20 Church Planting Lessons from Year One

One year ago we planted a church in the downtown/west 7th/cultural arts district of Fort Worth, Texas. Planting 7 City Church was an adventure. I’m a naturally driven leader, but I’ve never worked so hard in my life. We just celebrated our one-year anniversary (here’s a video review of year one), so I decided to reflect over the last year and share some of the most important lessons we’ve learned. We did great with many of the lessons, and with others we didn’t do so well. Here are 20 lessons from year one of church planting.

1. Communicate an Unashamedly Clear Vision – Many pastors are tired of hearing leadership talks about vision. It’s such an over-emphasized subject that it seems to have lost its power. The unintended consequence is that many visions today are nothing more than mind-numbing replicas from someone else’s playbook. Original prints are nowhere to be found. But when you’re planting a church, clear vision is absolutely essential. People don’t follow visionless leaders. Your ability to capture and communicate a compelling vision is absolutely critical. Here are four vision-casting lessons in the church planting process

2. Partner with a Parent Church – If at all possible, find a church to partner with before you launch. I cannot tell you the difference this has made for 7 City Church. Our parent church was Christ Church in Fort Worth. I served on staff at Christ Church for several years before we launched 7 City. They invested people, prayer, and money into our launch. They funded an extensive remodel of our facility. They provide valuable coaching and encouragement. And their financial office has helped us maintain books with excellent accountability and accounting procedures. Furthermore, before we launched, a smaller congregation with a building in a fantastic location merged with our launch team. We were able to remodel the building and launch 7 City Church in September 2012. The relationship with other churches was a game changer for 7 City’s launch and health.

3. Create a Brand Consistent with Your Community – I know branding often sounds unspiritual, but I believe it really is important. The area where our church is located consists of thousands of young professionals in an urban and cultural arts district. These leaders see excellence everywhere they turn. Skimping on design simply wouldn’t cut it. We wanted 7 City’s brand to reflect three things: our vision, our neighborhood, and the audience we’re trying to reach. From our logo design, web design, and facility remodel, we worked hard to ensure a brand that’s consistent with who we are, where we’re located in our city, and who we’re trying to reach.

4. Recruit a Stellar Team of Volunteers – Another advantage to working with a parent church is the ability to recruit a quality team. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that we would be sunk without our teams. We worked hard to cast vision and assemble teams in four primary areas (auditorium, first impressions, kids ministry, and marketing). To build the team, we took four initial steps in the recruitment process:

  • Requirements – Which roles and how many volunteers are required in order to launch strong?
  • Assessment – What are the gifts, talents, and passions of our launch team?
  • Placement – Based on gifts, talents, and passions, who best fits which roles?
  • Assignment – What does each team member need to do before launch?

I can still remember working through this process with a member of our launch team who works as a consultant with Microsoft. I told him, “Jason, we need ten things done in the area of IT and computer networks, and five of them need to be done before we launch…in less than six weeks.” Jason jumped at the chance to help and hit a homerun. To this day I don’t know what I would have done without his help. A clear recruitment process enabled us to staff every critical area necessary for a strong launch.

5. Get Ready to be Surprised – Before we launched we had friends tell us, “You’ll be surprised by who goes with you and who doesn’t.” That proved to be very true. But what we didn’t realize was how much the idea of “surprised by who does and who doesn’t” applies to other areas too. We were surprised by who prayed, who gave, who volunteered, and who partnered with us. And we were surprised by who didn’t. I believe all of this is simply part of a church’s story. Every story is unique and filled with twists and turns. In the end you’re able to look back and see God’s faithfulness through the process.

6. Leverage Strategic Connection Events – In our first eight weeks we conducted five connection events. One event was a family event. The other four were guest lunches after Sunday morning services at a nearby restaurant. We were scrambling to put names with faces. We launched the church in September and weren’t planning to launch Community Groups until the beginning of February. We needed strategic connection events to help us meet people until groups launched. Looking back, we should have spent more time developing our connection strategy before opening day.

7. Secure Administrative Support as Soon as Possible – This was one of my biggest mistakes. While I had some volunteers to help with some items, I waited eight months to secure part-time administrative support. While the parent church we are connected with provided great financial and accounting support, I needed help with administrative issues to better facilitate office details, visitor assimilation, and other important issues. I would encourage you to answer the administrative question before you launch. Most likely this will be your first hire.

8. Don’t Buckle Under the Pressure to Start New Programs – When you start a church, everybody has an idea…usually several ideas. Most of them want to tell you why you should start their ideas. I once heard a respected pastor of a large church say that the average church in America has less than 130 members and yet has more than 30 programs. That stuck with me and served as a constant reminder to stay focused on a lean core of ministries. There’s always time to add and expand, but don’t buckle under the pressure to expand too quickly, or worse, to expand outside of your vision. Thankfully we’ve been able to maintain this focus. As a result, we’ve directed all of our energies to a small set of vision-centric priorities.

9. Be Touchable – As a church planter, you’re not a mega-church…so don’t act like one. It’s very important that you be touchable as a leader. This doesn’t mean that you let other people dictate your schedule (doing so will only burn you out). But look for opportunities to remain personable. Don’t hide in your office (or the “green room”) before and after services. I try to connect with as many people as possible before service starts. I rarely dismiss our services because I want to be in our lobby greeting people as they leave. The larger a church grows, the harder it is to stay connected. Be touchable.

10. Take Calculated Risks and Leverage Strategic Opportunities – When you start a church, everything feels emotionally risky. Whether it’s spending limited resources, choosing a promotion strategy, or starting a second service, the stakes feel high. Risk is the constant companion of the church planter. As we’ve faced risks, I’ve tried to keep in mind four things:

  • Resources: Do we have the resources, or can we acquire the resources, to make this risk happen?
  • Timing: Is it the right risk at the wrong time?
  • Focus: Is this risk distracting us from more important priorities?
  • Opportunity: What’s at stake if we don’t take this risk?

Several months ago our city closed a major bridge into the downtown area. As a result, the city routed the traffic directly past our building while the bridge was being replaced. We knew this was a strategic opportunity because of the spike in traffic flow. We took a calculated risk to invest additional money into marketing and promotion to take advantage of this unique and one-time opportunity.

Seven months into the launch of 7 City Church, we decided to launch a three-year financial campaign to eliminate our debt, expand our team, and enlarge our auditorium. We called it the GREATER Campaign.” I had leaders tell me it’s too early, we should wait a year, or it really isn’t needed. But the words of legendary Coach John Wooden kept ringing in my head: “When opportunity comes it’s too late to prepare.”

At the time we didn’t need a larger auditorium. We were paying our bills without any problem. However, we did need to expand our team. Furthermore, we wouldn’t know that five months later we would add a second service because we were out of room. Taking this risky step resulted in $250,000 in pledges. I don’t know what our future growth looks like, but I believe we’ll be ready when it’s time to enlarge our auditorium. Had I waited a year, I’m convinced we’d be playing catch up.

11. Prepare Yourself for the Emotions of the Numbers – I didn’t anticipate the emotional roller coaster pastors face when it comes to attendance numbers. Pastors often tout, “It’s not about the numbers,” but the truth is numbers take an emotional toll. This was true for me between Thanksgiving and Christmas and also during a five-week financial campaign in April. It required me to check my motives and to learn how to celebrate wins in other areas. To help us at Christmas, we cancelled the last service of the year so that our workers could rest. We were able to end the year with a big Christmas service and start the year with a big series that leveraged people’s desire for a fresh start. During our financial campaign, I kept reminding myself about the goal and our future growth.

12. Connect with the Community – It’s imperative that the church doesn’t turn inward. We’ve volunteered with a local food bank, community agency, elementary school, and park clean-up. One mistake I made was that we had a four-month stretch where we didn’t do anything in our community. I was so busy (primarily because I didn’t have administrative support) that I failed to plan community-based opportunities to serve. It’s essential that you keep connecting with your community regularly. It not only keeps you visible, but it keeps the church’s purpose in focus.

13. Understand Holidays in New Churches and Urban Environments – We didn’t know what to expect on holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day in a new church, or in an urban environment. I came from an established suburban church where all of these holidays were big. One of our lowest attended days was Mother’s Day (whereas it was the second largest holiday of the year in the church I came from). We discovered that young professional go home to see mom and grandma. This gave us a clear picture of what to expect, and how to plan, for year two.

14. Prepare, and Pray, for your Unique Logistics – As a church in an urban environment, parking is a premium. When we started, our facility had eight parking spaces (obviously not enough to facilitate much church growth). To make matters worse, less than six months into the launch, the city added a turn lane on the street in front of our building, thus removing the five parking spaces along the curb.

From the very beginning we’ve had to rent parking from the Fort Worth I.S.D. Directly across the street from us is a massive parking lot connected to one of the school district’s football stadiums. Every three months we had to re-negotiate a contract to rent parking spaces (they charged by the space). And we had to prepare for other parking challenges when streets were shut down for a marathon, or when the parking lot was rented to other organizations for city events, the Fort Worth Stock Show, MayFest, or the gay pride picnic.

This is part of our reality, so it is essential that we prepare and pray for these unique logistics. Furthermore, we work hard to make a great impression. We’ve been easy to work with, paid the full amount of the parking contracts in advance, and maintained a gracious attitude when it came time to renew our contract. After signing three-month contracts for the first nine-months while the school district reassessed the fair rental price of each parking space, we finally secured a one-year contract.

15. Develop a Strong Social Media Strategy – Social media is critical to the launch of a church. We have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Vimeo, and YouTube. We put together a simple Social Media Guide to distribute to our launch team. Facebook is by far our primary social media strategy. Before we launched we took a risk. We gave each of our launch team members administrator rights so they could personally invite all of their friends to “like” our Facebook page. We knew this was risky, but we believed it was worth it. We also created a customized Twitter template that included our service time, uploaded several videos for pre-launch and launch day, and cultivated very regular posting to increase engagement.

16. Don’t Underestimate Prayer – As I reflect over the last year, possibly the most important sermon series we did was a three-week series on prayer. Why do I say this? Because we received more testimonies of answered prayer as a result of that series than any other series we have done. Before we launched the church we requested a photo of every launch team family to include on a personal prayer board. I also gave all of our launch team members a copy of Mark Batterson’s mini-book, Be a Circle Maker.

17. Say Thank You – I cannot stress enough why this lesson is so important. You cannot launch a church alone. Before we launched I met with a friend who had served on a launch team for another church a couple years earlier. I asked him, “As a former launch team member, what would you say I need to do as a pastor of a new church plant?” His words were concise: “Say thank you to your volunteers.”

He said that he rarely heard his pastor say thanks for the time, energy, and resources that he invested in the church plant. Every chance I get I say thanks to our team members. They have given so much to 7 City Church. There is no way we would be where we are without them. I try to say thanks in three ways:

  • Verbally – Whether someone is serving faithfully on a team, taking care of an unexpected surprise in a building that’s over 60-years old (some people say it’s over 90-years old), or during a service project in our community, I want people to know they are appreciated. I verbally express thanks every chance that I can. Just this week one of our launch team members took us to dinner to congratulate us on our one-year birthday. They wanted to bless us, but I made sure I took a moment during the lunch to express our deep gratitude for the role they have played on our team. You will never go wrong saying thank you regularly to your team.
  • Monetarily – We don’t handout paychecks to our volunteers, but this doesn’t mean we can’t do small things to show our appreciation. At Christmas I gave a gift card to each of our volunteers. During a volunteer training event I recognized half a dozen volunteers for exceptional service and gave them a gift card. It’s not the amount of the card that matters as much as the fact that you noticed. It’s a very small investment that goes a long way.
  • Respectfully – One final way to say thanks is by respecting the need for additional help. Volunteers work overtime in church plants. They tend to serve more because the base of support isn’t as broad as an established church. As a pastor you have to be careful you don’t take advantage of this selfless sacrifice.

When I see our parking team standing in 100-degree weather, drenched in sweat after a long morning, I recognize the need for additional volunteers. When faithful kids ministry volunteers serve week after week without having a chance to attend a morning service, there is a need for additional volunteers. I haven’t always done a good job with this, but I’ve learned how crucial it is to keep volunteers engaged. I refused to launch a second service until we could adequately staff two services in such a way that volunteers wouldn’t get burned out. This took a tremendous amount of work, but in the long run it will be worth it. It’s one of the best ways to show respect to our current volunteers.

18. Get Your Early Hires Right – Next to telling people about Jesus and making disciples, hiring is possibly the most important thing a pastor will ever do. I know that doesn’t sound spiritual, but it’s true. The right team will multiply your efforts beyond your wildest dreams. The wrong hire is like an anchor that eats up time, resources, energy, and focus. During the month of May I hired a full-time associate pastor and a part-time administrative assistant. The progress, growth, and outcomes have been amazing. The lesson is this: Create a hiring process and develop solid hiring questions to ensure you get your early hires right (to learn more about hiring people who fit your culture, check out my new book, Creating Your Church’s Culture). Furthermore, make sure you hire generalists not specialists. Church plants can’t afford specialists who only do one thing. You must hire people who can contribute value in multiple areas.

19. Use a Systematic Discipline to Stay Focused – There are constant distractions for a pastor. Demands, ideas, emergencies, requests, calls, opportunities, invitations…the list is endless. “Focus” is one of my natural strengths, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tested. I once heard a pastor say, “Aim small and you’ll hit big.” His point was to simply stay focused on a small set of priorities and you’ll see greater outcomes.

A couple of months ago I implemented a process with our staff where every Tuesday morning we review our primary goal for the year and the six objectives under that goal. We rate ourselves on each objective, every week, on a scale from one to five. Then we discuss the next steps we need to take to ensure we’re continually moving forward. A score of three or less is particularly cause for concern. This systematic discipline has proven extraordinarily helpful in staying focused on what’s most important.

20. Take Care of Your Family – Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of taking care of family. Church planting is extremely time consuming, and if you’re not careful, your family will suffer for the pressure to succeed. I’ve worked hard to include Karen and Ashley in the church plant. This creates family buy-in and we’re able to celebrate together. There have also been times when I’ve had pull back and refocus my time and energy.

I’m sure there are other lessons, but these are the ones that stand out to me. What lessons would you add from your experience?