out.

NewThing has also learned there are advantages to bringing all residents together regularly in a peer-to-peer learning environment. Also, the money equation is always a balancing act. NewThing’s residency has always been a self-funded enterprise, with some residents paid by their sponsorship congregation and some not paid. Residents are responsible for raising funds needed to plant the new church.

“We’ve never had a big pot of money to distribute to our residents,” O’Connell says. “The fund-raising piece is the first hurdle we want to see them overcome. There are advantages to not having a pile of cash, because it puts the onus on the residents. But there are some disadvantages to that as well.”

The Ultimate Aim

Through all the growth and learnings of NewThing’s 11-year-old residency program, the primary objective hasn’t changed: Produce more “Patrick O’Connells.”

O’Connell was a business leader far from God when he became a Christ follower at Community Christian. He got involved in different ministries at the church, and eventually became an apprentice who was leading ministries and then coaching others.

O’Connell and his family moved to Kansas City as a leadership resident and launched a new church there. He began coaching and training church-planting residents—including a leader named Matt Miller who started another church in Kansas City that now has two campuses and two more residents in training.

“That’s a perfect illustration of how it works—people who found their way back to God, found a ministry, got a language and a license around church planting, and made their way through the pipeline,” O’Connell says. “I never dreamed I would be a church planter or leading a church-planting organization. That’s proof God has a sense of humor.

“But I like to say I found two big things at Community—I found Jesus, and I also found my life mission.”

The article was adapted from Leadership Network Advance; it is used by permission. A free subscription to Leadership Network Advance is available at leadnet.org/update.

Dave Ferguson serves as lead pastor of Community Christian Church, provides visionary leadership for NewThing, and is an adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School. Warren Bird is director of research and intellectual capital at Leadership Network.

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10 Qualities that Make a Great Leadership Residency Program

Leadership Network conducted a survey of more than 300 churches doing internships, fellowships, and residencies. Research director Warren Bird then interviewed a number of residency-level pioneers (free download at www.leadnet.org/intern). Below are his findings about what makes the “best” leadership residency programs.

1. Committed to multiplication. Residencies replicate the DNA of the sponsor church, and the best residencies are built around what the church does best. If the church champions multiplication, the residents will also.

2. Focused on full-time ministry. Participants enter the program with clarity on specific ministry outcome vs. a more general goal of becoming more effective in ministry.

3. Already seasoned. Participants are generally older with ministry experience vs. college age or early 20s.

4. Top team oversight. The senior pastor regularly interacts with residents, while another paid staff member “owns” the program.

5. Trained trainers. The sponsoring church also invests time/energy in developing/supporting the staff, volunteers, or outside resource people who will be training the residents.

6. Support raising. Most residents must raise some or all of their financial support, demonstrating their ability to do so and putting “skin in the game.”

7. Hands-on emphasis. A majority of the residency time involves character development experiences and hands-on ministry, both with feedback; classroom time does not exceed one-third of the total program. 

8. Leadership development. Most churches indicate that leadership development is the top reason they’re offering the internship/residency program.

9. Multiple pathways. The sponsor church offers multiple levels of internship (which goes by various names) with the highest level being residency (but not always using that name) and multiple tracks for each level.

10. Next-stop overlap. The best residencies transfer seamlessly from the end of the residency into the next ministry for the resident; there has even been intentional overlap and preparation for it.

—D.F. & W.B.

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