It’s Flashback Friday and we’re happy to bring you this Cutting Edge article from Winter of 2008.
Steve Nicholson and George Polcaster talk about time management for the first 18 months of a church start-up.
What is the typical church planter who is married and has children unprepared for in terms of his time?
I think the biggest thing, for almost all church planters I’ve met, is that they are not realistic about how much time and energy has to go into gathering. They do a little bit, they meet a few people, and they think really aggressive work is contacting ten people a week or so—and that’s not enough. To give you an example of what I mean, I recently met a guy in England who planted a new church in a new area of London, England. This was not a Vineyard. He had a small team. In 18 months he built the church to over 150 people.
And here’s how he did it: he walked and prayed through every single street and over every single house in that whole area that he was trying to reach, and then he gave a really nice little invitation to the church to every single house. That means that over the course of 18 months he hand-delivered over 200,000 invitations—100,000 of which he delivered himself. His team did the second 100,000. Now what that works out to, if you figure going out every single day for eighteen months with no breaks, no days off, no holidays—is close to 500 invitations every single day. Now I’m not saying that’s the right strategy for everybody; what I am saying is that that’s the right amount of effort and focus on gathering that has to happen in order to get a church off the ground.
So gathering is where we really underestimate the time required?
More than anything else, because churches need to gather a good number of people quickly on the front end. Your pioneers who come with you only have a limited amount of patience, and if you are not over the hump by a certain amount of time, they start bailing and then you have to start all over again.
So time is not on your side in this.
I tell planters that they need to think of the first 12 to 18 months as being absolutely nuts, so that you can back off after that, and not be constantly in danger of thinking “Are we going to survive?” I think what I am saying is that you need to gather in such a way that the “survival of the church” question is settled within about 18 months.
You know right then and there that you are going to make it. You’ve put the time and energy in, you’ve prayed it through, you’ve channeled your passion for this thing into gathering, and enough people have bought into it to make it go.
There is no question that it is really hard. Doing it is going to be just grueling. But, here’s the thing: I don’t think that it’s ultimately as difficult as a five year span of never being sure you are going to survive, going up, going down, never quite getting there, always wondering, people getting demoralized and leaving, never getting enough momentum. I think it’s better to suffer for a very short time on the front end, going full-out on gathering, and then you can live a regular life after that. I think that in some ways, the first 18 months you have to decide you are not going to live a sustainable lifestyle. That it’s a sprint.
I heard a Vineyard church planter say once that he’d talk to 100 people a week. I’m not sure i even see 100 people in a week. how do you fit this into your style, who you are, the demographics around you?
No matter how you do it, who you are, or what your style is, you have to understand from the beginning that a church plant is in some ways playing a numbers game, in that not everybody is going to be called to your church. Not everybody is going to fit with your church. Not everybody is going to respond. So if you are going to get and keep something survivable, which is probably over 100 people, you really do have to think that you are going to want to contact—in one way or another—thousands, in order to get 100. Your percentages are not going to be high.
It seems like for most church planters, you go into it thinking, “This is going to work. There’s no Vineyard here, there’s a need for one, i know God’s called me to this place, we’ve got what we need to make this happen.” You have maybe an over-inflated sense of yourself and what you can accomplish, and you don’t really acknowledge that many people, maybe most people, are not going to be “into” what you are doing.
I think that’s true. There aren’t that many churched people these days who are ready to just jump into a Vineyard church. Most of the people who wanted to be in something like a Vineyard found it and joined it a couple of decades ago! In the mean- time, a lot of other churches have moved toward the Vineyard in the way that they do things, so we are not as unique as we were then. Thinking there is going to be a flood of people from other churches is not realistic, nor desirable. That means that you are looking to reach unchurched people. Some of them might be Christians but have dropped out of church attendance. Some might not be Christians at all.
Given that, how would you think about your time at the different stages of being bi-vocational and then full-time with the church?
I think that in the beginning, if you are bi-vocational, you need to think of the way you live as the same way people live who hold two secular jobs. In a sense, both jobs are full-time in the way you must work at them. It’s not sustainable long-term, but for a good purpose many people do it all the time. If you go into it thinking, “I’ve got half a job that brings in our income, and half a job doing the church plant,” I suspect that’s not going to be enough.
Does it work to think, “I’ll go at a slower pace because i have less time?”
It has to be more compressed than that, because of the expectations that average people have about churches. At least in North America, most people will not think that a church of 40 or even 50 is an acceptable size of church in terms of what it can offer and do, the security of its future and so forth. They’ll put up with a church that size if they think it’s on the way up. But they won’t think of that size as acceptable. You can find some small niche groups, highly creative people who thrive on churches that are small, for example. But that’s not mainstream people. So you’ve got to have more than 100 people for the community to think, “This is a real church that is going to be around for me to count on.”
The thing is, if you are not there within three or four years of starting, they start panicking and thinking, “This is never going to get there.” They start asking questions about the leadership. They start looking around and jumping off. They start thinking, “Maybe this is the Titanic, not the Queen Mary.” At that point, you start going backwards.
How then do you approach time and gathering so that you are not just this marketing person, so that it is still spiritually driven? How do you stay motivated by the Spirit, not by numbers and marketing?
I think it starts from your planning right from the get-go. You develop a strategy that is based on what you’ve received from God in prayer and what fits you as a person. But you pursue it with the degree of aggressiveness and time-focus that I’m talking about.
Second, I think there has to be a realization that marketing alone won’t do it. There has to be substance to it. You can contact 200,000 people, but if they don’t find anything when they get there, if you are not willing to spend time with them, if there’s no compelling vision, if the spiritual atmosphere is not positive when they get there, it’s not going to help. In a sense what you are doing really is not so much marketing as looking for the people whose hearts God has prepared, and who he is calling to be a part of this community that you are building. But you don’t know who they are or where they are, and what you are doing is presenting your vision from God to as many people as you possibly can, just so you can find out who those people are.
I think it’s significant, and not to be overlooked, that the guy in London I talked about was not just going door to door handing out invitations. He was praying over every single house, and over every single street, the whole time. So in a sense he is not just handing out 200,000 invitations; he is praying over 200,000 houses, which is an awful lot of prayer.
Another thing that church planters often don’t realize when they start is how important the informal part of their life is compared with the formal part. The get-togethers over coffee, the movie nights, the parties or neighborhood round-robin dinners are all far, far more important in the early stages than the formal meetings. One of the reasons that is the case is because people are making their decision on whether to join you and be part of this community on a very personal basis – do I want to follow this person? That is going to be based on how they relate to you in informal ways, so there has to be lots of opportunity for those. You reach out aggressively to everyone, and then as you find the ones whose hearts you think might be ready, you spend lots of informal time with them.
They want to see what you are like when no one’s looking. Very seldom are they making decisions to join at this point on the basis of your great preaching or your fancy programs. Even great preachers don’t usually start there as planters. Your music isn’t slick. It’s all just very personal.
What I say to church planters in the early stage, when they ask about sermon preparation, is to try and get about 18 months of sermon outlines done before you plant. Do all the prep work ahead of time. Or use the outlines from other people that you can adapt and make your own. In the early years, you have to do a lot of preaching with almost no effort, because you can’t usually afford to put the kind of time into your sermons while you are in the gathering phase that you will later on, unless you start with a really big team that includes a lot of gatherers. You have to find short cuts, in the short term.
As you are gathering people, you gather material for your sermons, and the content is more connected to your heart. You make up for the prep time lost with people-time gained. You lose exegesis time but gain time in the lives of people, and you gain passion for seeing this thing lift off the ground.
So how much time should you spend in sermon prep as a church planter?
Per week, in the first 18 months? About an hour a week. Seriously. Of course, you cannot do that unless you have done a chunk of it ahead of time, or you are using outlines from something like the Vineyard Resource CD or other respected sources.
What about when you are at 50 in attendance? You have 50, and you are trying to get the next 50, and you are at the stage where what your Sunday services are like matters a lot.
Then you might move to a couple afternoons a week doing sermon prep, but no more. Of course, I always tell planters, “Look, don’t do all the preaching yourself.” If you are close to some other Vineyard churches, you should make stronger use of guest preachers. Invite people from some of the other churches to come and preach for you. They will bring the best things they’ve ever done, and it’ll free up your time. That way, when you are preaching, you can be better, because you’ve two or three weeks to work on it. The difficulty is that it is too easy to spend too much time in the office with the books, and not enough time gathering.
My experience is that that’s been the default thing with time. Among all the things you need to get done or give yourself to, the preaching category inflates to fill the time. You can end up spending a lot of time with that and feel like you are still working.
You can spend a lot of time on that just because it’s something you can control. The difficulty with gathering is that you are going out there and presenting yourself and your vision, but you don’t have much control over the outcome. You are getting bigger percentages of “No, I don’t think so” than you are “Yes, I think I want to be with you.” It’s very tempting to polish your preaching instead!
I started to find that people received my preaching better when i was spending less time on it. now i try to meditate on a passage, get it into me during the week, and then let it fly. i don’t even type out my notes. I just create an outline.
Right. Now, I hasten to say that there does come a point where you have to get good at preaching. It’s a significant issue! But I think that before you worry too much about how good of a preacher you are, you’ve got to get some people to preach to.
What about time with people? Who do you give your time to in the beginning?
You give the vast majority of your time to people who are not in the church yet or who are just coming into the church. I think newcomer follow-up should be very personal on the front end, doing it mostly yourself. The little bit that is left over you give to your key leaders primarily, and those leading teams. Your focus with them is on encouraging them, helping them stay together and stay focused, and drawing them into the gathering activity, and not too much else. This means that one of the things you have to do on the front end is to keep things simple. Do a few things well. Be very careful about other activities and events that will take time, energy and money but will not help you gather, even things that you ultimately want to do. You just have to say, “Later.”
Otherwise you are polishing brass on the Titanic?
Exactly. This is interesting: It’s in your two year plan, your strategic planning done before you even start the church, that some of your key decisions are made that are going to determine the answers to the time question. It’s also in the putting together of your team. Of the church plants I’ve coached in the last five to ten years, the biggest nonfunctional use of their time in almost every case has been resolving conflicts with team members who should never have come with them in the first place. Almost every single church planter has spent an enormous amount of time and energy on one or two people who came from the beginning, who they knew from the beginning somewhere inside themselves should not have been part of the plant.
A lot of time is spent with people who want to process with you because they are disgruntled or dissatisfied. That takes time and emotional energy.
Right. So you have to be very careful in selecting your team on the front end. Generally what happens if you take the wrong person is that they make trouble for other people or with other people, and then you are spending time dealing with the other people too. It ripples out and eats time like crazy. When it comes to putting your team together on the front end, if you have any doubts about somebody, don’t take them. So many church planters struggle with too much time and energy going into something that doesn’t even help them accomplish the task.
You are going to have struggle no matter who you have on your team anyway.
Yes. That’s just part of being human. It does help if you have a good plan on the front end, and you get everybody’s expectations clear at the beginning, so they know what you are going to do and not do. It does help to have a good coach who can tell you, “Don’t do that, it’s going to be a mistake” before you do it! You do not want to spend a huge amount of time resolving conflict. When you do have to do so, you want to do it quickly and in a way that is going to increase people’s trust. If that means you have to apologize quickly and say, “Sorry; I messed up”, then do it. You cannot afford to spend weeks and weeks and weeks resolving conflict. Conflicts need to be resolved in a day or two.
How much time do you want to spend with your leaders?
I would say that you want to meet with them as a group at least once a month for a couple of hours. Then presuming that you have a dozen or less leaders at the start, I would rotate it around so that you meet with each one individually about once every three months. Everyone is working in the meantime. Anybody who has to be met with every three days is too high-maintenance; you cannot afford them as a leader. You need to have as leaders people who will feel like a chance to meet with you one-on-one once a quarter and be all together once a month is plenty. When you meet with them you give them direction for their life and ministry assignments enough to keep them busy for the next three months! You are not holding their hand the whole time in between.
What about in a more team approach? Does that change the picture in terms of time?
My feeling is that the once-a-month group meeting is the team meeting. At that meeting you discuss what’s going on, any problems, how are we doing? What’s next? I don’t know why you’d need to meet more often; anything you decide in that once a month meeting ought to be big enough and challenging enough to keep everybody busy for the next month.
What if you are also friends with these people?
You can spend friendship time with them, if you’ve got it. But I’m talking about “Here’s what you have to do.” This is the work side of life. Though I would add that one of the reasons that I’m saying to keep that kind of a pace for these meetings is to keep the “business meeting” time low so you have more time for informal meetings and parties and get-togethers. You might actually see these leaders at parties, events, retreats, etc. a lot, lot more than the two “formal” contacts every three months that I’m describing. The point is that the official meetings are kept real lean and mean so you have a lot of room for the “unofficial”, social stuff.
You put it on the calendar? These aren’t informal “let’s just get together and hang together and talk about what’s going on?”
Right. As a small church, you want to have social, informal stuff going on all the time. You’ll have small group meetings and social events and parties. That needs to be happening multiple times a month. So you are crossing paths with your leaders at all sorts of other things. If your strategy is to hand out invitations at the local baseball game, you’ll be together at the front end and maybe at the end to go out for ice cream and story-telling. So relationships grow as you are working together on something—handing out balloons at a down- town festival, or whatever it is.
How does family fit into all this? how do you do this so that your family doesn’t get the short end of the stick?
I think that if you are church planting, you and your spouse and older kids need to understand up front that for a short period of time, you are not going to live a normal life. You are going to be living on a shoestring relationally. Again, that’s another good argument for going at it full tilt for 18 months and then being able to ease back, instead of stringing it out for five years! I do think that you have to realize that this is not going to be a “no pressure on the family” situation. It is going to be pressurized, especially on the front end. Everybody’s going to have to invest, in the hopes of getting the church to the place where the pres- sure can be off. Once the church is established and growing and you’ve got 300 or so people, you can actually put together a schedule where you are not working the majority of the nights, where you’ve got your full days off, where vacations are set and predictable. Then you become more like everyone else who has a regular job. You are not bi-vocational any more. However, you can’t live like that at the beginning, starting from scratch. You are going to be working a lot of hours.
One thing that means is that planters might want to think about when is a good time to do this, in terms of family. I generally encourage people with teenagers not to think about planting a church while their kids are in those years. Teenagers are less flexible and more needy than just about any other stage. They need, by and large, bigger churches with youth groups rather than church plants. They generally have a hard time changing locations, changing schools, changing friends. Unless you have a special situation and unless your teenagers have truly agreed, I think that’s a span of years to stay put. In general, with children, you want your family to be at a point in time where they can maintain healthy relationships with not a lot of energy. So it’s not that you cannot plant with kids. But you just have to be aware of the stress levels.
Given that you are doing the hard push for 18 months to two years, how can you stretch your time best, especially with young kids?
If you have young kids who are not in school yet, one of the best things you can do is to think in terms of spending time with your family in the mornings. Most people think of spending time with family in the evenings, but you want to switch it around. Mornings are better for kids anyway, and most of the people you want to contact are working at that time anyway, or in classes. That’s a good time to be available for your kids. So flip the schedule around.
How many nights, in the first 18 months, would you think of being out of the house?
Five or six.
So if you are bi-vocational, what do you do? You go to work all day, you grab a sandwich, and then you are gone.
Well, I think it’s pretty impossible to do a full-time, 9-5 job and then do a church plant. I think you need a job that’s more part-time on the front end if possible, 30-35 hours a week rather than 40+, so that you have some hours to play with. That’s another good reason not to go into a church plant with debt. Debt starts forcing you to work longer hours, and then something’s got to give. You are going to want to leverage your time towards being with people, which will take out evenings and maybe lunches. So it could be a simple as saying ‘no’ to breakfasts with people.
Depending on your house and situation, you can have a lot of the get-togethers at your house. For the first six months with a first baby, they are very mobile and you can be with them and still be out and about. After that, you have to find other options.
One of the things I was finding was that church planting and family can overlap. Our library has a story hour for kids on Saturday morning. I would take the kids, and while i was there I was meeting people.
Yes. And it works even better when they get to be school age, because then there are other adults around the activities the kids are involved in— sports, music, dance, etc. So that part gets easier, but juggling all their activities and your own needs gets harder. I do think planters need to be realistic and realize that just doing those things that one can do with children in tow won’t be enough, in terms of gathering. The numbers of people you are meeting are just not high enough.
What about when you are working from home and don’t have a church office?
One of the biggest difficulties is the whole boundary between when you are at home and available and when you are at home and not available. I think that in general it is better not to work from home except when you are having people over.
If you don’t have an office, you find the nearest coffee shop and bring your cell phone and laptop and make that your office. You don’t want to be home with your kids and have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t respond to you now, I’m trying to work.” That doesn’t work; it’s better to just not be there. That way, when you are home, you are fully engaged with the family.
That’s been the biggest hard thing for us, having everything rolled up together, so it’s hard to distinguish what’s family and what’s church. it’s hard for the kids to figure out. Little kids can’t figure it out, and older kids don’t want to, so you really have to create those demar- cations yourself. That way when they ask, “Where’s Dad tonight?” or “Where’s Mom tonight?” the answer can be, “Out working”, and everybody understands what that means. And you were there that morning with them, so it’s all right.
What are some practical tools of the trade you can give us to manage our time when we don’t have to clock in, don’t have a boss to evaluate us. How do we keep from procrastinating and do the right things?
Number one, understand what you really need to do and make sure those things get done first. Number two, anything you find yourself wanting to procrastinate about, do right away, first thing. Procrastination takes up energy and time; you are better off just getting it over with. Third, never do anything alone if you can help it. Always bring someone else along. That way you are doing double-duty. You are training a leader, but you are also meeting with this newcomer, talking with this person who is thinking about giving their life to Jesus, etc. Fourth, make long term plans and stick to them. Make a plan for the month and a plan for the week, so you know what you are going to do. Having to decide every day, “What am I going to do today?” is deadly. It should already be decided. When you wake up in the morning, you should already know what’s going to happen. On the other hand, don’t plan things too tightly, because you want to have flexibility for the spontaneous and the unplanned things.
When people from church call or contact you, you want to respond quickly. A lot of times, people will call and say, “I want to have a meeting with you.” The first thing you do is to try and have the meeting right then. If someone calls me or talks to me at church and says, “I’d like to talk to you some time; can we have a meeting?” my strategy is to have it right then if at all possible. If you talk on the phone right then, or you sit down after church, nine times out of ten you handle the whole thing in ten or fifteen minutes. It also gives people the impression of responsiveness, which they like. You are available to them right away. If you set up meetings with them, no meeting lasts less than an hour. They spend twenty minutes getting down to business, twenty minutes doing business, and you are going to spend the last twenty minutes trying to get things wrapped up. Occasionally you know it’s not going to be this way, but try. When I do schedule meetings with people, I decide how long I want them to be, and I schedule another meeting afterwards, unless it’s a meeting I really want to have open-ended. Schedule it, even if it’s a meeting with yourself. Then you can say, “I’m sorry, I have another meeting now.”
One of the things you have to keep in mind, though, at the end of all this, is that the business you are in is people. If people are trying to get hold of you and they are finding that it’s difficult or that they are not getting responded to, their frustration level will rise very quickly. So if people call and leave a voice mail or write an email, our rule around here is that they should be responded to within 24 hours. At the very least, they need to get a message that says, “I’m on vacation, but I will respond to you by such-and- such.” That’s important.
If you give yourself focus, and you don’t get too wordy or perfectionist about it, you’d be surprised at what you can do. I came back from vacation a couple of weeks ago and I had something like 150 emails waiting for me, not counting the junk. I knew there were going to be a lot waiting, so the day I came back I set aside a couple of hours for emails. I had dealt with every single one of those emails, one way or the other, by noon. So don’t procrastinate.
Let’s say you are a slow learner and a procrastinator, have been doing a slow build, have made some mistakes over time, and you are trying to have a family and life intact at the end of the day. is there hope?
Sure there’s hope, just like there is for someone who falls down and bruises himself. Is there hope for walking? Sure. You get up, dust yourself off, figure out what you did wrong, and you go at it again.