I’m a recovering idiot, meaning I tend to learn most lessons the hard way.
I’m also a church planter and the founding pastor of Eastpoint Church in Spokane Valley, Washington. My peeps would tell you they love me, and they would also confirm my proclivity for taking the less-than-glorious path of church leadership at times.
Before we launched Eastpoint in 2003, I read and reread Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church. The inspiring and biblical insights within this book challenged and motivated me. I knew in my knower that this book was a timely gift from God to me (and many others).
From the beginning, we identified our mission, vision, and values based on the five purposes (i.e. fellowship, discipleship, worship, ministry, evangelism). I told our launch team “we are a purpose driven church”, and we were pumped to begin the adventure.
At first, things went extremely well. We started with hundreds of people, and the church grew rapidly. It was exciting, and I started hiring staff. By year two we were looking for a larger and more permanent facility. Then that “recovering idiot” thing started to kick in, and I made a series of serious leadership mistakes.
I was working hard. I didn’t mean to go sideways. But in an ironic sort of way, our success contributed to more lessons learned the hard way. The more we grew, the more lax I became in my commitment to our being a purpose driven church.
Convinced you can learn from my mistakes, I will highlight my lowlights with the hope that you won’t make the same nearly fatal errors I did.
- Never stop communicating to your church the vision, the big picture, and your purposes on a regular basis (and that means all the time). After a few years, I got bored saying the same thing over and over again. I thought the people got it. I assumed they wouldn’t forget. They did. My bad. So we drifted. By the way, we’re back on vision now, but it was a grueling process, and I felt as if I were pushing a boulder uphill most of the time.
- Never put someone in charge of small groups who isn’t very pastoral. Whether it’s a staff person or a key volunteer, unless that leader bleeds for connection and has natural and supernatural shepherding instincts, he or she won’t successfully recruit, train, and deploy effective small group care-givers. Duh.
- Never forget to establish a reproducible and sustainable model for your small group ministry. If you don’t (and I didn’t), your small group growth won’t keep up with your weekend service growth. Sustainable means it works over the long haul without burning people out. Reproducible means you can quickly and effectively grow more small groups as needed.
- Never confuse your people or your staff about your church’s discipleship growth track. We’ve always had discipleship classes. Spiritual growth is one of our five purposes. However, after a while, nobody could tell you how to get from A to Z in our discipleship trajectory. In an attempt to be fresh and creative, we became confusing and complicated. Whether you use the “four bases” (the Saddleback model) or something else, if people don’t know where they’re headed and what’s expected of them, they wander.
- Never fail to define the win for your ministries and programs. If you don’t define it, someone else will. I’m not a micro-manager by nature. I prefer to give people some basic guardrails to stay within and then let them drive. What I discovered is that guardrails are good, but a clear destination (i.e. vision) is paramount. You don’t have to control everything, but you must set, define and describe the ultimate goal for every ministry and program within your church. If you don’t, people won’t stay true to your core purposes and values over the long run.
- Never forget that the primary role of the pastors is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13). As our church and our finances grew, it became easier to hire more people rather than to invite, train, and release more volunteers into service. I also failed to structure our staff around our five purposes, so after a while, we weren’t balanced in our focus, ministries, or personnel.
- Never fail to do regular and brutal evaluation of your church’s health. It was easy (too easy) to point simply to the Sunday morning crowd numbers as a sign of church health. You need to ask your staff, yourself, and your spouse weekly, “How are we doing? What’s going well? What’s not?” What you don’t inspect becomes suspect.
Obviously, I haven’t used this article to tell you how to do what you must do (consider attending this PD conference at Saddleback for that), but I hope my mistakes are a wake-up call to you. In your context and your church, you must figure out how to avoid going off course.
Frankly, getting back on course is tough. Changing direction is challenging, especially if your church ship is relatively large. But remember this sage advice from Pastor Rick: “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always be where we’ve always been.”
With God’s help, you can do what needs to be done. Humble yourself. Bite the bullet and go for it. Lives and the health of your church are at stake.