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5 Confessions of a “Failed” Church Planter

I’ve planted several churches, and I know how hard it can be. I’ve never “closed” a plant, but I’ve sat with several others that have. It is painful — but sometimes it is helpful.

I think that doing an “autopsy” is a helpful part of the learning experience, and something that is not done often enough. Here is one such reflection from John Thomas, a former planter.

As an aside, one of the more fascinating documents we references in Viral Churches was an autopsy report by Todd Hunter. At the time, Todd was director of church planting for the Vineyard and later the head of the Vineyard. Now he is an Anglican Bishop (and we shared a pulpit and some fellowship time last week with the Anglican Church in America). You can download that report from 1986 (an eternity in church-planting years) here.

A Guest Post from John Thomas

Of course, I had heard the stats about church planting failures. Regardless, I went for it knowing the Lord was leading me to start a new church for his glory. I read all the books, attended the conferences, took church-planting classes in college and seminary, planned, prayed, pleaded with, and persuaded others to join the team, raised money, developed a logo; even my wife was onboard! How could I fail?

But failure did not come easily. I have never worked harder in my life. Hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, a myriad of spent dreams, and 18 short months later: She was gone!

That took place just over six years ago. Sure, there were tons of things that happened along the way that could be blamed for my failure . . . yada, yada, yada. Yet after much reflection, evaluation, and, ultimately, repentance, I realized that I am to blame. I confess: I am responsible.

There are five major — and painful — confessions that I am ready to own up to:

1. Prayerlessness: I failed to pray as I ought. Self-reliance and fierce independence marked the day. Strategy and proven methods were my fail-safe, not sweet communion with the One who held the answers to my unasked questions, let alone the immediate needs of the day. Bootstrap theology and iron-will methodology only carried me as far as my boots (metaphorically speaking) and wherewithal would take me. And that was not far enough. I was, after all, wrestling with the eternal and weighty matters of gathering the bride of Christ.

The lesson I learned: Prayer as the foundation for church planting is not just a spiritual slogan. It is a necessity and must be part of the planter’s DNA long before it becomes a core value for the church.

2. Lack of Personal Focus: I was too spread out — not laser-focused on the mission. Add together being a husband, father, Ph.D. student, Bible college professor, church planter, and what do you get? A demented dabbler! Dabbling in many things may have made me a great dabbler. Being a lead planter requires grit, determination, and surrender: complete surrender. I failed to take into account the immensity of the burden to lead a church plant and the personal focus it required.

The lesson I learned: This calling requires everything. It cannot be dabbled with. A church planter must count the costs of intense and extended focus and then be willing to pay them.

3. Lack of Gospel-Centeredness: Yes, I preached the Gospel and lives were changed. But the fact is that I did not center the work on the Gospel. When I met with potential partners, the Gospel was not central; money was. When I met with my leadership and core group, the Gospel was not central; the launch was. Sure, the Gospel was mentioned but only as a means to an end. We were, after all, planting a church! Missing the mark here was to the detriment of building genuine and lasting community.

The lesson I learned: The Gospel must permeate all things. For this to happen, the church planter must purposefully look through the lens of the Gospel as he casts vision, develops strategy, raises money, teaches the core group, loves and cares for his family, and hauls equipment in and out of the venue, ad infinitum.

4. Lack of Honest Critique: I neither invited nor wanted critique from the outside by folks that I was convinced “didn’t get it.” This was a huge mistake. My lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit’s leadership in this area astounds me. I often sensed the need to open up to colleagues and friends; I opted instead to operate from a conceited and sinful mindset of “I got this!” I knew if someone leaned in too far they would quickly see my faults.

The lesson I learned: There are no Lone Rangers in ministry — for long. The lead planter must associate himself with a person, group, or organization that will not only coach him but also critique him as he honestly shares his journey — warts and all. The pain of transparency is greatly diminished when you realize you are not the first to struggle, fail, and question.

5. Lack of Partnership: I almost want to give myself a pass here, but it just won’t work. In 2006, church planting networks and partnerships did not abound as they do today. Yet there were some. I chose to go it alone instead of partnering with those who did not cross every theological “t” or dot every methodological “i” as I did. Those distinctions, while very important, should not have been as great a barrier as I made them out to be.

The lesson I learned: Camaraderie is priceless. The church planter needs to walk with others that are a little further ahead on the journey. Church-planting networks are popping up all over. Some are regional. Some are national. There is a network for every church planter’s ilk. Find a network and belong. Use its resources and wisdom. You are going to need them.

Looking back, any one of these errors was enough to sink the ship. There are dozens of other failures that I could note. These seem to be the most egregious — the ones that, had I dealt with them at the time, would likely have made the difference between failure and viability.

It’s my hope and prayer that these confessions will help those who are in the throes of leading a plant, or those who will lead a plant in the future, not to make the same mistakes I made along the way. It is also my hope that the Lord will continue to raise up an army of leaders who will, in spite of the odds, take up the banner of church planting for the glory of God!

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