5 Lessons from the Front Lines of Church Planting

I am the last person anyone would expect to become a church planter.  I grew up in the traditional church, majored in Religion at a denominational college, went to a denominational seminary and served three churches around the country as an ordained pastor.  This was going to be what I did for my entire career, but God had other plans, as He so often does.

He began to work in my heart and redirect my passions and opportunities to start reaching out to my neighborhood and networks in my little area of Tacoma, Washington.  In the midst of losing my job at a church due to budget shortfalls, along with planting Gather Tacoma with my co-planter, Rev. Taeler Morgan, this past year has been quite a ride, to say the least.

I. Timing

The first lesson I had to learn was about timing.  I am a bit of a planner. I like color-coded calendars and accurate task lists.  At first, I thought that I could plan my way into planting a new church community, complete with end dates for all the tasks.  While there are plenty of things that have been accomplished in a timely manner, many more of our timelines have had to be shifted and modified.  

I remember hearing at a planting conference that church planters should function more like patient gardeners, rather than neurotic salespeople.  Salespeople often are panicked about reaching their number goals, and feel pressure to convince others to follow their lead, but gardeners understand their role is to plant, feed, remove obstacles, and till the soil. It’s God’s job to actually make the plants grow.  

Transformation does not come from our efforts, but from the work of the Holy Spirit.  This image completely resonated with me; it spoke to all of the stress I was placing on myself and the pressure I felt to produce something quickly.  I began to understand and live into the reality that the process of planting would take time, and it would be up to God’s work, not just the effort I put in.  What I didn’t realize was that this new timeline would also be applied to when we actually got our plant started!  Taeler and I had made plans to begin actively working on this at least 6–7 months before we actually were able to get started, now almost a full year after I left my previous call.  

The work of the Patient Gardner began even before we officially began planting!

II. Leadership

The second lesson I have learned is about “Poly-Centric Leadership.”  The idea of sharing power is given a lot of lip-service in many churches today, but in reality the top pastor (“Lead Pastor”) ends up wielding the majority of the power in the church, whether they mean to or not.  This can be problematic on many levels—damaging to church members, as well as to the pastors themselves.  

This is precisely why Taeler and I purposely planned on planting this new church together, as co-planters, equals.  We wanted to turn away from the hierarchical, CEO-model for leading churches, and move into a new way of sharing leadership and power in the community.  This power will also be shared amongst all the other leaders in our community.  We have both take the APEST test to know what our Spiritual Giftings are for ministry (I am a Prophet-Shepherd, and Taeler is an Apostle-Teacher), and between the two of us, we have 4 out of the 5 gifts represented!  

This has made sharing leadership easier in one sense, beacause we complement each other well and fill in the gaps where the other person is weaker.  The struggle here, that we have learned over time, is that differences can also be frustrating.  While we do work well together, we also work very differently; we think differently, process differently, have different strengths and interests.  At times, when big decisions need to be made quickly, it can be cumbersome to work through it together.  This will be an ongoing benefit and challenge of doing ministry together as a team.

III. Gifting

The third lesson I have learned is connected to the APEST giftings.  As a pastor, I have taken a million personality tests and spiritual gifts inventories (Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finder, DISC), and to some degree, I think these kinds of tests can be a bit overrated.  

However, none of those have been more helpful for ministry than the APEST, learning how each one of us is wired to do ministry.  It has been the most freeing thing to discover the kind of minister I am (Prophet-Shepherd), and knowing this about myself has given me much more freedom to engage in ministry conversations with that perspective.  This is something that we will have all of our leaders understand about themselves, and hopefully they each will be able to start working in their area of giftedness with more confidence and freedom.

IV. Contact Work

The fourth lesson I have learned is the importance of a simple task—Contact Work.  Contact Work is something I learned about while still in college, as a way to minister to the youth I was working with at the time.  Meet them on their turf.  Spend time with people, living life with them—because that’s what Jesus did, and it’s the best way to build strong, authentic relationships with people.  

Living in the Pacific Northwest has its own challenges for how to do ministry, one of which is dealing with the many, many stereotypes of Christians being judgmental and hypocritical.  Too many people in this highly un-churched area will never set foot inside a church building.  But, they would come over to my house for a BBQ, or a book club meeting, or to tie flies for fly fishing.  

As part of my ministry here, I have been actively trying to build relationships with my neighbors and those in our networks (particularly the fly fishing community) and in just the past 6-7 months alone, I have had an amazing amount of deeply spiritual and deeply personal conversations with those people in my life.  People, especially in the Northwest, are looking for relationships and community, and many will seek it out anywhere they can find it (bars, sports team fans, their kids sport games).  The church has something uniquely different and incomparably authentic to offer people, if we are just willing to engage with them in real life situations.  

Our job is to build relationships, nurture community and be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in guiding us toward powerful spiritual conversations.

V. New Model

The last lesson I have learned has probably been the most impactful, even if it is the most theoretical.  During this first year of planting, Taeler and I have also been involved in an on-going training cohort.  Through this training, one of the first things we talked about was how the church needs to move away from being “The Industrial Complex” (Church As Movement, JR Woodward & Dan White).  This was the most important idea for me.  

I have been a part of too many churches and church staffs that were driven by business models and organizational charts, rather than actually being led by the Holy Spirit.  As a woman in ordained ministry, I have always struggled with this practice of looking to the business world for our advice and inspiration for how to “do church.”  The church is not a business.  Period.  And yet we struggle to find a better model for how to organize ourselves.  

Moving away from something that worked 30-50 years ago is hard to do, and yet it is exactly what needs to happen for the church to continue to grow in the future.  If the church doesn’t move away from the “Industrial Complex” model, I fear more scenes like the recent United Airlines debacle will take place.  People will be seen merely as commodities and dollar signs, rather than seeing people as valued, loved, cherished, and gifted for doing ministry for the Kingdom of God.  

This is a difficult idea to communicate to other Christians, those working inside most current church models.  It’s been hard to find ways to share our passion for this new way of doing church, that doesn’t imply insult and judge the ways so many traditional churches have been (and continue to be) functioning.  I won’t say that I have that part figured out yet, but I believe that change and transformation are desperately needed, and I am honored to be on the front lines of this challenge.  God is most definitely on the move.

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Becci Curtis-Lillie

Becci Curtis-Lillie

Becci Curtis-Lillie

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Becci Curtis-Lillie

2 Comments

  1. PaulK May 1, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for this post, Becci. It’s great to read and try to learn from your experience. Wishing you all the best. Paul

  2. Ted Senapatiratne May 2, 2017 Reply

    Great Reminder! I was just reading about God’s plan and timing and this fits so well!
    Noah sending the raven, the dove and then the dove again! Ecclesiastes 3 and Isaiah 55: 8-11 came to mind.

    Thanks, Becci!

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