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Pastor, What’s Your Timeline for the Next Year?

When we started the work of planting Grace Hills, we developed a timeline to established what we hoped to be doing for the first six months – our “pre-launch” process. It looked like this (except it included July and August – couldn’t find that version):

Grace Hills Timeline

Lately, we’ve grown and I’ve been quite excited about what God is up to. But when someone asks me what our vision is, I struggle to answer. This isn’t because I don’t have a vision. I can very quickly and in a passionate voice tell you the people we hope to reach, how we hope to reach them, and what we aim to do for the kingdom. But in terms of actual growth – numerical, physical, and otherwise – I have a hard time articulating specifics about the future. I think part of the reason is that I haven’t had a timeline. I risked moving away from the entrepreneurial spirit that drove me week after week in the good ole’ days.

So last week, during a coaching session (which have been absolutely indispensable as we have moved forward), Danny asked me what my timeline looked like now? What timeline? That was just a launch thing. Then it hit me… there was tremendous synergy and excitement during those six months because we were aiming for the last dot on that timeline – LAUNCH! There is incredible power in building momentum toward what is “next.” So if we can’t articulate what is next, we’re probably in trouble already.

We worked through what should be some faith-based but realistic expectations about our growth. If our attendance has grown by an average of 100 in the last eight months (141 to 243), and that growth continues at that pace, we will be out of space at the theater by April or May of 2015. So it’s time to prepare. At the end of the coaching hour, I had scribbled away a full page of notes about all that we want to implement and accomplish in the next twelve months…

  • Implement our “next steps” series of one-time classes introducing people to Maturity, Ministry, and Mission.
  • Formalize a team of advisors with both spiritual- and business-savvy to offer input and, more importantly, prayer for our future.
  • Double the number of small groups we currently have by “spontaneous generation.”
  • Take the church through a fall campaign to go deeper and put down “roots,” which we hope to do in 2015 in a physical sense.
  • Take an offering of money, but also commitments, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to prepare us for our next space.
  • Secure a new location by January and start the work of preparing it for weekly services.
  • Launch into the new location on Easter of 2015.
  • Watch Journey Church in Siloam Springs launch on Easter as well (our daughter church led by our Planting Resident, Michael Smith).

Will it all happen, just as we’ve charted out? Who knows? We faithfully proclaim the gospel and leave the results to the Holy Spirit, so while we prep the soil, plant the seeds, and water the crops, it’s God alone who gives real growth. But I’d rather count on a wisely-derived estimate than nothing at all, believing that God wants to bless us in this way. And I’d rather make adjustments as we go than arrive at that place where we need to do something by tomorrow but can’t possibly pull it off in time.

I’m excited about what the future holds for Grace Hills. I’m even more excited about what’s happening in the Kingdom of God at large. While many churches are struggling, some of whom are suffering from the self-inflicted disease of inward focus and others who have abandoned a biblical gospel for a cultural one, I also see a wave of healthy churches being planted and others being revitalized. I’m optimistic.

If you’re a Pastor, let me ask you, what’s your timeline? What do you want to accomplish in the next year and how are you leading your people through the process? Share below. Share elsewhere. Or just go get pen and paper and get started!

Creating Excellence With a Tiny Budget

When we began planting Grace Hills, we didn’t have the quarter of a million dollars that some plants in America start out with. We had way less than that in fact, so we had to figure out how to hack some things together, and I’m convinced it’s made us stronger. We learned to do the very best we could with what we had, and we’re still doing that.

A lack of resources is merely an opportunity to be extra creative.

The Values of Excellence

The first thing we had to do was clarify our “values” concerning excellence, and we came up with five. These are not an official statement – just random thoughts that guided some of our early decisions.

  • We do things with excellence (the best we can) for God’s glory.
  • We refuse to make an idol of excellence – excellence isn’t the goal, disciples are.
  • We refuse to allow the pursuit of excellence hold us back. We won’t wait for perfect conditions before taking risks.
  • We will learn from models, valuing effectiveness over originality. We don’t need credit, we need life.
  • We will be a model, sharing our excellence with others, or at least sharing what we’re learning from both failure and success.

Some churches value excellence way more than we do, and that’s great. But for us, excellence is kind of “assumed” while we take action.

Faithraising In a Church Plant

I hate fundraising and donor development, but I love faithraising. When giving is an issue of discipleship, we have nothing to fear in teaching a young church how to become generous. So your budget woes are usually temporary if you’re effectively discipling people, excepting an economic downturn. When it comes to raising funds, I believe its important to understand your financial values. For example, at Grace Hills:

  • We believe giving is a discipleship issue, so we make no apology for calling on those who have committed themselves to our covenant to invest in the vision.
  • We believe the ethical handling of money is essential, so we outsource all of our bookkeeping and we don’t let Pastors touch money if at all possible.
  • We believe in taking risks in faith, thinking big and thinking ahead for God’s glory.

The Tools We Use

If you’re going to do things on the cheap, you’re going to need to know where to go for tools and resources, and here are just a few of my own favorites:

And there are plenty more. If you have a favorite or offer resources yourself, feel free to share in the comments below.

Staffing With a Tiny Budget

It’s easy to over-staff, but it’s dangerous to under-staff. I’m a big believer in staffing ahead of growth. I believe in leadership and so from early on, we wanted to expand our staff as quickly as possible, but we obviously couldn’t afford to pay a bunch of full-time salaries. So we became creative in our solutions. For example…

  1. Seek passionate people. Passionate people don’t have to be paid large salaries. They recognize the privilege of doing what others would love to do for free. I don’t mean that you should make people starve, but find people who are passionate enough to find creative ways to make ends meet.
  2. Ask for volunteers. One of the things that impressed me most when I was on staff at Saddleback Church was the number of people who volunteered. The total number was well up into the ten thousands, but what I saw in my little corner of the world – the Communications Team and the Office of the Pastor – were volunteers who were working twenty to forty hours because they believed in the vision of the church. Many staff members started as full-time volunteers.
  3. Develop disciples and hire the best. To pit it another way, hire from within whenever possible. It’s not always practical to do so, but some of the best staff members you will ever have will be people who were discipled and developed within your church family.
  4. Use multiple part-time staffers. Today, it’s possible for talented people to innovate when it comes to earning a living, especially in the entrepreneurial atmosphere of a new church plant. We are two years in with a staff of six and none of us would be considered “full-time.” We all do something on the side that sustains our ability to work for Grace Hills.

Going Technical On a Budget

There are companies that do great work for the church at high prices. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot of money for a cutting edge web presence, but it isn’t necessary, especially for a new church plant.

  • There are free resources such as webs.com, wix.com, tumblr.com and wordpress.com, all of which can be used to establish a free web presence, but the branding capabilities will be limited. Nonetheless, if you have no money for tech, start with these.
  • If you have a little bit of money, you can go big while going technical on a budget with a hosting account from Dreamhost, which offers an easy one-click install of WordPress, and a premium WordPress theme from ThemeforestStudioPress, or Elegant Themes, and a host of others. With this solution and a little bit of technical knowledge, you’ll spend less than $100 to get going.
  • If you have a little more money and lack the technical knowledge to get a basic template-driven website up and going, two of my favorite design studios offer church-specific solutions at good prices – Monk Development and ChurchPlant Media.

Promoting On a Budget

Direct mail works well in some locations and not in others. Either way, it’s expensive. It’s beneficial if you can afford it, but if you can’t, it’s still possible to promote what God is doing on a budget, especially using social media, which I wrote about yesterday here. And in addition to social media, we have had great success using MailChimp for our email marketing. Since Grace Hills started, we’ve spent $0 on traditional marketing. All of our growth is organic.

And beyond advertising and “promotion” is good old-fashioned service to the community, which is often cheap or free and speaks more loudly than a well-designed piece of marketing material.

Facilities On a Budget

Property is expensive and buildings are even more so. They are also maintenance nightmares for a new church plant. And in our present culture, a new church plant needs to establish that the church is a movement of people, not a location. So I have a few rules when it comes to buildings in a new church plant:

  • WAIT! Wait to lease by renting a theater, school, or other venue part-time. Wait to buy land until you’ve leased a while. And wait to build a building until you’ve paid off land. When it’s time to grow, it’s time to go, so moving isn’t the issue. The issue is that if you don’t wait, you’ll be saddled with debt and a building to maintain ahead of the time when you’re really capable.
  • Maximize spaces. Figure out how to make the most of things. We’ve created a nursery in a movie theater by using colorful roll-out carpets and plastic preschool fencing. We’ve created a coffee shop inside the theater’s lobby. And we’ve done lighting and sound effectively in a space that really isn’t conducive. We have a great screen, but we use our own projection. Figure out ways to squeeze the right things into the right spaces.
  • Think NEAT, not NICE. Again, I assume I’m talking to people who don’t have the money for the “best,” so think about being neat, clean, and safe rather than being elegant or fancy. Right now, pallets are big in the church decor and stage design world. With the right lighting and design creativity, you can make things look great without dropping a ton of cash.

Finally, to close out, just some from-the-hip random advice for creating excellence on a budget…

  • Be a hacker.
  • Think bigger than where you are.
  • Value volunteers, big time!
  • Know your culture and what it will take to reach it.
  • Ask outsiders what they think.

And at the end of it all, do the best you can with what God provides for His glory!

Planting Churches and Popping Bubbles

Double BubblesWhen we started planting Grace Hills Church, we moved fast. We had our first public information meeting in July of 2011 and launched in January of 2012. Some planting strategists would make the assumption that we were all about getting to the weekend show and not enough about making disciples. Nothing could be further from the truth. We moved fast because we wanted to pop bubbles as quickly as possible. Let me explain.

One of the reasons so many churches are plateaued at an attendance between 48 and 75 is they’ve grown very comfortable with the size of the bubble in which they are doing life. A few people may be added, but there is often little net growth because of the sociological attachment people have to their bubbles. In our first meeting, 35 people were present. It would have been easy to keep the bubble intact and make it all about those 35, but instead, we wanted to pop that bubble as quickly as possible to form new bubbles – multiple bubbles in fact.

We moved quickly because we wanted to keep our culture fluid and help people to understand several principles:

  • It’s not about “us.” If it becomes about “us” it usually leads to becoming about “us versus them,” and we prefer to be “us for them.” We are gathering for the purpose of gathering other, as-of-yet un-gathered people. 
  • A single cell that never multiplies isn’t healthy. Multiplication – not just small groups, but various kinds of micro-communities within the church – is essential and needs to happen in a time frame that is measurable.
  • We want individuals and small groups to reach other individuals and bring them into the church community, but we also want to bring people into the church community and connect them to individuals and small groups.
  • We operate in an apostolic era. Jesus is obviously the ultimate model for living, but to see His plan for disciple-making, we have to look beyond His earthly ministry to see how He empowered the early church through the book of Acts.
  • God uses momentum. You can see it in various eras of the church’s history, even in the book of Acts. Pentecost gave the church initial momentum (Acts 2), then the development of new leadership (Acts 6),  and then the persecution that scattered them (Acts 8) and the commencement of the missionary-sending capacity of the church in Antioch (Acts 13).

I completely understand the current de-emphasis of the weekend service (where we “do” church) and the emphasis on our through-the-week living (when we “are” the church). I get it when guys say, “don’t plant a weekend service, make disciples.” But I don’t believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Launching weekend services, if done with a biblical philosophy of mission, generates momentum and allows people to make disciples in the context of the larger church community.

If you’re stuck, figure out how to pop the current bubble and force people out of their comfort zones to form new bubbles. It may mean launching Sunday services sooner than first anticipated, launching a second service or campus, moving, or starting more small groups. Besides, isn’t it fun to make more bubbles?

How Churches Can Partner to Plant New Churches

Planting Multiples

Photo by Tim Patterson.

Denominations don’t plant churches.  Churches plant churches. This is why churches should be proactive about church planting rather than waiting for denominational boards and agencies to get the job done.

Having said that, most churches don’t have the resources to plant another church on their own, so they need to partner together with other multiplication-minded churches to expand the kingdom. Denominations can and do serve a vital place in the grand scheme of church planting, such as

  • Connecting churches together in partnerships
  • Assessing potential church planters
  • Equipping and training planters and sending churches
  • Directing funds appropriately for better stewardship

So if my church shouldn’t leave the task of planting a new church to my denomination, but we’re not prepared to oversee a planter or project on our own, what should we do? Form a strategic partnership with a few other leaders and churches to multiply.

I love the idea of four or five Pastors and church leaders getting together to discuss regional church planting needs, pooling their resources, and providing people, money, and mentoring to see a new church get started. Imagine this scenario…

Five churches, small to medium in size, come together to discuss the need to plant a new church in a town within an hour or two of each of them. Each church commits $1,000 per month for three years to cover the leading planter’s salary, plus a one-time offering for startup expenses. Then each of those pastors leverages his own network of relationships to invite other leaders to support the new plant at a smaller level to fill in the gaps. Each of the five churches sends a small team once or twice annually to help, and all the leaders come together once or twice during each year to check in, encourage, and offer accountability to the lead planter.

The strength of this approach, to me, is that a handful of leaders are cooperating to help ensure the success of the new plant. Obviously there are other factors and no hard and fast guarantees, but it would go a long way to ensure the stability of the new church to have a pocket of leaders loving, mentoring, and helping them in close proximity.

Meanwhile, a denominational agency could offer additional funding, assessment, training, and other forms of help.

This is not the only way to plant churches, but it’s one of several good possibilities, and with the lostness of our world and the size of the Great Commission, it’s time to come up with a plan for partnering to plant new churches.

If you’re interested in partnering to plant more churches, drop me a line!

Before You Plant a Church, Clarify Your Calling

Artwork via Wikipedia Commons.

The work of planting a new church will probably kill you.

On my first day in Greek Grammar class in Bible college, Dr. Jesse Thomas walked in and stood at the podium to offer a brief welcome, “Welcome to boot camp.” Serious students survived, some even thrived, but some fell by the wayside because of their unwillingness to do the hard work of memorization that studying an ancient language requires.

I’ve often thought back to that day as a church planter. Planting a church is hard. In fact, it will destroy your family, your ministry, and strip you of your vitality and enthusiasm, IF you can’t lean on your sense of calling from God.

In other words, if your heart is false, if your motives are selfish, or if your calling to the ministry of planting the gospel is uncertain, then your soul will suffer in the thick of the battle. When tough times come, when money runs short, when criticism abounds, when the launch team leaves you, when your spouse is feeling burned out, and when the emotion of the big launch subsides, you’re a sitting duck for the enemy.

Before you plant a church, clarify your calling. Angie and I have been about the work of planting Grace Hills Church for close to a year now (I can hardly believe it’s been that long), and we’ve already made plenty of mistakes along the way. We’ve done some things too early. We’ve done other things too late. We’ve missed some opportunities and struggle to prioritize correctly sometimes. But at the end of the day, there isn’t a single doubt in my mind that we are doing exactly what God wants us to do, in His world, for His kingdom, at this present moment in history. So we press on.

When I first moved back to northwest Arkansas to begin the work of church planting, there was a question I was faced with quite regularly, “why another church?” It’s a good, honest question. It isn’t always asked with the best motives, but the result of facing it is the introspection necessary for the deepening of our own confidence. In fact, it is in the face of such tough questions that our calling really comes to be tested.

If you’re considering planting a church, ask yourself  the tough questions before others have the chance. Clarify your calling.

Why Am I Doing This?

Some may assume you’re interested in church planting because it’s easier to start from scratch with your own ideas than to fight the brick wall of established tradition. Others will quietly murmur about how much of a trend or fad “this church planting thing” is. A few may even go so far as to question your character, assuming you’re planting for your ego’s sake. How dare they?!

I would urge you to think of it another way – how dare you begin gathering people into close relationships with each other and asking them to invest their very lives for something eternal only to abandon them mid-stream because you ultimately found your own motives to be the wrong ones and never dealt with the tough questions? Why do you want to plant a church?

What Will This Cost Me?

When my daughter was born, life changed dramatically. Before we had kids, I set my own schedule, slept as much at night as I wanted to, and never had to wipe any unidentifiable substances off of any kids’ faces or… you get the picture. Having a child changed all of that. But she is soooo worth it!

Before planting Grace Hills, I was serving on staff at one of America’s largest churches. I was a specialist with a well-defined job description. I worked alongside a staff of hundreds, had encouragement, help, and break times by the water cooler, so to speak. It had its own challenges, but was for all intents and purposes, a dream spot for me. Moving to northwest Arkansas cost me that. I now watch from a distance as Saddleback’s staff continues to thrive and have all kinds of fun without me. Meanwhile my wife and I are generalists, multi-taskers who beg God to raise up more volunteers and send more financial support. And, while that’s tough to some degree, it’s soooo worth it!

Can I Keep My Life In Rhythm?

If you plant a church, your marriage will be tested. That’s a guarantee. If you want to know how church planting is going, just ask the planter’s spouse. I recently interviewed Shawn Lovejoy about his new book, The Measure of Our Success. Shawn testifies that a year into planting Mountain Lake Church, he asked his wife, Tricia, how she thought it was going. Her response cut deeply but initiated a powerful healing in their marriage. Shawn spent so much time, energy, and passion on church planting that his marriage was suffering. His rhythm had been lost.

God has worked powerfully in Shawn and Tricia’s life since then and God is using their story to teach others in ministry the value of keeping our priorities right, but their story highlights how easy it is to do some great things to the neglect of the best things. And what could be greater than planting a church? If your answer is “nothing,” don’t take another step.

Clarify your calling. This is good advice no matter what you do, but especially if you’re going to venture out as a spiritual entrepreneur into the world of planting a new church. I’m praying daily for God to call more leaders into this field, but wisdom demands that we search our hearts, seek God’s face, and move forward only if we can do so with absolute, steadfast confidence that God is both behind us and before us!

If God has called you to ministry, church planting or otherwise, I would love to hear your story in the comments below!