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The Three Characteristics Every Church Planter Needs

When Kay and I headed to Southern California in the last days of 1979 to start Saddleback Church, we had little money and no people.

But we had plenty of hope. We had a new decade before us, a four-month-old baby, and a calling from God. It was the greatest step of faith we had made at that time, and just one in a long series of faith steps that God is still asking us to take. 

Starting a church isn’t easy. Even if you have all the resources you need, it’s a step of faith. Not every Christian leader can do it. A person can be a great pastor, yet not be a church planter. 

Pastoring and church planting each requires its own unique set of gifts and temperament. For example, existing church pastors who are trying to turn around a struggling congregation need a tremendous amount of patience. It takes a long time to turn around an existing church, where each minor change is a major victory. 

In 45 years of helping church planters and planting a church myself, I’ve seen certain characteristics that are true of most successful church planters. So what are the characteristics I look for in church planters? I start with these three.

  1. A willingness to take risks in faith: You’ll need to take risks all the time when you’re starting a church. Several years ago when I was pastoring Saddleback, a church planter from Atlanta called and said he wanted to come plant a church with us. He and his family were planning on moving to California in about six or seven months. We agreed to partner with him, but we held off on sharing the financial package we were offering. He’d call about once a month and ask about the package. I kept telling him, “We don’t have it yet, but we’ll get to it eventually.”

    Finally, about three weeks before the move, he called and asked the same question and I gave him the same response. I was seeing if he was open to taking a risk. That’s when the young man told me, “Rick, we’ve decided we’re coming whether you’ve got the financial package ready or not.” I knew right away he was the guy we wanted to see planting churches.

    On the other hand, I remember other prospective church planters who wanted everything guaranteed before they were willing to get started. If you need guarantees, you’re not a church planter. You need to walk a tightrope to plant a church. Someone called to church planting should walk by faith.
  2. A love for people: Church planters need to love people. In the early days of a church plant, the church planter is the glue that holds the church together. If he doesn’t love being around people, the church won’t stick together. To navigate those first few years, it’s critical that the church planter enjoys spending time with people.

    That’s why one of the first questions I ask prospective church planters is, “You’ve got eight hours until Sunday. What are you going to do with those eight hours?” 

If the church planter says he’ll spend all eight hours preparing his sermon, he isn’t a church planter; instead, he needs to pastor an established church where he’ll have a staff to compensate for his absence while he studies. 

I want to hear that church planter tell me he’ll prepare his sermon in five hours and then spend the next three on the phone or in person talking to people.

  1. Flexibility: People who don’t handle change well don’t make good church planters. As a church planter, you go through so many changes in just the first few years. Every day brings change. In the first 15 years of Saddleback, we were running over 10,000 in attendance before we built our first building. We used 79 different facilities in the first 15 years. One week we were in a school; the next week we were in a bank building.

    Not every church planter moves 79 times, but every church planter faces almost constant change.

Of course, other characteristics matter for church planters. But if someone has these three basics—a willingness to take risks in faith, a love for people, and flexibility—chances are he can grow to be a successful church planter.

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