by Kyle Costello, Missio Dei Community, Salt Lake City
Six months before my wife and I moved to plant our church, the lead pastor of the church where I was on staff publicly announced our plans. He didn’t just mention the church plant and our future move from Portland to Salt Lake City. He invited anyone who was willing to help start a church to move with us. Throughout those six months, he and other staff and elders would encourage people to go with us. I would hear a timid knock at my office door and someone, often someone I didn’t know, would tell me that a pastor or elder had encouraged them to meet me and think about moving. It was a beautiful picture of women and men believing that the people of God should always be willing to hear God’s call and go.
I was thrilled and felt incredibly supported. In between the announcement and our move, over thirty people said they would move with us! My mind spun. Person after person said they were in. I mean, what better way to begin a difficult project than with a truly committed core group? In Salt Lake City over 97% of the people don't know Jesus. What church planter doesn’t want a ready-made small church?
When I awoke in Salt Lake City on the morning of January 30th, I got to work. And things got real. Strategy meetings and prayer gatherings gave way to reality. I began to do some good things and I began to fail at some things. Specifically, I began to fail with our core group right from the start. Eight years later, it's still a sore wound. But as I reflect, I recognize four specific ways I let down the people who moved with us.
I failed to pastor them.
It can be weird when you are all coming from the same church where you have had specific roles then enter into a new land where everything is up in the air. I saw our core group as people to deploy before I saw them as people to pastor. Eugene Peterson says that the pastor will always be tempted to exploit people for the success or achievement of the church. Subconsciously I took that bait. My conversations with them centered around what they could do for Salt Lake City or the church or our next gathering. Rarely did I ask them about their relationship with Jesus, spouse, or children. If there were issues, like unemployment, I saw those as problems to solve, not the context in which God may have been shaping them and our new church.
I assumed we were always on the same page.
This can be a temptation for any church planter and it's definitely an easy assumption when you are all sent from a church that you loved. That church wasn’t perfect, but I loved it and its gospel DNA. I wanted our new church to be specific and contextual to Salt Lake City without abandoning the beauty of what I had experienced in Portland. My failure wasn't the vision, it was the lack of execution. I assumed everyone, because they had been a part of the former church, had the same depth, understanding, and passion that I had for that DNA. It sounds ridiculous to admit now, but I reserved all of the vision meetings and one-on-one discussions surrounding our goals for the new person. In the midst of jobs, education, families, and moving, I neglected to realize that my core people would need primers, solid teaching, and vision casting themselves.
I let the threat of awkwardness trump clarity.
It's a bit shocking when people say they will leave their jobs and sell their homes to move with you to plant a church! The love I felt for these brave folks continues to this day. However, even if your core group resembles an amazing, well-trained, church planting special ops force there will be issues. They are human and you are human. I'm not one to shy away from conflict, but when it came to these folks, I was constantly tempted to excuse issues instead of identifying them. I feared rejection and I feared these friends thinking that what they had done wasn’t valuable. Navigating the road of interpersonal conflict when you are pastor and buddy is hard. By far, this one issue caused the most damage to our young church. This is the one issue I have had to repent of and ask forgiveness for most often. Joining a missional endeavor like church planting and being willing to upend life is an amazing step of faith, but it doesn’t mean that a person is now above challenge, teaching, or correction.
I failed to ask/require that they let me lead.
When you are a part of a previous church and you aren’t the lead pastor, people may love you and follow you, but you aren’t the one they ultimately follow. When the church plant begins, they still remember your old role. New people won't see you through that old lens, but it is natural that your core group from the former church will. In order to lead well, you must ask/require that they let you lead.
About year two into our church plant, I started to get frustrated with many in my original core group. By year five, I started to wonder if they weren’t an asset but a hindrance. God in his grace showed me that as much as I wanted to point fingers or assess blame, I had failed those people in some very specific ways. These were hard lessons that paved the way to better leadership and health and the church that we are today.
If you are getting ready to plant and you have the opportunity to gather a large core group, do it! Just remember they aren’t tools in a shed or an army to be deployed. They are people to be served and loved.
This article is part of Orchard Group’s series, In Their Own Words, where we ask church planters about their experience planting a church, reflecting on what they would do differently and the lessons they’ve learned.
“Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life.” Prov 19:20