Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Dozen Plant (and Growth in general) Killers

Here are a dozen of the biggest mistakes I have made as a church planter. They seemed like good ideas at the time, or they were rolls of the dice, risk-taking failures. They have been the stones in my steep learning curve. Nothing probably new here, I think, for those who follow church planting stories. Hope they help others as they have helped me......

1. Overall mistake was getting stuck or backslid into default mode of modernity church culture and of "starting" (mechanical metaphor) instead of postmodern unchurch culture and "planting." Born in 1954, it is understandable. I wonder if anyone born before 1963 can really plant pomo (churches seem to grow most in the age range plus or minus 10 years of that of the minister); maybe depends on how quickly you can cultivate leadership teams full of those born after. Hmmm. "Born after" might be as important or moreso than "born again" in this matter, though I do feel born again after the last three years of learning. When I started in 2003 I knew I needed to do it differently than in 1991, but how easy old habits pull at us.

2. Location Location Location equals Culture, Culture, Culture. First, I hadn't lived long enough in the area to plant there. There is a good reason why parachute drop plantings rarely if ever succeed without huge offsetting resources and good on the ground teams. Also a fast-growing suburban area was not a place to go into without a lot of resources because the folks there expect institutions to be like Walmarts and Home Depots, etc., big and fully equipped and ready to meet their needs from the get-go, rather than growing entrepenurial ground-up teams. It was not a good fit for my family and me. Found out we were not cul-de-sac folks. It can be done but with someone who can fit into culture better, even in a going against the grain of the universe liberation theological going-where-they-are way. Our start got lost in the boom and bigness and accentuated difference and weaknesses instead of strengths.

3. Timing mistake. When planting began was a problem. A lot of stress from moving and other matters of a sandwich-generation example on me and family, starting a tentmaking plant (meaning the plant is unpaid and paycheck comes from elsewhere) and working full time adds stress, especially emotionally when my work was with hospice as chaplain (good experience with team building which is vital but an emotional toll). Didn't put my own oxygen mask on first. Add to it stress in the family. Also being new in the ministry makes a big difference. Solo parachute drop for someone new in ministry is a big stretch; there are just some things you learn about leadership and being a non-anxious presence that come with experience that really helps in planting. Rejection sensitivity is a plant killer. Prayer practice is vital, and so is coaching, on the ground if possible. Didn't have it.

4. line and Timeline anxiety. Connected to point 3. Trying to stick to a line for growing so that I could go from unpaid to paid, builds anxiety into me and the group and the system and culture. The ly plant killer. This was something I kept battling against and at least I knew it was a problem but need to intentionally build in against the pressures from the beginning. On the plus side I didn't have stress of denominational stress as so many church plants do (the downside of getting the resources from them). But I made up for it with internal forced expectations. On the other hand, let me say that perfectionism is also a big problem, and I suppose if you wait until you think things are perfectly in tune to begin, then you might never start.

5. Advertising in newspapers. Broad-casting doesn't work as much as personal recruiting and narrow-casting. The folks it brings in aren't going to be what you need to cultivate leadership in planting team unless you get real lucky; they are going to be ones responding to big church type advertising and . In this as in all things, one sin is trying to duplicate big church ways in small plant. The old CW was to always think and act bigger than you are; some truth there, for you want to have big dreams and visions and risks, but it can't carry over from spirit to structure and ways of behaving. There is a reason in the Gospel of Mark, that great discipling document, why Jesus is always telling people, according to Mark, to keep things a secret. There is a time and place for going public; a lot of work and cultivating needs to happen "under the radar" as Easum and Tenny-Brittain's book title indicates. Beware who shows up from advertising. Also see below post on heresy number 1 for more.

6. Rush to Public Worship was a mistake. Connected to previous mistakes. Trying to start on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a mistake unless you have built up to it and have a good group going; not a way to attract those who will help you grow the plant. These holy days again bring out the folks who are more inclined to get and consume than give and produce; which is fine in time, but not at beginning. Some can stay and change with you but not worth it. Premature births again. Early on it is all leadership development, culture creating, and public advertised to anyone worship defeats that (heresy number 1 again). Worship is fine to build in, especially for pomos and millenial generation, but it should be private worship for group only to nurture and not be the kind of worship you want to project later. And should be a team thing.

7. I robed that first Easter Sunday. Trying to offset the sterility of the hotel conference room atmosphere. But it reinforced churched culture, and wasn't fit for the cultural environment in which the plant needed to grow. Accentuated clergy-focus too and didn't add to community relationship building. I can laugh about it now...

8. This needs to go up higher but I didn't focus on cultivating relationships in general with the team that did start coming and meeting weekly (meeting with them on Sunday afternoon was also a problem; too much like "going to church". ) I went straight into teaching them about church planting, as if they had enrolled in a seminary course, instead of helping them connect and relate to one another and the life of God and their lives. Should have partied more and done more servant evangelism and less handouts (arrgh!!). This is part of the new minister problem. Can't quite laugh about it yet....

9. I had the cross in the office instead of in the open. Which meant I wasn't creating a culture of self-differentiation, among other things. Crosses are supposed to be boomer-cringe and not seeker sensitive, but pomos and millenials are image-starved and symbol-rich. There's a lot more theological to pursue here later but it is also connected to anxiety and new minister issues and lack of clarity of mission, vision, and values. The movement of the cross to front and center, the first item brought into our new space made all the difference in how the spirit seemed to surge, through me and later to others. Whatever your symbol, make it important and front and center.

10. We got into rented space, first weekly at hotel conference rooms and then in our own permanent space, a bad space, on a good road but still back in a strip mall. Took too much for maintenance; wasn't geared to servant evangelism and using it as a community center. Accentuated our smallness in a culture that only saw "bigness." Now our building is more in line with size of other institutions in our area, churches and otherwise. This is still a growing concern. Trying to gradually decrease connection with any building, and might still move in part or toto back to living rooms and restaurants, streets, etc. Multi-site even in a micro-culture is great way to extend outside your concept of yourself.

11. Starting on Sunday mornings. See reasons above about expectations of churched culture. Moving to Sunday afternoons was good for cultivating the life of our core team, especially their family life. Sat. evening around 5 might still be a good time to shift too, or to get a relationship group gathering on. Would love to have some folks meeting at midnight, for breakfast, when shifts end at 3 a.m. You get the picture.

12. Had the wrong name. Epiphany was too church culture, especially for where we were. The Living Room sends out a different signal and is more portable. I probably would not put up any or as much religious language on our building like I did even here in Turley where we have a sign on top that says God's Love is for all, and another sign that says Free Universalist, and another that says In the Spirit of Jesus. Again, not as interested now in bringing in the newbie to us, as in finding ways to go be with the newbies in the world and forming relationships and community first and then opening up theological reasons why we are in the world and forming relationships and community. Interesting how labels and names are so modernistic and a turn-off to many now.

There will be more that comes up but this is a good start. Not enough leadership. Not a cultural fit. Not enough resources to offset the first two mismatches. In the future I will talk about ways we have tried lately to re-plant and grow again after learning these mistakes and the redefinition of success, and the new spirit that grew, leading the way, as it always does, for growth in the other ways.


Rachel's Big Dunk said...

Hi Ron,

This is a very good list. Interesting, insightful, and I think valuable, not just for planters, but for any of us who are looking to grow the Kingdom.

Blessings and prayers for the success of the Living Room.


Ron said...

Thanks Rachel. The kingdom is the thing. Probably am a slow learner here when I think about even the name of this blog; progressive Christian churches, and free churches in general, are important, but only as they imitate, as much as humanly possible, and help initiate, two steps forward one step back, the kingdom. And the "kingdom" is about that radical abundant everlasting life in and for all of us and Creation which Jesus embodied and seeded wherever he went.

LaReinaCobre said...

I love what you say about not bringing newbies in, but going out and being *with* the newbies.

So many of the youth and young adults who are involved in church and or young adult activities are part of the church because of a friend they had. Their friends brought them to church. I don't recall any adult UUs who came into UUism as adults telling me that this was how they came into UUism.

Ron said...

Thanks L.

This is because of the shift from "believing then belonging" to "belonging then believing."

One of my personal stories: When I went to my first UU church in the mid-70s, as a young adult, I already knew I believed in Unitarian Universalism. I came to it through the head and it echoed in my heart. I read about Unitarianism in college English classes while reading Emerson, et al. Then went to the library to learn more. Came out of the library convinced I had found a theoretical home for my beliefs and went to the phone book to find the physical home for them. There was nothing there, in this small college town in Oklahoma. I thought maybe Unitarianism had gone the way of the other 19th century groups I was studying, the Whigs and Know Nothings, et al. I found out different, fortunately.

But then years later when I was in that same small college town in Oklahoma and there was no UU church, I started one. Here is what I found: Almost no one outside of the core team, including adults but particularly young adults, almost none of the people who came to the church after it was started came to it the same way I had gone to my first UU church. They had found out about us by encountering what we were doing in the community, or reading about us in the local paper and wanted to check us out, or came with a friend who had invited them to some event perhaps not on Sunday morning. For six years I spoke with everyone who came at least twice on Sunday morning, and sometimes with those who only came once, and very rarely did I encounter someone who "believed" first and sought us out. They had inklings about our values and beliefs, enough not to be turned off from checking us out, but it was the non sunday morning activities that connected with them first.

This was pretty much on the edge and beginning of the internet, though, and I wonder how the availability of the web will affect this dynamic.

Ron said...

An addendum to the post after hearing from people who thought maybe I have been too hard on myself in this post.

This is of course only half of the picture, a part of the self-examination. The other half is the glorious freeing waters of church planting and of the great work that was going on in lives and communities even at the same time as these mistakes were made. In some ways it is only through the lens of the success that we are still going, that as a planter I am still going, after three years, and I think in a great position now for the next tipping point and incarnation, only through living in the success that I have been able to understand the failures.

But of course it might just be that I wrote the long-thought out post right before vacation time....thanks to all.