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Top Issues Church Planters Face: Insights from Exponential and Ed Stetzer

In collaboration with Todd Wilson, Director of Exponential, and a group of seasoned church planting leaders, we conducted research to understand the key challenges faced by church planters today. Drawing from over 500 years of collective experience, individual interviews, online surveys, and real-world observations, this report offers valuable insights for anyone involved in church planting. Although not a scientific study, this qualitative research provides practical advice to help church planters navigate their journey effectively.

A Changing Landscape in Church Planting

Since planting my first church in Buffalo, New York, in 1988, the world of church planting has evolved significantly. Back then, resources and support were scarce, leaving planters to figure things out on their own. Today, the landscape is vastly different, with abundant resources, coaching, and training available. Despite these advancements, the challenges of church planting—leadership, finances, volunteers, vision, and personal health—remain daunting. Yet, there is hope as systems and support improve, helping new planters thrive.

Key Issues Church Planters Face

1. Leadership Development

Finding and Developing Core Leaders: Many church planters struggle with building a strong leadership team early on, leading to a lack of accountability and support. It’s crucial to vet leaders carefully and establish a solid team to share the burden and provide encouragement.

Need for Speed (Volunteers and Staff): Planters often rush to fill leadership roles due to the immediate demands of the ministry, sometimes leading to hasty and problematic hires. It’s important to balance the urgency with thorough vetting to avoid future setbacks.

Resources and Financial Strain: The financial strain of starting a new church is significant. Many planters face challenges in raising funds and managing budgets, often delaying additional staff hires and straining their personal finances.

Reproduction Realities: While many planters aspire to plant other churches, the realities of budget, leadership shortages, and spiritual maturity can turn this vision into a distant dream. Recognizing and planning for these obstacles can help create more sustainable growth strategies.

2. Financial Self-Sufficiency and Viability

Bi-Vocational Challenges: Many planters work bi-vocationally to support their ministry, which brings its own set of challenges in balancing a full-time job with the demands of church planting. While bi-vocational ministry can be effective, it often isn’t the goal for most planters.

Percentage of Church Plants Self-Sufficient

Tension Over Teaching About Giving: Planters may avoid discussing finances with their congregation, fearing it might deter new attendees. However, addressing financial stewardship is essential for the church’s sustainability and growth.

Limited Budget Experience: Many planters lack experience in creating and managing a church budget, leading to potential financial mismanagement. Developing these skills is crucial for the church’s long-term viability.

Flow of Funds Management: Understanding the difference between cash flow and total cash commitments is vital. Mismanagement can lead to financial crises even if the total funds seem adequate.

Personal Financial Impact: Planters often invest their personal savings into the church, leading to significant financial stress. It’s essential to seek external support and avoid relying too heavily on personal finances.

3. Team Development and Volunteer Mobilization

Healthy Launch Teams: A strong launch team is critical for a successful church plant. Planters should focus on building a team that is committed and aligned with the church’s vision.

Church Planting as a Team Sport: Moving into a new community without a support team increases the difficulty of planting. Building relationships and mobilizing volunteers is essential for sustainability.

Pre-Launch Tasks vs. Relationships: Balancing administrative tasks with relationship-building is challenging. Planters need to prioritize forming a solid team while managing pre-launch logistics.

Core Group Dynamics: A core group of volunteers can be both a blessing and a challenge. Planters must navigate the dynamics of integrating these teams into the church’s vision and leadership structure.

Volunteer Retention: High turnover among core team members is common. Planters should be prepared for relational losses and develop strategies to retain and motivate their volunteers.

4. Systems, Processes, and Cultures

Establishing Healthy Systems: Creating effective systems and processes is crucial for long-term impact. Planters must focus on building structures that support growth and sustainability.

Fix-It Mentality: Planters often believe that fixing a single issue will lead to growth. However, systemic health requires a broader approach that addresses deeper underlying problems.

Pre-Launch Behaviors: The actions taken during the pre-launch phase have lasting impacts. Planters should intentionally establish healthy systems and processes before the church launches.

Urgency and Accountability: The lack of formal requirements for new churches often leads to the establishment of unhealthy systems. Accountability and strategic planning are vital for creating a solid foundation.

Balancing Capacity and Production: Planters must manage their time effectively, balancing the demands of ministry with the need to build healthy systems. Strategic planning is essential for managing growth and maintaining momentum.

5. Casting Vision and Avoiding Mission Drift

Clarity of Vision: Clear and compelling vision is essential to avoid mission drift. Planters must ensure that their team understands and aligns with the church’s goals and direction.

Core Values: Defining and adhering to core values helps guide decision-making and maintain focus. Planters should articulate their values clearly and consistently.

Mission, Vision, and Values Alignment: Confusing or interchanging mission, vision, and values can lead to a lack of clarity and direction. Planters should establish a clear and consistent philosophy of ministry.

Ministry Philosophy: A well-defined ministry philosophy helps navigate challenges and avoid distractions. Planters should develop and communicate their philosophy early on.

Non-Negotiables: Focusing on a few core priorities helps avoid mission drift and ensures that the church remains aligned with its vision and values.

6. Evangelism and Discipleship

Balancing Time Demands: The demands of planting often detract from time spent on evangelism and discipleship. Planters must prioritize these core activities to stay true to their mission.

Engaging Culture: Living incarnationally and engaging with today’s culture is essential for effective evangelism and discipleship. Planters should seek ways to connect with their community meaningfully.

Strategic Evangelism and Discipleship: Implementing deliberate strategies for evangelism and discipleship is critical for long-term impact. Planters should develop and execute plans that align with their mission.

Small Group Dynamics: Small groups are vital for discipleship but require careful management and investment. Planters should focus on building healthy and effective small groups.

Personal Investment: Planters must personally invest in relationships with lost people and new believers. This personal engagement is crucial for creating a culture of evangelism and discipleship.

7. Spiritual, Physical, and Mental Health of the Planter and Family

Personal Development and Family Nurturing: Balancing the demands of planting with personal and family health is challenging. Planters must prioritize their own well-being and that of their families.

Managing Discouragement and Loneliness: Church planting can be lonely and discouraging. Building a support network and seeking fellowship with peers is essential for maintaining morale and motivation.

Dealing with Spiritual Attacks: Planters and their families often face spiritual attacks. A solid foundation of faith and a healthy marriage are critical for resilience and perseverance.

Navigating Financial and Emotional Stress: The financial and emotional stress of planting can be overwhelming. Planters should seek support and develop strategies to manage these pressures effectively.

Maintaining Focus on God: Amid the busyness of church planting, it’s easy to lose focus on God. Planters should prioritize their spiritual health and maintain a close relationship with God.

Conclusions

The challenges of church planting are significant, but understanding and addressing these key issues can help planters build healthy, sustainable churches. By focusing on leadership development, financial viability, team building, systems and processes, vision clarity, evangelism and discipleship, and personal health, planters can increase their chances of success. It is essential to seek support, build accountability networks, and prioritize personal and spiritual well-being throughout the journey.

Addressing these issues strategically and intentionally will position new churches to thrive and make a lasting impact for the Kingdom of God.