(This article is essentially the session notes from a breakout session I did at the “Advance The Church” conference in November 2018 in Huntsville, Alabama. As soon as the audio is available, I’ll update this post. Come to ATC 2019, our church in the Orlando area is hosting the next one!)
Let’s be honest, the typical church planter is not known for being a systems thinker. You’ve got a great vision. You know exactly what you hope your church will look like. It’s all there in your mind. And if you think it’s going to just happen naturally, you are wrong. As organic and free spirited as you might be, a few systems are non-negotiable. Let’s talk about five of them. 1. Communication Systems 2. Connection Systems 3. Leadership Systems 4. Reputation Systems 5. Soul Care systems.
I’m talking here about Social Media, Email databases, Websites, Apps, text lists, announcements, posters, even bulllitens if you want to be old school! You don’t need all of those in place on day one of your plant, but you want to be doing something right away. Here are a few key things to keep in mind with communication systems . . .
DO FREE STUFF
It costs you no time or money to gather data. Look, if all you have on day one is a card for people to fill out, at least do that! If you have no time to process that data, that’s fine, stick em’ in a box in your home office! Just Gather Data, every type! Email, cell numbers, addresses, all of it! It costs you nothing to set up social media accounts. Just get them going. Up to a certain number of addresses, you can do free email data bases on things like mail chimp and others, do that! Everyone responds to different things. So try it all. Find a free volunteer to help with this. Maybe you’ve got a stay at home mom, or a college kid. Get some free help on this right away so you aren’t spending half your day on Social Media. Do what you can pull off now, make it better later. When I helped launch Terra Nova Church in NY, we had clipboards in the lobby asking for email address, or sign ups for serving teams or to join small groups. Just clipboards! Cause you can’t afford iPads when your a planter! We used clipboards for a long time! And people signed up! It worked! The iPhone had not come out yet, so there were no online options at the time that worked well from a mobile standpoint. Just do what you can now, make it better later. Don’t wait to be able to pull of the best. Perfect is the enemy of good. Your people like to watch their church mature and grow. Give them the chance to do that.
ACT YOUR SIZE (kind of) WITH YOUR COMMUNICATION STYLES
When you’ve got a core group of 15 . . . they get your cell number! Don’t act like your a big deal when your not! Announcements might include: “text me if you can help”. I’ve met church planters who want to guard their personal info like they’ve got 10,000 people sitting in their chairs. It’s off putting and it will stunt your growth. As you grow, you push people to other spaces that are easier for others to manage.
Talk to your people in a size appropriate manner. When your attendance is under 75, you have the ability to know each family, probably by name! You are more like a family. Let your communication sound like it. Here is my rule of thumb when it comes to church plant size dynamics. You can get away with acting roughly 25% bigger than you actually are. That puts you just out in front of your people, paving the way, but not too far into the future.
COMMUNICATE OFTEN AND IN THE RIGHT PLACES
Find a rythym, keep it. Weekly is a good place to start. Go where your people are. So, when I helped start Terra Nova, we had a MySpace page! Anybody remember myspace? Facebook opened up to everyone shortly thereafter and since we were in a college town, we embraced it fast. We were an early adopter of Facebook. Nowadays it seems like you have to be in 20 different places to communicate to everyone. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo, email, snail mail, texting, even Pinterest. And it changes constantly! I remember getting on our tech guys case when I first came to Mosaic four years ago because they were not utilizing Instagram very well. If you are a little bit older, or you just don’t like Social Media, remember that it’s important to the Millenials or Gen Z’s that are in your church. You’ve got to be in that space even if you don’t personally like it.
AUTOMATE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Utilize apps and websites to automate this stuff. Our church uses hoot suite. It can help you post in a lot of places all at once. Email programs like mail chimp can help you schedule your enews weeks in advance to group your time together. Again, try to find a volunteer to help with this. But pre-scheduling stuff allows you to set aside dedicated time for these things and then move on and not think about it for a week or even a month.
So, you need good Communication Systems. Secondly, you need good Connection Systems.
We all know that we don’t want our people just to attend a gathering and then go home. We want them serving, we want them in community, we want them giving. On day one, you’ve got to have a plan in place for how you are going to connect people to the life of your church as quickly as possible. How will they join a serving team? What is the actual process? Who is in charge of that? Is it you?
How will they join a small group, or Missional Community or whatever is the trendy name this quarter? Who is in charge of that? Is it you? Again, this can be as simple as a clipboard in the lobby asking for email and cell number! If you are not organized, you’ve got to find someone who can handle these people that want to get connected. And it has to get done every single week! You can’t have someone sign up for a small group on Sunday, and they have to wait three weeks to hear back from the church! Let me be super practical for a minute. If you do a good job getting people connected, then they stay, and if they stay, then they start giving, and then you can stop working part time at Starbucks! You will finally have the resources to do the things you really want to do with your church! Good connection systems will increase your giving! By the way, giving is a part of connecting. Have your giving systems up and running before you launch.
Have some sort of regular new person gathering. We call it chapter one. My old church called it Nucleus. I can’t stress this enough. It does not have to be over the top. Some people do a lunch and it’s a big deal. It’s ok if all you can pull off is a handout, and a group of people around a room in a circle. But do it monthly if you can. Good research has been done that shows that churches with a new person class or something like it grow faster.
So, Communication systems, Connection Systems, Next one . . .
Now, you’ve communicated well, you’ve told someone how to get connected to a small group. They’ve filled out the form on their phone or whatever system you use. But then you realize that your three groups each have 22 adults and 17 children in them and your leaders who were actually your original core group are telling you that their living rooms can’t take anymore people and the HOA is getting upset with all the cars parked everywhere on Tuesday nights! You need Leadership Development systems. See it was easy when you were in the core group phase, you sat around a living room and at coffee shops and bars and you were imparting vision and wisdom all the time. You developed leaders without even trying! Then that initial core group split up into several groups and you thought your job was done, that they would just naturally train up more leaders. They won’t! You need to guide them! I’ve found that leadership development systems are really different based on the personality of the leader, so you’ve got to figure out what works for you, but if you don’t do anything, you’ll find yourself with a back up of needs and no one to meet them. Here is a suggestion for you, after you set your initial core group off on it’s own to lead, you keep on leading potential future leaders in a small group setting. Don’t tell them that this is what you are doing, but if you hand select the people you think have leadership ability, then you can maximize your time really well.
With your Leadership Development systems, Act your size! Or about 25% bigger. So, at Mosaic, I have a really intense 2 year Elder Development program that I built. I actually turned it into a book that you can buy on Amazon. But I also have 20 elders and I need a lot more. Build systems that are right for your size. When you are starting, you don’t necessarily need something that complex.
Be on the lookout for who you need on your team to move your church forward. As your church grows you will have new things to do, while at the same time, the stuff you’ve been doing will take longer than it used to because everything scales up. I made a habit as a young church planter of starting off each year with a personal private retreat where I would pour over my daily schedule and calendar and look for the things that I was doing that I needed to hand off to others if we were going to move forward. I would essentially create a job description for a key volunteer that I really needed. And then I would just begin to pray and ask God to reveal that person to me. I remember after our first year of planting Terra Nova, I realized that one full day a week was taken up with the following tasks:paying the bills for the church and other budget stuff, sending the weekly email, making the guide page (bulletin) and processing the sign ups from the previous sunday. That was taking one full day of every week! And none of those were things that only I could do! But I couldn’t just hand them to anyone, it really needed to be the right person, or persons. So I started praying and within a matter of weeks, I had a guy in his mid twenties ask to have lunch with me. He was a manager at a Wall Mart distribution center. He told me that he really wanted to get involved in the church and give back in a big way. He told me he was super organized and loved details. And then, he said to me, “I work 12 hour shifts, and I alternate. One week, I do three 12 hour shifts, and the next week, I do four 12 hour shifts. So every week I have either 3 or 4 days completely free, I could come into the office and give you a full day of my time.” That one volunteer literally created an extra day in my week every week and he did that for two years! Listen, don’t sit around being mad or depressed that you don’t have enough help. Figure out who you need and start asking God for those people! If you aren’t praying for the help you need, then you are trying to fill those spots in your own strength. Know the leaders and key volunteers that you need. Pray for them to show up. Be ready to put them to work when they arrive.
So, Communication Systems, Connection Systems, Leadership Development Systems. Next one . . .
Ok, now this one is a little bit nebulous. What do I mean by reputation systems? Let me back up a bit. For us in this room, church planting is awesome and totally normal. We think it’s great. Understand that for a lot of people, they look at us and think we are crazy. They see a new church open up in the community center or high school, and they immediately think . . . “cult?” So right from day one, you need to be able to put questions of reputation at ease. Here are some key areas of reputation you should address before you launch. You need to be separated from the money, especially cash. You should not be counting the offering, ever, ever, ever! And it’s not enough to say “I have my wife with me.” In fact that’s worse! Nope. You can certainly find someone on your core team to count the money, fill out an offering sheet and put everything in a locked or secured bank envelope. Ideally, you’ve got someone who has agreed to take that money to the bank each week for you and track the checks for giving statement purposes. A simple google doc will do at first. It does not have to be crazy involved. You can upgrade the system later. But you want to be able to tell people from day one “I don’t touch the money”. You want to be able to say: “We have two people that count the money and record it, and deposit the cash and the checks for us.” I don’t do that! And give people a way to ask questions about the money, an email address, or something. Even if you just say in your new person class, “If you have questions about how finances work here, please grab coffee with me and we’ll talk about it! I’ll be glad to open up the books for you”. This will help your reputation.
Have a plan with your spouse on how you are going to interact on Sunday. Otherwise, you may find that you are always on the other side of the room from her. It’s important to be physically present with your spouse on Sunday’s. Let people see you standing next to her, holding her hand. Reference her in conversations. This will go a long way in building a solid reputation as a guy who loves his family. And it’s good discipleship for your people. But the two of you need to actually talk about that and have a plan, an understanding.
Another key matter of reputation is how you respond when people contact you. Let me say this plainly . . . When people contact you, respond. When you schedule a meeting with someone, show up. Let me say that again. When people contact you, respond. When you schedule a meeting with someone, show up. Now some of you are crazy dreamers who can barely figure out where your pants are in the morning let alone what meetings you have planned that day. I get it, your a genius and the world should just bend around your artistic creativity and understand, and be ok with not getting a response via email or not be offended when you forget about a lunch meeting. I have a word for your type in the church planting world. The word is “broke”, or “poor” or “hungry”.
So, I actually work with a guy who used to be like this. And the early days of mosaic church are filled with stories of people who came to the church, checked it out, loved the preaching, loved the worship, and then said to our LP in the lobby “let’s get coffee this week” “sound great, how about tuesday at 3PM?” “I’ll see you then”. And then Renaut might not show up? Why, because maybe he never wrote it down or did, but the slip of paper went in the wash with his jeans. So people would show up on time for meetings and Renaut was no where to be found. And they would often leave the church upset and hurt, or just frustrated. His lack of organization was hurting the church, stunting it’s growth and killing it’s reputation and his reputation. When Mosaic finally got an assistant for him, the first line on her job description was something like: “Protect Renaut’s reputation and the church’s reputation, by keeping him organized”. If I just described you, listen, find a volunteer assistant before you launch your church. Give him or her access to your email, or however you want to to it, and then direct everyone to him or her. It does not take much. A volunteer can easily manage your calendar and help with email in just a matter of a few hours a week for a church plant. Today, if someone stops Renaut in the lobby and asks to meet, or they text him and ask to meet or they ask for him to do something for them — any sort of follow up step — his answer is always the same. “Will you do me a favor and email my assistant? She’ll make sure this happens. I’m really disorganized.”
So, start with a volunteer. Or you can use a virtual assistant, or even one of the many calendaring programs that allow you to let people schedule their own time with you with a simple link. The key is knowing that you have a problem! I meet a lot of pastors who are delusional when it comes to their organization skills. They don’t understand that people really like to get an email response back. Ask people how they perceive you if you are not sure where you stand.
Ok, last one, and this is perhaps the most important one of all.
Lastly, before you launch you need a soul care system, otherwise you burn yourself out. Here are a few suggestions.
Take your days off and put your phone in airplane mode. I know that seems so hard in the early days of a church plant, especially if you are juggling a side job to pay the bills. But you will crash and burn and then you are no use to anyone. The pastor I used to work with in NY, his name is Ed Marcelle, he would often say, “One of the greatest acts of faith in ministry is to take your hands off the plow knowing that the harvest will be there in the morning.” Listen, none of us are so important that Jesus can’t do this without us. I recently heard a pastor say that scripture calls those who do not work, LAZY, but it calls those who do not rest, DISOBEDIENT. (referring to the Sabbath in the ten commandments.) That’s convicting. We need to take our sabbath seriously and we need to have a system for what your sabbath is going to look like.
Take regular vacations and get the heck out of town. I don’t know about you, but If I’m doing a staycation, I don’t actually disconnect because it feels the same. I go to the grocery store and I run into someone from the church and they start talking about an issue in their marriage and then I’m right back in work mode mentally and emotionally. I need to be not home. If you are poor, because your a planter, look for places that are free or cheap for pastors. There are ton of them out there. Google is your friend. Ask someone with a vacation home if they’d be willing to donate it to you for a week or two. People in your church want to help you.
Take a soul care retreat once or twice a year and charge it to the church! Listen, you can find a hotel for $100 bucks a night. Or you can find someone with a vacation house or something. Go to a monastery or retreat center. Just find a rythmn for this, a system. When I lived in NY, I would go to a cheap hotel in Lake Placid, NY in the off season when the hotels were all empty. I’d do one or two nights. Buy a few groceries and I’d just pray, and listen to God, maybe worship a little bit with some music, read scripture, read some devotional type stuff.
-If I went on a 48 hour retreat, the first half day might have been just winding down. Taking a nap. Then, I’d start to really pray and listen. I keep a notebook handy to write things down that I need to get off my mind so I get back to prayer. And then in the last 4-5 hours of a 48 hour retreat, or the last day of a 72 hour retreat, I finally might do a little dreaming on the church. But this is not a work retreat, it’s a spiritual retreat. More recently in Florida, I’ve shifted to doing a week long solo retreat every January or February, and I do it in my trailer, my RV. It’s $28 a night at Florida State parks. I can go for a run on the beach. I can pray while kayaking in the mangroves. I can sit by the campfire. This week has become one of the top two or three most important weeks of every year. When appropriate, charge it to the church. It’s cheaper than replacing you when you have an affair because your burned out and your defenses are down and you step into sin. I’m not saying that the church should pay for your vacation. A soul care retreat is not a vacation. No one else will advocate for your soul. You’ve got to do it on your own. Your people don’t know how badly you need it. You’ve got to just make it happen for yourself.
Another key aspect of soul care is counseling or spiritual direction. Lead Church planters are notorious for having daddy issues. As you plant your church, you are often still a little boy standing on the diving board saying “Daddy, watch me dive”. So many young church planters I meet are still dealing with major emotional struggles. So put aside shame. Get counseling. Find a spiritual director. I have a couple retired pastors that I meet with regularly. They ask me hard questions. They challenge me on my weak points in emotional development. It’s incredible.
Look, soul care is gonna be different for all of us. Our personalities play a big role in this. But you need a plan! If you don’t have a plan, you will just go, go, go. Talk about that plan with your leaders. Make soul care a big part of your church from day one. Soul Care is massive part of our DNA at Mosaic. Our people feel it. And I truly believe that it makes us all so much more healthy. Our staff feel free to pursue soul care.
So, Communication Systems, Connection Systems, Leadership Development Systems, Reputation Systems, and Soul Care Systems.