Church Planting, Leadership, and the Search for Humility

Part 2 in the Series: What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

I recently published my first post about what I learned failing to plant a church. I suspected then, and am more convinced now, that this will be a series of posts. By God’s grace, I have a few more thoughts to share here, in a second installment, which is shaping up to be largely about leadership. (I consider the first post to be chiefly about Christian identity.) Who knows how many we’ll end up discussing over time, but for now, here are a few more lessons painfully but worshipfully learned in the process of failing to plant a church.

  1. A Word on Context
  2. Lesson 6: Leadership is important, hard, and misunderstood
  3. Lesson 7: Let Jesus choose your battles
  4. Lesson 8: Every Christian leader is primarily a follower
  5. Lesson 9: New ideas require moving slow and communicating more

A Word on Context

By the way, check out the aforementioned first post for a little back story on our church planting aspirations in general. But what you really need to know to set the context for this post is that we attempted to plant a different kind of church: a house church network focused on discipleship, in the neighborhood … something that would leave behind tradition-for-the-sake-of-tradition and focus on the beauty of Jesus in our midst. We failed. I failed. But God doesn’t ever fail. And He is very, VERY good. He redeems … well … everything we break.

So, I invite you to join me in rummaging through some broken pieces together. Be careful with them, though, because I am absolutely convinced that our amazing God is still making something beautiful with them.

Lesson 6: Leadership is important, hard, and misunderstood

Leadership” is my 3rd spiritual gift — behind “knowledge” and “teaching.” A more robust discussion of spiritual gifts can be saved for another day, but I share this to emphasize that I went into church planting believing that I was a gifted leader. Moreover, I believed I was leaning on a supernatural empowerment from God to do what we imagined were going to be great things. God did in fact do great things (as He always does), but they looked nothing like we imagined they would.

Leadership [my definition] is the art and science of casting vision and empowering a team to achieve that vision together. It’s about equipping people to be the best possible versions of themselves in pursuit of a common dream. It’s about supporting and encouraging and reminding everyone what’s true as we all take the hill together. It’s about going first, as an example to others. It’s about celebrating the successes and sharing in the challenges with a team. Leadership is vitally important, because without vision, without a rallying cry, without the one to marshal the troops, every group of people will wander aimlessly. It’s in our nature; we were made to be led … perfectly by King Jesus, and very imperfectly by those He appoints to the task under Him. There can be no effective mission without leadership.

“Sounds pretty good,” you might be thinking. So, what’s the problem?

In part, the problem is that leaders have a tough row to hoe in our day. Our culture isn’t very tolerant of leaders or leadership. Everyone pretty much feels like everything should be their way. It’s often less about “a common dream” or “a shared vision,” and more about “my way or the highway.” Our culture is absolutely drenched with entitlement and independence and hyper-crunchy judgmentalism. We cancel people who make the smallest undesirable move; they don’t even have to be “wrong” anymore. Most of us don’t even realize how blithely we’re demanding that the world bend to our every whim … everything exactly the way we want it when we want it, free from even the smallest inconvenience. We have allowed our selfishness to grow and our resilience to be eroded to such an extent that challenges that have become threats and comfort has become king. Most Americans effectively refuse to be led.

But that’s only half the story. The other side of the coin is that many leaders aren’t doing a very good or godly job being leaders. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in power and celebrity. It’s easy to forget that leaders are servants and that leadership is about getting under others and supporting them … not about standing over them and ordering them around. When vision-casting is met with skepticism or uncertainty, just about everything is easier than godly, patient, humble leadership. The lure of manipulation, condemnation, aggravation, capitulation, and … it goes downhill from there … can be downright overwhelming. It’s simply not easy to be a good leader. There are pitfalls and ditches all over the place, and we have many, many, MANY examples of leaders who have fallen into them.

I certainly did.

When we set out to plant the church, the vision and call were clear. God had communicated them to me repeatedly, with clarity, and through all manner of intermediary sources. I felt certain that God had spoken to Faith and I, and that He had given us a clarion call for a different kind of church … a mission into the neighborhood. It was a vivid and compelling dream, and we were excited about it! And it was obvious to me that leading the church plant was not only my privilege but my responsibility. I literally felt I was on a mission from God … and the truth is, I wasn’t wrong.

What was wrong is the way I lived that out, especially once the traumatic pressures of the pandemic years started mounting and the train started coming off the tracks. And my reaction to all the stress and pressure and brokenness … well, it was a lot of things, but skilled, godly, dependent-on-Jesus, others-loving, others-preferring, others-elevating, servant leadership it was not. Most of this post will zoom in on that thought, but just to get the ball rolling, here’s a huge pothole that blew the alignment for our fledgling church…

When everyone started to shut down and back away from me and what I considered to be the mission, I responded in some really healthy and helpful ways.

Let me unpack…

First, the team was shutting down and backing away, not opening up and moving toward. There was little constructive engagement. No concerns expressed; just crossed arms and blank stares. No asking questions; just obvious-but-unspoken dissatisfaction. I tried over and over, in many different (in retrospect, not great) ways, to get input and cast vision, to repent of wrongdoing, and build consensus, but my efforts were largely met with awkward silence, terse responses, and widening chasms of misunderstanding and miscommunication. There wasn’t enough real dialogue. I didn’t know how to create it, and neither did my team. I was hurting them and they were hurting me, but none of us knew how to express that in healthy ways. So instead, we all ended up creating and perpetuating a fairly negative feedback loop. As a group, we were neither leading nor following very well.

So (secondly), that’s where I started to melt down. Because I felt like my team was stonewalling me and devaluing the mission, I judged them instead of moving toward them. I pressed harder instead of asking more questions, listening well, and letting it take as long as it took to draw out their concerns. I powered up instead of waiting in awkward silence. I knew where I wanted them to go, and I was getting increasingly frustrated that they seemed to refuse to go there. I thought, “Hadn’t they agreed to all this when they agreed to join the mission?! Let’s get it together, people. We’ve got work to do!”

What I realize now (far too late) is that my internal assessment of my self-worth was dependant on successfully achieving the mission. I had a gun to my own head, and so anyone I perceived not to be helping me achieve the goal posed a threat to my security and self-worth. I didn’t know how to rest in God’s acceptance or let Him be the one to do the achieving. I just kept pushing harder for those around me to get with the program. And the more I had to get this thing done to prove who I was (all unconsciously, of course), the more they became widgets I felt I needed to fit together to create some kind of image of success I was carrying around in my head.

That, of course, pushed them farther away. And as I sensed I was losing them, I (thirdly) started chasing their approval. Without realizing it, I got into a cycle of trying to figure out what would make them happy, chasing it, failing to make them happy, feeling like a failure in general, and trying harder. So the cycle would reset and repeat, and I had no idea what was happening in the moment or how to get out of it. This looks a lot like co-dependence, but bears very little resemblance to good and godly leadership.

So, what did I learn?

The Takeaways: A bunch of things…

Leadership is vitally important. It’s necessary. Casting a big vision and directing people toward it is by no means sinful or wrong, but it will probably always be messy and slow. Don’t let the particular failures of your leadership or the particular failures of their followership make you question the way God made you. Leadership is your shape, but you’re broken by sin, just like we all are. So, take your frail and failing shape to Jesus. Work with Him, walk with Him, and He’ll grow you up … not to mention, He’ll give you rest.

Secondly, my leadership was bad but it wasn’t all bad. The failure… It was me, but it wasn’t all me. My team could have done a better job at meeting me halfway as I tried and failed, but they didn’t. I was demanding and judgmental, but so were they. There was plenty of hurt and blame to go around. I needed to repent for many things, but that includes trying to bear all the weight of all the responsibility. Not everything was on me! Don’t let the part of it that is on you tempt you to pull the rest of it down on you as well. God’s grace is enough for all of it, but everyone needs to own their own sin … not just you.

Third, my value doesn’t come from success … or anything else but who and what Jesus says I am. If God says you’re loved and valuable (and He does!), then you are. Period. I wish I’d realized earlier that I have nothing to prove. You don’t have anything to prove either. It’s enough to just be His.

Fourth, people are not puzzle pieces. I didn’t mean to and I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I ended up treating my team like goal-achievement-widgets. People are not pawns. Yes, we can all work together to achieve goals, and leaders need to call teams to that honorable reality. But team members are not tools. We’re human beings, not human doings. And our humanity has to come before our utility, not from it.

And finally, don’t chase their approval. It doesn’t matter what anyone but the Lord thinks of you. Leaders will always have to make unpopular decisions. If you start chasing “making them happy,” you’ll never stop, and you’ll run around in circles until everything collapses. Focus on the Lord’s approval. Seek His face. And be really gracious toward all the people around you who are struggling with the same things you are.

I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 13:34-35

Lesson 7: Let Jesus choose your battles

Like I said, once I started to sense that I was losing them, I tried to make them happy because I thought that would keep everything from falling apart. Boy, was that a bad idea! Because it created this bizarre fear-driven dynamic which scrambled my conflict mechanism. I got passive when I should have made more waves and stood my ground in some areas, and I powered up when I should have slowed down and let things flex way more in others. I wish I had fought more at the right times, backed off more at other times, and listened more all the time. But fear and brokenness threw all that in a blender, and torpedoed my leadership.

When I got blank stares or looks of disapproval, I should have halted everything until they shared what they really thought. That would have been more honest, and more in the spirit of the community we were trying to build.

When I felt unsupported and accused, I should have said so outright, instead of trying to figure out how to make them happy so that they would start supporting and stop accusing. Yes, they could have communicated better, but as the leader, I should have modeled that healthy communication. Then maybe we could have gone to prayer for one another and collaboration with one another, instead of [perhaps misunderstood] accusations of one another.

When I felt someone was devaluing the mission, I should have admonished them more clearly, so they could have either been convicted or refuted me (maybe I would have been convicted instead). I think I even remember Matthew 18 having something to say about an approach we could have taken. Double facepalm.

When my expectations weren’t met, I should have restated them more clearly (communicated more, rather than nursing indignation, working harder myself, and silently judging others), so that we could have discussed how reasonable my expectations really were. And that goes for everyone else around the circle too. Or even better, what if I had moved slower and been more clear about those expectations out the gate? (We’ll come back to that below.)

When I felt that the men I’d appointed as elders weren’t the right fit, I should have said so. That would have been super hard and messy, I know. But here again, at the very least it would have been a mutually beneficial, God-honoring, building-together kind of conversation (even conflict), instead of my just being frustrated but afraid to call someone out for fear of losing them. (This point deserves greater treatment in the future as well.)

When I sensed that people were hurting, I could have sat with them in their ashes and pain instead of assuming that “being missional” meant “sucking it up and getting back to work.” I was too judgmental, too arrogant, too cold in the face of their pain, too indifferent toward their concerns, and too desperate for “success” to sit with them and listen well. I wish I had loved them better!

Sadly, I could probably go on for a while, but you get the idea.

The Takeaways:
First, my identity has to come from Jesus. He’s the only one who gets to tell me who I am. If the church plant or the other church planters have that power, then I’m doomed to scenarios like those I described above. Take your identity questions — “Who am I?” and “Am I enough?” — to Jesus, and nobody else.

Second, the decision-making has to come from Jesus. He’s the only one with the wisdom and clarity to pick our battles for us and tell us how to respond to all the diverse opinions and stimula flying at us everyday as leaders. When to give and when to stand immovable … when to charge ahead and when to wait … only He knows how to navigate those difficult waters. We must truly depend on Him.

The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-8

And that leads to my next lesson…

Lesson 8: Every Christian leader is primarily a follower

Out in the world at large, there are many amazing entrepreneurs and innovative leaders. Guys like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Walt Disney establish visions for worlds that others can’t see or still others think are impossible … and they create them anyway. And they bring armies of people along with them for the ride. They dream up some kind of amazing future out of essentially nothing, and lead others to make it real together. It’s pretty incredible!

But that really can’t happen in the kingdom of God. Not in the same way anyway. Because there are no totally original, truly innovative visions in God’s kingdom. There’s only one CEO in God’s economy. Only one Master Vision-Caster. One King … as in absolute monarch … as in sovereign Ruler of the universe. And everyone else is a follower.

Yes, King Jesus commanded us to subdue and rule the earth. Yes, He hands out gifts of leadership, calling us into lives of casting visions and leading people to accomplish them. But unlike the kingdom of Elon Musk, a Christian leader’s mission and vision always come from Jesus. Nobody gets to make anything up out of whole cloth.

And the power to achieve these visions also comes from Jesus. Nobody has the strength to create something from nothing.

And the directives about how to orchestrate and organize others around them … they come from Jesus too. Nobody has the wisdom they need for that.

See a pattern?

If my thinking as a Christian leader is foreign to the people around me, it had better be because the Lord is using me to teach them something, not because I got really clever. If the vision is innovative, God Himself had better be the Innovator. Because imagineering is His job, not mine.

Wait! Does that mean leadership gifts aren’t valuable? Does that mean there is no place for creativity or innovation or entrepreneurialism in the Kingdom of God? Absolutely not! I just wrote several paragraphs on the value of leadership. But Christian leadership is always in context of Christ followership. We leader types were made this way to serve … as a particularly-shaped conduit for the dreams and plans and amazing grace of the God of the Universe, not our own.

Here’s a hard truth… The leader in Scripture that had His own independent, clever, really cool plans for the universe was Satan.

That’s sobering.

You and I, whether we’re leaders or not, are called to follow Jesus, to get our gifted empowerment from Jesus, to walk everyday with and absolutely depend on Jesus. Full stop.

My wife Faith and I started the church plant well. We prayed and prayed and prayed (though too much of that was independently and not enough was together as a couple). But we sought the Lord about every little thing … from every nuance of the model to where we’d go to how we’d do it when we got there to who we’d invite to be involved. Truly, the beginning of that effort was bathed in prayer. But then the day came when I felt like I had my marching orders. I thought I knew what to do. And I believed I was strong enough to do it. So, very unintentionally, I struck out on my own and left Jesus in the dust.

But Jesus intends life to be an exercise in staying with Him. In all our church planting aspirations, my only real job was to depend on Him. So is yours! Everything else flows from that and, in a sense, will take care of itself. Whatever comes, we have to let Jesus lead, so that He gets to choose when I respond in boldness and strength and when I respond with patience and flexibility. Well that, and we must surround ourselves with godly men and women who will help us keep these commitments.

I still believe that the idea and the model came from the Lord, but our first attempt at tactical execution did not. Of course, now that I look back, I believe He was always doing something greater than I realized, but that doesn’t absolve me from needing to learn this lesson…

The Takeaway: Just one this time…

Stay with Jesus. Get the plan from Jesus, and then execute the plan with Jesus … by staying with Him. Every step. All the way to the end.

Because He’s the real Leader here.

Without vision (revelation), people run wild, but one who follows divine instruction will be happy.

Proverbs 29:18

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own understanding;
in all your ways know him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Don’t be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
This will be healing for your body
and strengthening for your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

Lesson 9: New ideas require moving slow and communicating more

Pace and communication may be the two most important considerations in effective leadership.

You may be thinking, “What about following the Lord?” or “What about vision?” or “What about empowering the team?” … etc. And rightly so. But if a leader doesn’t figure out how to keep pace with the Holy Spirit and the team, how can he receive the vision from God (keeping pace with the Spirit) or empower the team (setting a pace they can effectively sustain, especially over time)? And if a leader doesn’t figure out how to communicate, how will she hear from God or speak the team’s language, such that they will understand and buy-in and be willing to throw down with her to achieve the vision?

I’ve always had a problem with pace, and I’ve always known it. I tend to figure things out pretty quickly, lock into a vision I feel the Lord has given me, and then charge ahead. And I did that with the church plant, as we’ve discussed. My pace was inappropriate on multiple levels. First, I was out of step with the Spirit, charging ahead instead of waiting for Him and moving at His speed — spoiler alert: the Spirit moves pretty slow. And because of that, second, I was out of step with the team. They didn’t understand what we were doing, even though I felt like I’d cast the vision 1,000 times in 1,000 ways. But they weren’t really bought in. They were afraid and in pain, and so they just simply couldn’t keep up with me (nor should they have).

And my reaction to that — instead of grace, borne of love, or slowing down, borne of humility — was judgment and offense. Somehow, I ended up with an “if you were serious about this mission, you’d get off the couch” chip on my shoulder. Somehow, I came to view my own team as “dead weight” or even “the enemy,” because I perceived them not to be helping me achieve the “success” I was increasingly desperate to achieve. I think the “somehow” involved some pretty fundamental identity issues for me, as we discussed, and that led to an unsustainable pace — both for me and for my team.

Similarly, I totally failed at communication. And this one surprised me, because I thought I excelled at communication. I’m a gifted teacher after all. I know how to communicate the Scriptures and the things of God. People affirm that all the time. And everyone seemed to understand and get excited when I talked about the vision for the church plant … which I felt like I did a lot.

Well, all that may be true at some level, but looking back on the implosion of the ministry, I’m forced to admit that I utterly failed a) to communicate the vision for the church plant to my team in such a way that they could appropriate it deeply, b) to listen well, and c) to build community well … to just sit and talk about our lives in a way that made them feel loved and safe and connected.

Let’s unpack that…

  1. Early on, I shared the vision enough for people to declare how smart I was and how wonderful it was, but not enough for the team to deeply understand it, question it, object to it, process through it, and own it. We should have waited to start until more of that had happened.
  2. My team members were not as mature as I thought they were, so I treated issues at a higher level than I should have … and that treatment was laden with unhelpful and inaccurate assumptions. (More on this in a future post.)
  3. I wasn’t humble enough to believe that if we’d taken longer to work on the vision together, I might have learned from the team and they might have improved the vision. I felt like the vision was from God and I had it figured out. My arrogance meant the ministry missed out on all the value that would have come from the ideas of others and from the additional soak time we could have had together.
  4. As frustration, tension, and COVID-related stress mounted, I got more command-and-control (“just do it!”) when I should have slowed down, been more patient, and talked through things even more (e.g. “how’s everyone doing?” and “what’s everyone think?” and “how can we do this better together?”). Collaboration and connection could have strengthened the team and me and the mission, if I had been more humble and patient.

I think the lesson to be learned is that this kind of “slowing down” and “talking more” leads to more success, not less. But even there, fellow leader, it’s not about how much success we think we can squeeze out of our teams, it’s about depending on and following Jesus and inviting others to join us as we do. And the byproduct will be the fruit of effective ministry.

The Takeaway:
The more foreign or new or challenging a vision is, the more a leader needs to slow down and take a ton of time and intentionality to communicate it. In both these things, we have to keep pace with a) the Spirit and b) the team. There is no effective Christian leadership without appropriate pace (slow!) and effective communication (more!).

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. 

I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Image Credit

  1. Business Leader Ideating – Unknown
  2. Man Concentrating – Decision-Making in High-Stress Situations (LinkedIn)
  3. No Puzzle Piece – Judy Endow: Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces
  4. Chess Board – iStock Photos
  5. Child with Jesus – Peakpx
  6. Keeping Pace – Runtastic: Pace Calculator
  7. Miscommunication – How to Avoid Miscommunication in Relationships
  8. Leadership word map – New Mexico State University

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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