What I Learned as a Church Planter: Don’t Let Go of Your Vision

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This post has been republished by the Exponential Network.
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One of the hardest things about closing down a church, especially the church you started, is trudging through the list of regrets. Let me tell you, the list will be long and the water can get really deep… don’t sit in the regrets for too long.

As I’ve reflected on my experience as a church planter I have done my best to stay away from regret and instead focus on what I can learn. It is a fine line however, and a difficult one to navigate. One area I’m attempting to navigate away from regret is this: Don’t Let Go of Your Vision.

I spent several years preparing to plant a church. Included in that preparation were numerous sleepless nights filled with prayer, years of conversation, a multitude of exciting dreams and visions, hopes, possibilities, plans, all of which culminated in a beautiful vision for a different kind of church. This vision, I believed, was inspired by God.*

When we finally arrived in San Francisco, I worked it out so that I could have 14 months of prep-time before the official public launch. (Typically organizations give you a 6-month ramp up period for this, don’t be afraid to negotiate what you feel is necessary, it will more than likely require extra fundraising on your part. It did for me, but it was definitely worth it. Refer back to the post To Partner or not to Partner.) I spent the first 6 months exegeting the city, learning as much as I could about our neighborhood through demographic studies, listening to the values and belief systems of our neighbors, listening to their hopes and dreams, and even hearing their stories of abuse and pain from previous religious experiences. It was an invaluable time to simply listen. I used this time of listening to confirm and re-work portions of the vision until I felt comfortable that this was what God was calling me to do/lead. (This was all done sans-team, by the way. I hadn’t yet hired anyone to join the team.)

The first test of the vision was casual conversation. People would ask, “So, what do you do?” to which I would respond, “Starting a non-profit.” (I didn’t want to get bogged down in a conversation about the evils of the Church or Christianity in general, I simply wanted to test run the vision.) “Really,” they would respond with intrigue, “tell me more about it.” This was my opening to cast the vision, to communicate gospel-oriented values and see if there was any traction. Time after time after time the vision was met with tremendous acceptance, specifically from non-Christians. “I would love to be a part of something like that!” Was typically the response.

As an aside, shortly after we launched I had a similar conversation with someone about the vision of IKON only this time I wasn’t using “non-profit” language. Instead I referred to what we were doing as “church”. Her response was fascinating: “That sounds so amazing. I would really love to find a community and be a part of something like that. I just don’t want anything to do with the Jesus part. Maybe, I’ll start a secular version of that!” The vision really struck a chord with the heartbeat of San Francisco. God had been working on this vision in me for years, and I was the steward for that vision.

The vision that we started with however, was not the vision we ended with. And this is perhaps one of my greatest regrets. (Again, trying to toe the line between regret and reflection is a very difficult walk.) Shortly after launch, I began to loosen my grip on the vision. I invited others from within the church to give input into the vision. No longer was I casting vision, instead I began looking for affirmation. I think it’s fair to say that this switch was the result of insecurity–where it came from I still do not know (Tracy, my wife says it was Spiritual Warfare). As a result, the vision became murky and muddy. So we changed it. And not just a piece of it, but wholesale changed the vision of the church. If you want to confuse people, if you want to see people leave your church that had bought in to what they thought it was about, if you want to see two different groups work for two different things, then changing your vision 6 months in is a good way to experience that. Eventually, we changed the vision again… and then again. This really led to a great deal of confusion in our church.

Insecurity is one of the greatest deterrents for the church planter. Somehow, insecurity not only infiltrated my mind, but rushed in with a vengeance and captured my heart. There are myriad internal and external relationships and pressures that I’ve identified which led to these insecurities, as well as my own junk that I have since dealt with. It was this insecurity that led me to to look for affirmation… an affirmation that never really came. At every turn I didn’t find the affirmation I sought, but rather different people looking to have their own, very different preferences included into the overarching vision.

Important note: When you start leading from your insecurities, you’re really not leading you’re simply jerking them around.

As a church planter (and even as a pastor) this is a big challenge to overcome. I believe every pastor deals with insecurity to some degree, all the time. And really, how could you not? You’re being told how awesome you are at one turn and how terrible you are at another… constantly. Everything from your preaching to your style of dress is seemingly under constant scrutiny, it’s enough to make you go mad. It’s easy to begin jerking people around on the insecurity roller coaster when that’s the only ride you can see. There are three things I wish I would have done/recognized early on that would have helped prevent insecurity.

  1. You need a person. Identify a close confidant. Now let me say, I had a coach, in fact at one point I had 5 coaches for various things, but a coach is not a close confidant. That’s not their role. They are there to push you, kick you in the teeth when you need it, and expose you to truths that you’re not paying attention to. But they’re not a pastoral type of figure for you. A coach, although essential, is not what I’m talking about. You need a person, your person, who is walking down a similar road. I’m not talking about a mentor either. I’m suggesting that you need a friend who is also a church planter, perhaps in a different part of the country, that you make it a point to talk to each other regularly about what you’re experiencing and going through. There is no one that will understand what you’re going through more than another church planter. Networks are great, network meetings are great, network phone calls are great… but you need one person not 4. One person you can count on, one person you can dump some stuff on, and one person who will pray for you about your junk… and at the same time you are that person for them. It’s a give-give relationship, a life-bringing, life-giving relationship. I wish I would have recognized how important this was early on. I eventually found that person in the desert… seriously, he literally lives in a desert. It changed a lot of things for me, unfortunately it was a bit too late for IKON. This is vital for you to identify sooner rather than later.
  2. Identify the source… and then cut it off. It’s important to take a step back and reflect, and when you find yourself wrestling with insecurity the same feels even more necessary. So, take a step back, go away for a retreat or just lock yourself in the closet for a couple of hours and think through where the source of insecurity is coming from. Is it from an individual? (In my experience this is the most likely case.) Once you’ve identified the source of your insecurity, then you need to figure out why it/him/her has this kind of power over you… and then cut it off. I found that at one point insecurity was growing in me because of a feedback loop that was out of control. I had invited a team of people to give feedback on the Sunday messages, however, for various reasons–and perhaps insecurities on their own part–the feedback loop became damaging. So, I shut it down for a season before re-opening it in a different format and way. It allowed me the space to find solid ground once again and move forward. So, identify the source and cut it off… this is a lot harder when it comes to people. Especially if that person is on your staff team.
  3. Don’t Forget Your Daily Affirmations. This video: Daily Affirmation is really important to integrate into your life. No, seriously it is. Have you watched it yet? Well do it now.**

Don’t let go of your vision. Remember that if you did the work, if you listened well to both God and your city, the vision is something that God has placed on your heart to lead. Don’t be so quick to let go of it, instead hold tightly and see what God actually has in store…***

* I’m not using the phrase “inspired by God” in the same way as I would use it to describe Scripture.

** Now of course I’m not completely serious, but remember humor is a great way to deal with your insecurities… if anything it gives you a brief mental respite.

*** Some of you read this whole thing and got really frustrated because I didn’t mention things like prayer, or turn to God, or read the Bible, or journal… basic spiritual disciplines. Well, let me just say that if a church planter (or pastor) is not doing those things, if we cannot assume those as the basics that undergird everything then we have greater problems as a church than insecurity. Can’t we move past the basics for a change?

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