7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, Issue #1: Leadership Development – by Ed Stetzer

This is part of a series of posts on Church Planting. This post originally appeared on Ed Stetzer’s blog, The Exchange. Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, Issue #1: Leadership Development

In my introductory post for this series, I explained the research process that informed the 7 Top Issues Planters Face.

I have partnered with my friend Todd Wilson, Director of Exponential, to do quantitative research alongside a group of well-known church planting leaders/experts who share their insights.

Planters face incredible pressure to find quality leaders quickly. Yet the limitations of money, critical mass, and spiritual maturity in new churches create an under-stocked leadership fishing pond. Planters can make critical mistakes as a result.

Think about the person who shows up on launch Sunday due to a postcard they just received in the mail. Your hope is that your first attendees will be seekers and people open to the first-time consideration of the gospel. And, that means people who are asking questions and starting their spiritual journey– they are often not ready to be spiritual leaders since they are just considering things of faith.

This Sunday we had our first preview service at Grace Church, where I am serving as lead pastor. (I am not leaving my LifeWay Research job, this is a volunteer role working alongside a full-time team.) We saw a couple hundred people come Sunday. Many of them are new, seeking, and sometimes hurting on that first Sunday.

Simply put, many church planters find many open people but often have few prepared leaders.

Leadership development is the most frequently cited challenge of planters according to our research in this survey of church planting leaders and thinkers. Leadership issues included recruiting and developing leaders; implementing teams; creating a reproducible leadership development approach; developing a leader/oversight/elder board; hiring and leading staff; discerning changes required to facilitate growth; healthy decision making; and delegating and empowering volunteers.

So, based on our conversations and observations from those who responded to our qualitative survey of experts and planters (see the last post for methodology info), here are six key considerations church planters should consider and/or make in the process of developing new leaders:

  1. Lack of Experience — Many planters come from previous roles where a more established leadership development and volunteer mobilization processes are in place. As planters, they are now responsible for implementing a new process from scratch, often with little help. They are responsible for creating momentum where none exists versus maintaining existing momentum. They need to be aware of their own lack of experience and the lack of experience on the typical team. Our church planting leaders were concerned that they often lacked that awareness.
  2. Feeling the Need for Speed (Volunteers) — My friend, Stephen Gray, said, “Every plant is a new adventure full of excitement and potential doom…they need to have nerves of steel and thick skin” [Stephen Gray with Trent Short, Planting Fast Growing Churches, St. Charles, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 2007 p. 23]. Planting can be lonely and messy. Amid the long hours and hard work, it is easy for planters to conclude that any “warm body” interested in helping is an answer to prayer. Planters tend to put leaders in place prematurely based on availability. More established churches are slower, vetting potential leaders before delegating responsibility.
  3. No Core Leaders — Many planters lack a strong leadership team, leader/staff/elder team, or other structure early in the church’s life. Thus, they can lack an accountability team for the first few years. This can result in an increased burden of responsibility, a lack of ongoing encouragement, no one to “watch their back,” a lack of advice on key decisions, and a lack of peer fellowship.
  4. Feeling the Need for Speed (Paid Staff) — In the absence of experience and a proven staff selection process, planters tend to hire too quickly (similar to consideration #2). Planters also lack the experience to fully understand the pitfalls of hiring family members and friends. Dealing with bad hires adds further strain and discouragement, creating setbacks in momentum. (Keep in mind that we recognize that we are talking about a specific kind of church plant there and this will not apply in all cases.)
  5. Need for Resources — Volunteers and financial resources are critical resources in the early days. The senior pastor of the average U.S. church (about 85 people) is at staff capacity. If a church waits until they can afford a second staff person, they face the prospect of losing momentum due to a senior pastor working beyond capacity. Then, leadership barriers prevent them from growing and hiring more staff. Studies show the average new church has about 40 people at the first year, placing a huge financial strain on the planter and delaying additional staff hires. When planting the type of church plant we are discussing here, this is a major challenge. (Note: other models, like a house church, would not have the same issues here, but that is for another study.)
  6. Realities of Reproduction — Planters have probably heard that if a church does not plant another church in their first three years, they likely never will. Many have a vision for being a reproducing church and developing a reproducing culture. But the realities of implementation are discouraging. The same barriers (experience, budget, leadership shortage, spiritual maturity, and momentum, etc.) can cause the reproduction vision to move from vision to pipe dream.

“Conclusions and Observations” are coming in the last blog in this series. But for now, having a realistic (not pessimistic) view of the leadership obstacles should inform planters and their support systems (networks, denominations, churches). Great questions that reflect these realities can inspire better systems, strategies, and preparation to plant a healthy, evangelistic, multiplying church for the glory of God.

My next blog will address the most awkward of the 7 Top Issues – Money.

By Ed Stetzer