Church Planting is a hard calling, the lure of quitting crosses every planters mind. In this interview Steve Nicholson shares his experience on the process a church planter can go through.
Jeff Heidkamp: Early on in a church plant, sometimes the church planter has desires to quit because of the difficulties and the pressures. Spiritual warfare plays a part too. Is that fairly common?
Steve Nicholson: Well, it’s not just church planters. It’s common for pastors in general, because it’s hard to see your rewards. They are usually distant and seem more ethereal.
JH: Maybe the tension is that there are times when we look at a pastor and think, “You should really consider stopping. You know you’ve tried really hard.” But we also can often feel that people should press on. So what are some of the signs that it really is a legitimate time to quit and not just the normal temptation that comes with the difficulty of the early years?
SN: We certainly want to help somebody quit before they more or less ruin themselves pounding their head against the wall. By then they would be no good to anyone. But if they still have the capacity to continue, you don’t want them to become too critical too early. A good criterion is whether you can still articulate a compelling vision. Do you have it in you? It’s difficult to recover from the inability to articulate vision. Pure survival is not a very good witness.You have to be able to say, “Why are we doing this, and why is it worth doing?” If you can’t do that in a compelling way anymore, that’s an indicator that maybe you can’t go on. But Mondays don’t count as an indicator!
Quitting can almost be a fantasy that’s like a coping mechanism.
JH: [Laughter] Or February in the Midwest.
SN: Right. [Laughs] Another thing I often ask is, “Are people coming, and are they sticking with the church?” Of course, not everyone has to stay. But if nobody’s visiting, or they take one look and run away, that’s probably a bad sign.
Now, if people are coming and looking, and some of them stay, then that means there is still potential there.
Another huge thing is that sometimes it is the condition of the planter that has to be considered, not necessarily the condition of the church. The job is so demanding. Sometimes you might find yourself in a crisis that makes it impossible to click in with the church process. Cancer is an example. If you’re not able to do the job, and it’s not going to turn around soon, then you need to quit.
JH: What do you do then? Do you try to turn it over to somebody?
SN: Exactly. Many times when people get to the point of quitting, they don’t talk to anybody about it. That’s the first mistake. The second mistake is, if they quit, they usually just close the church and don’t give us a shot at saving it.
If there’s enough good that has been built up, the church can actually probably be saved by somebody else. So if someone is wondering, “Should I quit?” the first thing to do is to either talk to your coach or your APCL [Area Pastoral Care Leader].
Secondly, if after talking to them, you still feel like you should quit, then the next question is whether you can help develop a strategy to get someone in to take the church from that point. Work with your coach and APCL before you go and make announcements to the church.
JH: Quitting can almost be a fantasy that’s like a coping mechanism. You might think about it, but it’s wise not to just go do it. It won’t work the way you think.
SN: That’s right.
JH: Are there specific moments that you can think of when it’s particularly tempting for somebody to quit but should be advised to press through it? Are there typical patterns or situations?
SN: When there is a big moment when you feel like you must quit, think about it. Did it happen right after you went through a major conflict or someone came in with a huge criticism? Well, if so, that’s never a time to quit. Maybe a key person in the church leaves. Your first thought is, “He’s irreplaceable. I can’t go on without him.” Actually, the truth is that nobody’s ultimately indispensable. You need to give God a chance to replace that person in that role. Often he might replace the person with somebody who may be better.
I encourage church planters not to look so much at the numbers, but to look for the new people.
JH: That can be a key growth point in your church sometimes. Maybe that person needed to get out of the way so that you can get to the next place.
SN: Exactly. But it’s hard to see that at first amidst the devastation. It might have even been one of your closest friends. It makes it even harder to imagine going around without him or her.
JH: You know, is there something to say here about seasonal attendance patterns, just to remind people that attendance goes down in the summer? And nobody goes to church the week after Christmas. Don’t get depressed because of that.
SN: [Laughter] There are definitely seasonal patterns between Christmas and New Year’s. There is no particular high attendance time, either. And this year the Fourth of July landed on a Sunday—I don’t think any church in America had a high attendance that day!
SN: It certainly doesn’t mean the attendance is down or that it’s not working. It just means people are taking vacations. They’re doing what they probably should be doing. So keep a little perspective. Especially in their early stages, I encourage church planters not to look so much at the numbers, but to look for the new people. Frequently what happens is that your number goes down because your regular people go on vacation. But it’s also a time when new people check out churches. So that might be a time when it would be exceedingly helpful to pay attention to new people.
JH: It sometimes takes a while for people to really believe that they’ll come back in the fall, but they really do come back in the fall.
SN: Yes. In fact, if a church attendance doesn’t go down in the summer, then that is a certain sign that the church is growing. And when fall comes, there are going to be much higher numbers.
if a church attendance doesn’t go down in the summer, then that is a certain sign that the church is growing.
JH: We put a lot of the pressure on the church planter to be getting the help they need. But I would like you to speak to another church- planting team member for a minute—or someone who is a friend of a church planter. When you see somebody getting into a dark place where they are thinking of quitting, or they recognize their need to quit, how do you be loving and supportive of people going through that?
SN: The first thing you need to know is that there are resources available. Right now the Vineyard has a weekend called Sabbath Retreat, which is a refreshing healing and joy seminar. A planter’s first step should be to go to one of those. And you, as a friend, should simply help to make it possible. Babysit. Buy the plane ticket for them. Do whatever it takes. The second strategy is just to pray. People can forget that this is a spiritual battle. Prayer makes such a difference. Sometimes you can get under it. Sometimes it is just an isolated spiritual attack, and five minutes of prayer can actually stop it. It doesn’t take long and complicated prayer. It just takes somebody stopping and doing it.
JH: That’s great.
SN: The third thing is that sometimes a friend just needs to help a planter keep perspective. Sometimes, as I mentioned, a conflict or criticism can really dominate a church planter’s thinking so that they can’t see all the people who love everything good that is happening in the church. A friend just needs to come in and say, “Let me tell you what I see is going right. Let me tell you about the people whose lives are being changed right now.”
JH: I think some of those conversations have saved my life. I swear they have.
SN: It’s so very important.
JH: Surrounding this issue of discouragement and quitting is the up-front preparation the Vineyard encourages planters to go through. Are there things young church planters or potential planters can do now to put themselves in a better situation later?
SN: Number one, make sure you have a good relationship with a coach and an APCL who can help you when it gets tough. Number two is to recruit committed “pray-ers” at your sending church. Get them to pray for you on a regular basis from the beginning. Plan it so that all you need to do is send email updates and they’ll pray. It can save your life if you’ve got that in place. I also think that a good strong team makes a huge difference. You need people who believe in this as much as you do. When the going gets tough, they will stand there and fight for it when you’re not sure you have any fight left.
Sometimes a key to breaking through the barrier is just an outside perspective
JH: Do you think there’s any value to set some benchmarks? Or would it be counterproductive? Say you decide, “If I haven’t gotten to this point by this time, then I need to think about hanging it up.” I myself gave permission to a few people to tell me if they really thought I should quit. Or is that setting yourself up to be discouraged?
SN: The thing is about benchmarks is that the benchmarks you decide on will vary quite a bit by where you were and what your particular circumstances were when you started. So I can’t prescribe a standard benchmark. It’s more about the question I mentioned before: Are people visiting and are some of them sticking? Basically, is the front door operating?
JH: I know of one church that was stuck at 40 people for four or five years, and then they started growing.
SN: Sometimes there are key things that have to happen. Surprisingly often, a key to breaking through the barrier is just an outside perspective that points out an obvious thing that needs to be done that you just can’t see when you’re so close to it.
JH: That’s probably why it helps to have a coach! Is there anything else you would like to say?
SN: Remember that planters are like the people who are trying to get a bomb going. But there are other people who can take the bomb and run. If you can’t get past the first 50 people, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else who can do that part. What you’ve done is not for nothing. Sometimes there is a place and time to hand it off to the next person. A good church can still grow. If you find yourself in that place, you know it’s not so much that you failed. It’s just that you’re not necessarily in the place to take it to the next step. But there’s probably somebody else who is. The Lord’s work still gets done.