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Measuring the Success of a Church Plant (Part 2)

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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This week, we continue our interview with Michael Gatlin to find out how success should be measured in church planting.


VCP:    How does vision for a church plant develop?  What are the different ways that happens and how much of it is something you can sit down and come up with?  And how much of it is based on experience?  I know your story a little bit, how you went to Duluth and you felt like God was telling you not to articulate your vision for a while after moving up there. How do you start finding your vision from God?

MG:    So, I’m of two minds. In one sense I really like the ‘80s, ‘90s, way of doing it—I’m just gonna label it that for lack of a better label. It pushes you towards actually having to sit down and really struggle through and write out your vision and your mission and your purpose statements. All that is a very ‘80s, ‘90s kind of thing in my perspective.  I like the process just simply because it forces me to attach my butt to a chair and really think about the stuff and think about what are my core values and what are the things that I think are important and how are the different ways I want to address that.

And so I think that process is helpful but, and this is because I’m very much a right-brainer, and so I think that vision mostly comes as we are doing it and figuring out what’s “me” and what’s not “me.” I’m seeing things, I’m trying things, so I’ll read about somebody and how they invite people to Christ and I try their method and it just feels like Saul’s armor.  It just feels uncomfortable.  It doesn’t fit, it’s not “me.” So then in the midst of having another conversation I would panic and have one of those “oh God! oh God! help me!” moments, I find that I start expressing it out of my heart. I often say to myself “I wish I would’ve just recorded that ‘cause that felt so much like me.” But I never would’ve gotten there without all of the studying and all the thinking.

And that happened for me as people were asking “Why are you doing this? There are enough churches in Duluth!” I would try to give an answer that I had heard listening to one of Steve Nicholson’s talks or an answer that I saw somebody else give once or something like that and the people would look at me and go “oh, okay,” but I never felt like it was exactly “me” until a couple of years down the road—then all of a sudden I’m was to express what’s really in here, in me.  So, I think vision can be written out and worked on, but I also think it really does emerge over time, and it emerges as you’re in the heat of the moment, as you’re working it out.

VCP:  What we’ve told people in the past is that you can’t plant a church without a vision.  Would you put an addendum on that now?

MG:    I think I would.  And so in one sense I said that and I taught that and I held people to it.  But, in another sense I didn’t really do it. Because I just took creative license.  I took creative freedom and I just realized that I have vision, but I hadn’t gotten to the place where I didn’t need to articulate it except in an artificial classroom setting.  And as I needed to articulate it in a real life setting, I listened to what I was saying and realized oh, that’s the vision. It was shaped by the people I was running into and meeting in my target city.  I think it would’ve shaped really differently had I been in your city. It would’ve been a different vision.

You know, I come at the world from the perspective of a watercolor artist and jazz musician. Often times, I have this image in my head, an idea of a direction I’m headed in a painting and I start with a pencil sketch. The sketch may be a little different than what I was picturing so I may start to reshape pieces of it or I may like the direction it’s heading more than the idea in my head, so I keep the direction I’m heading. Vision is like that. When I start the watercolor paining and it’s loose—there’s paint everywhere and it’s splashing all around. All of a sudden I realize that it’s coming out a little different than my sketch, which is a little different from what was in my head. And then finally, if you are a good enough artist you get to the place where you can pass through the chaos and you realize that the painting is emerging and it’s really beautiful, even though it’s different from what you had originally thought. You are accomplishing the same purpose that you originally wanted to accomplish, but it’s a whole different creation. That’s cool. I like that. And for me, vision emerges like that.

VCP:    I feel like that’s a subset of something bigger and if we could ever figure out how to name what the bigger thing is we could tell people you can’t plant church without these other things. What’s that bigger thing that you can’t plant a church without.

MG:    Yeah, that’s a great question.  Because I think you could still call that vision but I don’t know that it would be a vision statement. A well-crafted vision statement isn’t necessarily the thing that you have to do to get there.

VCP:  Or even a concrete verbal vision. It doesn’t have to be there yet. It’s something that’s heart level.

MG:    Yeah, it’s very emotive.  It’s a very passionate, heart level thing.  You know you can’t always express why you are passionate about something and why you get up in the morning every single morning and lay down your life for this thing.  You can’t always nail that down.

It’d be like asking Yo-Yo Ma like why do you play cello?  Like why did you pick the cello? And he’d be like well, I love it.

So I think falling in love with Jesus, falling in love with his community, with the church and then just wanting to see other people experience what has been healthy for you and even difficult but still good in the context of church community and in the context of relationship and seeing them not have to go through the same hurts and struggles is something church planters need to be able to articulate and understand.

And it’s like – that’s vision right there.  And then you get ‘em talking about those different kinds of things and it emerges along the way.  It’s interesting, as I’m talking to church planters when it comes to vision, if I can press in, push enough buttons to get them frustrated at me, almost angry, it’s at that point when they’re pushing back the really good vision comes out. But when it was the well-crafted statement it was putting me to sleep. But if I can almost push them and get them mad and asking “why are you doing this?” the vision will often come with tears.  That’s when the really good vision comes out.

VCP:    Yeah and that’s a process of self-discovery in a lot of ways. And God discovery.

MG:    Yeah, it is. There are a couple of great books out there.  I love the Guy Kawasaki stuff, when he’s talking about vision in two or three of his books it is so helpful because he says almost the exact same thing. And then also Daniel Pink in a book – A Whole New Mind, I think is what it’s called.  Pink is talking about how we need to focus today on the left and right side of the brains and leadership from the left and right side of the brain perspective. And there’s a couple things like that where they’re talking about vision in a way that feels so much more holistic to me than kind of what we were going through in the early days.

But, even when I look at the Doing Church stuff, by Alexander Venter, and that comes out of that whole ‘80s, ‘90s crafted vision statement, there’s part of that process that I still think is incredibly beneficial, incredibly good, because in going through that process you are learning what is valuable to you and what is not valuable. That will help you along the way, too.  So there’s something about the work in that that’s helpful.

VCP:    When we do that with younger people, like I think about myself, the mistake is that we tell them you got to figure this out and once you know what it is we say “stick to it forever and never change.”

MG:    Right.

VCP:    There’s no way a 23-year-old, 28-year-old, 32-year-old guy or gal is gonna be able to find the 5 values that will never change.  That’s crazy talk.

MG:    Or even a 60-year-old, you know because it’s living art.  It’s living art.  It’s like bonsai.  You know you’re going to shape it and sculpt it and it’s going grow and you’re going make decisions on how it grows.  It’s like playing music.  You’re not going do it the same way every time.

VCP:    Yeah.  I got one more fun one and I think I’ve even done this with you before but it’ll be good to just get it out.  Let’s just talk about stupid things not to do your first year.  It’s funny and it’s practical.

MG:    Yeah, don’t have like one big outreach event where you spend everything thinking that that’s going to grow your church. You know, an event where you spend your whole wad on one big event thinking everything is going go great from there because I had this huge thing. Build slow so you can go fast.

VCP:    [Laughter] Don’t talk – when you feel discouraged about slow growth, don’t start making excuses about why churches don’t need to be big.

MG:    Oh yeah, yeah, that’s a great one.

VCP:    Just don’t.  I mean you – you’re just discouraged, like go get healing because your discouraged and don’t turn it into a theology of why it’s better that your church is small. When we were at about 50 people I had developed this great argument about why churches should all be small, and I literally thought to myself “I wonder if that’s just something people say when they’re churches are still small.”  I figured I’d revisit it when we reached 300 people and I did, and I was like yeah, that’s just something people say when their churches are small.

MG:    [Laughter] That’s awesome.  Yeah, it’s funny how we, in our insecurity or our discouragement, begin to turn those into theological issues.  Or because we’ve seen people make mistakes in one area in terms of growing and their whole deal was butts in seats that we decided that you know butts in seats are like just a bad measurement all the way around.  Yeah.

VCP:    What are your thoughts on this— just don’t go public too fast.

MG:    And find help evaluating whether or not you’re ready.  So here’s the thing in the first year—don’t blow off everybody’s advice. So, listen to people and really pray through their advice and honestly believe that some people might know more than you.  It’s odd [laughter] but they might.

VCP:    Don’t twist and contort yourself to keep your one team member that’s complaining all the time.

MG:    Yeah.  Yeah, let ‘em go.  Let ‘em go early, let ‘em go often.  If you have to talk people into continuing, you got the wrong people.  Here’s one of the things I’ve done.  The first time that they come to me and they are thinking about quitting, I’ll really process it through with them and encourage them not to quit.  The third time I just accept their resignation. [Laughter] Just accept it.  It’s okay and then about half of them turn back around and say “I didn’t want you to accept it.” I go “well…quit offering it.”

VCP:   When you need to fire somebody, fire them. Can you talk a bit more about that?

MG:    Go with your gut.  When you feel like this isn’t quite working you can try a couple rounds at making it work, but if your gut says this is not gonna work long term, then let ‘em go before – let ‘em go earlier rather than later because it’ll help reduce the collateral damage along the way.  So if you got a leader that’s not following your vision, that you’re constantly sandpapering against, first make sure that your heart is really in the right place and it’s not just a ‘you versus them’ personality thing, so really take that before God and get some outside counsel even on that piece but then you know to replace them earlier rather than later.

VCP:    That’s good.  And then this one—don’t promise people positions.

MG:    Never.

VCP:    Don’t promise people jobs.

MG:    Yeah, never promise somebody a position.  Never promise them a job.  In every stage of the game just get people involved little bit by little bit serving and just keep giving them a little bit, little bit more, little bit more, until everybody else is calling them the title that you would’ve bestowed on them way back when.  You want to see faithfulness in little things before you promise them any kind of a job or give them any kind of a title.

VCP:    At the Church Planter Trainings we host, this comes up a lot…in this case I can promise this person this job because we’ve worked together for so long that I know that they’re gonna be my [blank].

MG:    Right, so you know better than Jesus, huh?  [Laughter]

VCP:    Okay, that’s a punt.  C’mon.  [Laughter]

MG:    But I mean truthfully, how do you know what God’s going be doing in their life in two days versus two years? You don’t know and you don’t know who else might be coming in the door that would be better suited for that, and then now you don’t get to employ them because you’ve already given this job away.  When it comes to even the biggest things, like a worship leader, or children’s ministry director, always have that conversation that we hold this role openhandedly.  We hold this position openhandedly, we hold one another openhandedly, and God can take us in or put us out at any point in time along the way and I might need to do that with you or you might feel like God’s pulling you out of this church plant.  That’s totally cool, totally all right.  We’re constantly holding people openhandedly and we have to model that. And I think it’s our insecurity actually that wants to give them a position so that we know that a certain position locked down.

VCP:    Yeah, that’s right.

MG:    And that’s actually more detrimental to the plant and it’s based out of our insecurity more than it’s based out of what God may be doing in them.  And so what I do is I say, hey would you like lead worship for me for the next three months?  Just for the next three months would you do that for me and then let’s talk again.  Hey, let’s do it another three months.  That worked out really good.

VCP:     Is this common or not?  What if someone has already made these promises, how do they walk it back?

MG:    So I go with that openhanded deal. Just say something like this “I promised you a position and I broke one of the cardinal rules, and so I apologize for breaking one of the cardinal rules of leadership.” And they may say “What’s that?”  And I would simply follow up saying “That we always hold everything open handedly, and in my insecurity I gave you a position to make myself feel better about it.” And then just always take responsibility for it.

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