As we’ve been gearing up to debut the church planting residency grid to you, we thought it might be helpful for you to hear from some of the people who have actually gone through this material (in various forms) with Michael. We were able to catch up with a couple of them who are now taking what they learned and actively applying it as church planters and pastors.
Joshua Pickett: CityWide Vineyard, Shreveport, LA
Joshua and his family felt called to plant a Vineyard church in their home state of Louisiana, but they were new to the Vineyard movement and wanted a way to get really immersed in the Vineyard values and philosophy before planting. So to that end, they actually transplanted all the way to Duluth, MN, in the fall of 2013 to go through church planting training with Michael Gatlin at the Duluth Vineyard. When we spoke with Joshua, the Picketts were back in Shreveport, where their church has been meeting for a little over a month.
MV: So, Joshua, now that you have had some time to get into the swing of church planting, are you finding that you are using things you learned in the residency program?
JP: Yes, I am. The second week after we were back, we had gathered all these people, and I was in a fog. I just felt like I didn’t know what to do. But I took out my notes and packets, and I just started reading them over again, and it started coming back to me. It was like, “Oh yeah, I know what we need to do.” And it started kicking in, so by the beginning of the next week, I started catching a rhythm and confidence like, “This is what we do now, this is what we stay focused on.”
And God would remind me of things as I was reading these booklets that Michael gave us, or notes I had, so I honestly don’t think we’d be doing as good as we are without going to Duluth. I know that whatever measure of success we have is because we’ve learned a lot of the simple things to do that make a difference, instead of not knowing how to filter all the stuff that’s out there about church planting. The training helped me whittle it down to, “This is what you need to be doing in the first month. This is what you need to be focusing on in the second month.”
MV: Were there specific books or material that have been particularly helpful?
JP: Michael’s got these four classes that they do on a national level, and they put these books together, and one of them is called “Health.” That booklet is so good. A guy could take that alone and plant a church. It talks about the first things that you need to do, and if you focus on what that book tells you, I think you could get a small group off the ground and running. So that’s what I’ve gone back to.
I’ve also gone back to some of my notes and a CD about gathering. That reminded me that you have got to be out there talking to people, building relationships, inviting people to coffee and to your house. You’ve just got to do it, do it, do it, do it.
And also sharing your story. I was reminded of that from my notes, and that’s been helping me. Sharing our story in a sentence or two and being able to cast vision for what we’re doing. I was forgetting that when I was talking with people. I was talking about all kinds of different things, but I wasn’t casting vision—why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it.
MV: Looking back at your year of training, what do you think the value was of coming to a Vineyard church to get trained—even one so far from home?
JP: You couldn’t do it online. Without a doubt, the training needs to be facilitated in a healthy Vineyard. And not just any Vineyard. I’m going to be real with you—it needs to be a healthy, thriving Vineyard with good systems, healthy leaders, transparency, all the stuff that makes the Duluth Vineyard a really good church. We’ve never experienced church like that. Never.
But for me, I wish I didn’t have to go to Duluth to do it. One day there’s going to be a place around Shreveport that people can come and do that training, because right now we’re starting from almost nobody. We’re starting from me, my wife, and my daughter, not with a team of 20 Vineyard-ized people from a church nearby, that know how to share, that are already working toward this. What we’re really doing is still digging the hole to put the foundation in. Hopefully more places like the Duluth Vineyard around the nation or the world would do this training, so that it would be less of a distance for people. So that’s one of the drawbacks, but I wouldn’t have changed it, because I wouldn’t have got what I got if I hadn’t have gone somewhere to get it. Does that make sense?
MV: Definitely. What would you say were the biggest challenges for you of being away from home for your training?
JP: One of the hard things was to press into the community, with just a small amount of time to do that. I don’t care how much you catch the reality of community—we’re human and we have all these walls in our heart, and so it took us almost six months before we were starting to lock in with friends and feeling connected.
And we really missed the community we had back home. When Thanksgiving and Christmas came around (and I’m not even a sappy kind of person), man, I just longed to be home with my friends. It was really lonesome. We got invited to a Thanksgiving thing and a Christmas thing in Duluth, which was awesome. But it just wasn’t the same.
And you know, each one of us processes anxiety different. There was me and my daughter and my wife, and we were staying in someone’s basement for the first few months, and man, we were at each other’s throats! It was just hard because of the psychological and the emotional anxiety and all the change. The pressure of finances was also a challenge. Duluth is really a depressed economy. There just aren’t a lot of jobs. So all of that was really hard.
But God used all of it to teach us, so it’s not like it was wasted—God doesn’t waste anything. I have a better feel of how important it is to be in community now, and how lonely it is without it. We’re strong christians, but without other people, you’re just not that strong. So now when I communicate about the importance of community, there’s more of a life coming out of it, because it’s not something I take for granted. And by depending on God for money, I feel like we got a little piece of grace to really know that God’s going to help us. And he has since we’ve been back down here.
MV: Do you feel like the training process brought up or answered questions of calling?
JP: No, not for me. I can see that it would for some people. For us, though, we were 8 years into this pursuit. I was convinced maybe 3 years before that I was a planter. I’d had a lot of men that didn’t know me in meetings call me out and say, “You’re a planter.” And I’ve had God tell me, “This is who you are,” and that was really settled for us a long time.
But I had a lot of questions about the Vineyard approach to church planting. And I loved how we had these big blocks of time on Saturdays where I could just ask and ask and ask and ask and Michael would give good answers. A lot of times he would give you multiple options: “Here’s all the ways you could do this. Here’s all the ways I’ve seen work.” That was invaluable. That was worth coming for.
Chad Amborn: Westside Vineyard, Duluth, MN
Chad and Aubrey Amborn have been the pastors of the Westside Vineyard in Duluth for several years now. They didn’t plan to be church planters—they simply set out to start a small group. But God was doing something different. The group outgrew their house and they had to start renting a separate space just to accommodate the people who were coming. It was while they were navigating the difficulties of leading a group of this size that they started going through church planter residency with Michael to help learn how to handle the growth they were seeing. Now with a few years of experience under his belt, Chad was willing to share his perspective on the value of that training.
MV: Well, Chad, can you start by telling me how the training you went through prepared you for church planting?
CA: Well, at the time, we were already in motion, leading a church. So I would say for me, there were probably two big impacts on what I was already doing. One was learning some discipline—how to set time aside, and devote that specifically to either church planting, or discipling, or reading. Up to that point I never even read a book, so Michael was having me read tons of books.
But I’d say the biggest thing for me had to do with spiritual growth. Being challenged to my core is really what propelled me, because at that time we weren’t ready to plant a church. I wouldn’t even say we’re ready now. But personally, I don’t think anyone is ever really ready to plant a church. You’re never prepared for what’s going to come down the pipeline, because of the human element, and the spiritual element of Satan not wanting things to take place, either.
However, the spiritual development part of the program taught me how to lean on Christ and depend on him. To trust what he’s doing, and, because he’s doing it, to lay it at his feet and trust that he’s going to get us through it. That’s what helped us at the beginning, and that’s honestly what continues to help us even right now.
So I think that that was the biggest aspect to the immersion school—being challenged spiritually. There were several aspects of that. Aubrey and I were being challenged in our marriage. We were being challenged spiritually, and you know, that’s a lot for any human being to deal with and take on. But that was huge for me. Absolutely huge.
MV: What do you think the effect of doing the training right in the middle of church life and church planting was?
CA: Quicker growth. You know, there’s nothing that tests you more than actually learning as you’re going through it. Being responsible for a congregation, realizing, “Wait. I have all these people that I’m responsible for, and I’m mentoring, and discipling, and teaching on Sunday, and yet I still need tons of growth in this area.” Knowing that you are still falling so short of where you would like to be, but also knowing that God has you exactly where he wants you. I think that has a huge impact on growth.
You can get a lot out of a seminar. But having on-the-job-training, having a congregation that completely believed in what God was doing with that church plant, and praying and loving and caring for us, encouraging us to continue to walk through the fire, well, I don’t think you can get that in a seminar, you know what I mean?
So as we were learning things in our meetings, we would find ourselves saying, “I know exactly what that means, because we’re going through it right now.” We didn’t have to take notes and go, “Ok, shoot, I gotta check my notes and remember how I respond to this or how I act, or what I should do with this particular situation.” We were already going through it, or had already gone through a lot of it.
MV: When you started training, did a calling to church plant get confirmed or dealt with?
CA: Planting wasn’t what I wanted for my future—I actually didn’t want anything to do with it—but I was going through the school thinking, “If this is man-made, then it’s going to fall apart. But if this is truly God then I better at least do the bare minimum and be obedient and go through this course.”
I was pretty rough around the edges during the residency program because I didn’t really want to do it, and I didn’t want to be challenged. I’m sure that for Michael it was like talking to a brick wall sometimes. And as we started diving into spiritual growth, it was probably one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever been through in my entire existence. But as we started seeing the fruit that was coming out of it in me, I realized that even if church didn’t work, it was worth the process. Just in my growth with God and in my growth as a human being, and my growth as a husband.
That part of the residency wasn’t forming me into a pastor as much as it was forming me into a man of God, which I needed, whether I was pastoring a church or not. I needed that direction, I needed that accountability. So I was willing to go through it just for that. But it just so happened that I was pastoring at the time, and it was having a positive impact, producing fruit for me as a pastor, as well as personally.
MV: Based on your experience, would you say that this kind of training is important for potential church planters?
CA: If God’s calling you to plant a church, if God’s calling you to ministry, as long as you are yielding to God’s plan, you are receptive to change, and you are allowing God to set the stage, God will accomplish whatever it is he wants to accomplish, whether you’re in a church planting residency or not.
However, I will say that going through that course is going to give you tools that you can utilize. The whole idea is to continue to put tools in your toolbox, so that when you need them, you can pull them out. If you don’t go through something like that, you’re just limiting your access to the appropriate tools. And so for that, I would say it’s extremely important.
It’s going to challenge you mentally, it’s going to challenge you spiritually, it’s going to challenge you relationally, whether it’s family, or friends, or just community. It’s going to just challenge you to your core, which is extremely important, because it’s meant to break you down as a human so that you can be rebuilt. And when you’re being rebuilt, each time is supplying you with a new tool to add to your toolbox. And that is something you can’t put a price tag on.