On top of being a transformational church consultant and involved in spiritual leadership development and training, I also wear a hat called the New Church Department Chair. In that role, I lead a small group of Christian leaders in the NE Area of Missouri who are committed to developing church planting. We’re currently seeking indigenous church planters and developing the assessment tools for selecting appropriate candidates. We could, of course, leave our denomination to do the assessing for us … but several of us on the New Church Department have had first-hand experience with their work and we’ve become committed to doing our own assessment. Not because we want to reinvent the wheel or because the denomination doesn’t have a good heart. But, like most mainline denominations, there’s suddenly a push to plant a bunch of churches and it’s very, very difficult to raise up highly qualified leaders. And so, rather than start fewer churches that might experience success, there’s a move to approve even marginally qualified people to start churches. I suspect the rationale is that by starting a lot of churches, that at least some will succeed. Those that don’t are simply acceptable losses.
The problem is, those “acceptable” losses are bankrupting middle judicatories as well as those churches and organizations who are funding failure after failure. And that doesn’t even take into account the carnage being wrought in the lives of the failed church planters and those few that they managed to gather to start a new church. I’ve repeatedly seen failed marriages, moral failures, and much stress-related disease ransack these poorly assessed “acceptable” church planters.
An effective assessment process is all about behaviors, not willing canon fodder. When we assess a candidate, we’re less interested in getting the candidate accepted and a lot more concerned with whether or not they have the behavior patterns not only to start a church, but to stay the course. The premise of the assessment process is that the best indicator of future performance is past behavior (Charles Ridley).
For instance, one of the questions that we ask is for the candidate to tell us about a time when they were responsible for gathering a crowd (of almost any size) for an event. If they’ve never done that, there’s a good chance it’s because they can’t do it. Most of us have had opportunities to gather a crowd for some sort of an event … birthday party, dinner party, backyard barbeque, etc. But doing it just once isn’t enough. We’re looking for patterns of behaviors. Do they gather crowds as a matter of course, or did they only do it once or twice. Patterns. Lifestyles. That’s the key to whether or not a candidate can do a church plant.
Other questions include asking them to recount times when they intentionally started a conversation with a stranger. If they don’t do that as a pattern, they can’t plant a church. We ask them about sharing their faith with others. If they aren’t doing that they can’t start a church. If they don’t behave as an entrepreneurial, crowd gathering, faith sharing, not-afraid-of-strangers kind of person, they’re not going to make it as a church planter I don’t care if you put them in a room with 1,000 spiritually starving seekers.
The reason so many mainline church plants are struggling is because their assessments appear to be based on education, desire, and whether or not the person is breathing and has a pulse. We’re so desperate for people willing to endure the difficulties of church planting that we’ll approve almost any candidate who is willing and “qualified,” typically meaning seminary educated. Of course all bets are off when it comes to ethnic minority candidates … apparently we don’t think that a seminary education is all that important for ethnic starts (hmmm, there may be a reason ethnic starts are significantly more successful and less expensive than Anglo starts in the Mainline).
What we’ve learned and experienced is that there are a number of church planter wannabes who “think” they could start a church. “How hard can it be? If I didn’t have to deal with the board, the deacons, and all the politics, it would be so easy to ‘run’ a church.” What they don’t realize is that if they can’t work through difficult people or if they can’t “sell” their vision to an existing church board, they probably don’t have the skills that will carry them forward in church planting. It’s just not that easy. If they can’t grow a church, if they’re not doing adult baptisms, if they spend more time behind their computer than with people, give them a miss. They just can’t do it.