Five Ethical Principles to Guide Putting Together a Church Planting Team

hands_in.jpg.htmlChurch planting at its best may be the most strategic dimension of mission. At its worst it can be an expression of selfish ambition and turf war. The energy and excitement of a new plant, as well as deep to fears of failure, can cause a rush of blood to the head. We can shift to a ‘whatever it takes mindset’.  I’ve seen this lead to broken relationships in the body of Christ, and diminished mission overall.

Is there an unethical way to plant a church? I think this is a big question worthy of reflection, but specifically I want to focus on the initial gathering of people.

Church planters generally come from a previous ministry roles, which means they mostly leave a church to start a church. There’s essentially three ways this can happen:

  1. The church deliberately sends a team out to establish a new congregation, a ‘daughter’ church with their impetus, blessing and perhaps even seed-funding.
  2. The leader completes their ministry at a congregation, and then establishes a new congregation elsewhere, unrelated to the previous congregation.
  3. The church splits over an issue, and a proportion of people leave to become a new congregation.

The first one is the least ethically risky, because the new church is the fruit of the mission of the previous church. The third is one is ethically disastrous, generally painful, and harmful to the body of Christ. The second one, however, invites some ethical reflection.

The fact is church plants require committed groups of people. If they are not sent by their church, they have to come from somewhere. It’s an exciting process, and having planted a church I treasure memories of those early days when the vision of new mission catalysed our core group with hope, enthusiasm and, frankly, a determination to do some things uniquely.

As well as leading a church plant myself, I’ve read and observed the practice closely for 15 years. And before I planted my church, I actually sat with my mentor and worked out an ethical guide to building a team for the new plant. I was determined not to compromise the missional work of others as I sought to begin a new missional work. After giving it some thought again recently, here’s five principles for ethically building a new community:

  1. Pray sincerely for God to call only the right people

Church planters have two temptations when putting together a team: The first is to look for people with the best abilities. The second is to take absolutely anybody. The first is borne of overconfidence, the second a lack of it.

Church planters have an audacious optimism, which is probably essential in undertaking the task at all. However this optimism can breed overconfidence, or even arrogance, which can lead us to presume our new vision deserves nothing but the absolute best. Sometimes this derives from memories of the frustration of the ‘old ways’ of previous church contexts, leading us to enjoy revelling in the chance to ‘finally do everything properly’. So we go looking for the best possible leaders and servants.

The second temptation comes a little down the track, when, frankly, we just hope people start turning up. Despite our rhetoric about it not being about numbers, we secretly hope it just explodes with people. So when people want in, we’re thrilled and open for business.

Years ago I recall a panel of church planters all agreeing their biggest regret was not being more specific and focused about who was on the core team early on.

It’s helpful  for us reflect on God’s team selection strategy. The overarching biblical narrative is of God consistently choosing the unlikely person for his special tasks. Again and again God chooses the weaker, the younger, the unlikely, the alternative to the ideal person. Consider David, Jacob, Moses, even the disciples of Jesus. Think also of Gideon, and the refining of his team. Don’t look for the best, or the most. Determine to take those God calls.

The ethical dimension of this is a matter of the heart, and to mitigate against these two temptations, we need to confess them, and then sincerely pray God calls only the right people to the team.

When planning what became CitySoul, I was amazed at who emerged naturally. One key was actually speaking with senior leaders about who they would actually recommend. Some people approached me, who I actually dissuaded due to their commitment to their church. Others I approached. It was a really diverse team, including a retired Minister from another denomination!

2. Don’t take people from your previous church

The easiest way to build a team is to cherry-pick key folk from your previous church. These are people you know, and probably have a connection and sense of loyalty with you. Sometimes its an explicit encouragement to leave, whilst other times a implicit hint (Its gonna be way better than this!).

Either way, without the blessing or impetus of the congregation, I think this is unethical, especially when the key people are young.  It reflects a leadership posture of wedding people to oneself, rather than to the kingdom, and is a subversion of the church community. It has nothing to do the mission of Jesus, and more to do with territory, ambition, and ego.

When gathering my initial team for our new plant, I made a clear decision not to approach or accept anybody from my previous church. Being rather a strong church,  it was packed with many keen, able and committed young leaders. But I took the view that I had been called to serve God in its mission for the years I was there, and that service would be undermined if I invited several key leaders to leave.  (Of course there is the humble chance that none would have wanted to come anyhow – but I’ll never know, because I determined not to ask).

There’s an old theory that churches borne of splits, split again and again. The initiative on the leader is to leave with integrity, and do everything to affirm the strength of the ministry they are leaving.

3. Try to ensure any person leaving another church for your plant is ‘blessed and sent’ by their previous church

If a church is not sending a group of people, then they have to come from somewhere. This should be a careful process. I’ve known of relationship breaking down over this process. But consider this: if a key leader was moving from a church to be a permanent missionary in Bangladesh, their congregation would pray for them, bless and send them on mission.  So if your new plant is part of God’s mission, why can’t people leave to join it in the same manner?

It is true that current churches can feel nervous about the potential loss of a key leader to a new, exciting project. There are ethical questions for them too. But the primary ethical check is with the posture of the church planter – be determined to build a team through a process whereby other churches actually cheer you on in a spirit of collaboration and unity.

Subversively wooing bunches of strong Christians from other churches to your project does not necessarily help the mission of God. If you are going to grow, it can’t be because others are diminished.

4. Do your contextual homework

This may seem a strange principle about selecting a team, but its a good integrity check. Very often people will be excited about the novelty of a new project itself, rather than heart-bursting call to reach a new part of the culture. The most important question of church plant can ask is to whom are we sent? If we want to change the church more than we want to change the world, we’re not yet missional. (Frost)

 If the purpose of your new church is honestly missional, to reach an unreached part of the culture, you need to research that community very closely, and present that context clearly to potential team members.

The hard work of contextual research demonstrates to the potential team members that the church will not be about them. It’s also not about the novelty of a new church. It also helps you keep in check the call, so you are not tempted to woo that person by listing the benefits of the church in relation to their preferences. You need to show you are focused on the mission field, not on building a church for them. Skipping this work tends to lead to a default targeting of people most likely to come quickly, which is other Christians looking for new exciting novelty.

Before I approached a single person about CitySoul, I spent 3 months full-time researching the Adelaide CBD. I met with most of the churches. I researched university ministries. I pulled together demographic information, and then wrote a 50 page report on the missional needs in the city, complimenting the ministry already being done there. I drafted some key elements, and a synthesis of this was presented to each potential team member. I then asked them to go away and pray whether God was calling them to reach these people.

5. Don’t dog-whistle Christians when speaking at events

When our life is consumed with the passion and vision of a new church plant, it bleeds into every part of our life, and conversations. It’s such an exciting new endeavour, and requires such commitment, that we can become consumed by it. It feels like the most important thing going on. So much so that it can spills into our presentations of the gospel.
The subtle temptation is that we begin to define the innovative importance of what we are doing against the traditional faithfulness of what is going on around us when we speak. This is especially tempting because we know people love to hear about new and exciting unique projects that seemingly have the potential to change the world.
However, especially when speaking with young adults, this can carry the subtle implication, perhaps even just an inflection, that maybe at some stage they should come down and check out what we’re doing? For young adults, primed to explore beyond the familiar, this is a bit like subtle marketing: wooing through the promise of excitement, rather than calling to radical discipleship and faithfulness to God and our community.
 The cost of innovation in a tough missional contexts means that many plants struggle or don’t last, whilst others flourish. If we are serious about building a gospel-centred, healthy community reaching our culture in the long term, we do well to start with a pure and ethical foundation.