8 Church Planting Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Editor's Note: S/O to Matt Maestas, who directs the NAMB Assessment Center in KC, for writing this guest post. This piece is condensed from a series of posts on failure at his own blog. If you'd like to read all three, you can start here.

It took me five years to write this. It took me five years to come to a place where I am healthy enough to admit, without qualification, that I failed. Why without qualification? From the day we closed De Soto Community Church, the first and only church I have planted—the first church I gave my blood, sweat, and tears—I could admit failure, but only while including others in the blame. Yes, I had failed, but if this person hadn’t done x, or if only I had known y, things might have been different. But as Joco Willinck and Leif Babin say in their true and helpful book Extreme Ownership:

Any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.

So how did I fail?

1. I didn’t pursue enough training.

I am thankful that the North American Mission Board (NAMB), has created more paid pathways for internship and apprenticeship in order to aid those called into church planting. When I began my planting journey, as I was completing my M.Div. at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, there weren’t internships and apprenticeships available at the level they are now. Furthermore, I didn’t know anyone planting anywhere in the city. To pursue more training would have meant a move to a different city for at least a year and a need to raise support. While these realities are reasonable and necessary, I wasn’t disciplined enough, nor was I willing to walk that path. As a result, not only did I suffer, but my church plant suffered too.

2. I didn’t submit to assessment.

As director of our NAMB Assessment Center in Kansas City, I often find myself jealous of the high-caliber assessment our potential planters receive today. Assessment was a requirement when I was planting, but there wasn’t a clear and defined expectation for what assessment should look like. In my case, assessment involved meeting regularly with men I knew and trusted and receiving feedback from them. While these men loved and cared for me, a level of detachment from my assessors and me would have done wonders in pointing out areas of concern along my planting journey.

3. I failed to raise support.

When I began planting, my wife and I had no children and she was working a $12/hour job. Our needs were not burdensome and I wasn’t comfortable with the idea and mechanics of raising support. As a result, I didn’t raise much support at all. While in the beginning this didn’t seem like a large burden, it hamstrung us down the road when it came time to rent worship space, send out material, and buy simple things like signage. While money isn’t the most important factor in determining the success of a church plant, the lack of resources can be detrimental, especially when attempting a big push after creating momentum from ministry wins.

4. I didn’t recruit and train.

I took a Revelation 22:7 approach to recruitment: “Whosoever will…come!” That was a terrible way to call people into spiritual warfare. Of those that came with me when I planted, not one remained when I closed the doors. Many of those on the initial team I recruited never moved to the community.

Secondly, I didn’t bring an experienced leader with me. While I had served on staff at a church prior to this and led in other areas of ministry, I had never led a group of people at such a level before. The combination of my lack of senior leadership, my age when I planted (twenty-six), and the fact that my wife and I had no children at the time led to a reluctance from my congregation to follow someone unseasoned. Planting with a plurality of leadership voices, including with those from different phases of life, would have served to guide me better through difficult decision making.

Of the whosoevers who came, I assumed a level of Biblical knowledge, missional behavior, and ownership of vision they didn’t possess. My team’s lack of equipment in those areas was my fault. Since I didn’t prepare and train them, it shouldn’t have surprised me when they failed, or consequently when we failed.

5. I launched too soon. 

While our core group had been meeting for several months before we moved to the community where we planted, our family had only been in town about three months when we held our first preview service. Most of those who came were well wishers and servants from our sending church about twenty-five minutes away. I didn’t give myself enough time to build relational and missional credibility in the community before we began worshiping weekly.

Furthermore, while we did a great job serving in the community once we launched, that service should have started months before the first worship gathering and lasted much, much longer.

Additionally, while I thought everyone was on the same page with the vision, purpose, and mission of the church, as well as how we would pursue and fulfill that mission, the truth is that they weren’t. The responsibility of casting clear and compelling vision was mine, and while it was clear in my mind and heart, I’m not sure our people embodied it well. It didn’t translate, even though it sounded really cool. As Brian Sanders said, “If you have to remind people of the vision every seven days, there’s a good chance they don’t own it.”

6. I didn’t listen.

Insufficient listening has a direct relationship with unpreparedness. When those in the church came to me with legitimate concerns, I should have taken time to listen. Instead of slowing down, practicing pastoral patience, and listening more intently, I used my vision as a stick to beat people with. That practice resulted in feelings of inadequacy and guilt in those who, in my eyes, just didn’t get it.

7. I didn’t capitalize on the victories.

God did a lot of incredible things in De Soto. The Gospel was preached, lives were changed, and the name of Jesus had a good reputation in the community through the work of which we were a part. Our neighbors grieved when we left. Civic and governmental leaders voiced sadness we were closing. Teachers and school administrators were also saddened. Yet when the good things which led to that sadness happened, I didn’t celebrate. When our members gave of their time for sports camps and block parties, I didn’t honor them. When we received more contacts than we could handle at outreach events, I didn’t follow up as I should have. Many times these things occurred because I never asked and equipped others to join me in the work.

8. I wasn’t humble enough.

I let my youthful arrogance get in the way. I didn’t walk closely enough with others who could speak with clarity, honesty, and insight into my life and leadership. Those people who could have helped weren’t there because I didn’t invite them in. Young leaders must fight for other people to pour into our lives. One constant in the lives of the leaders we most want to emulate in our lives and ministry is a full schedule. If we want time with them, we must remain teachable and persistent. I wasn’t. Saying you didn’t meet with your coach that month because he or she didn’t respond to your one call or email is on you and you alone.

So what lessons can we learn from Matt's story?

1. Pursue training at whatever cost. 
2. Submit yourself to assessment and counsel. 
3. Work hard to raise support. 
4. Recruit and train. 
5. Launch only when ready. 
6. Listen. 
7. Capitalize on victories. 
8. Humble yourself. 

P.S. 
Matt recognizes why he failed, but he's glad that he did. You can read why here.

 

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