Michael Gatlin is the director of the Vineyard’s Church Planting Ministry Team and senior pastor at Duluth Vineyard in Minnesota. He talked with Jeff Heidkamp about the different costs – spiritual, relational, emotional, and financial – of planting a church.
VCP: What does it cost a sending church to plant a church?
MG: I think it costs a lot of different kinds of things. You know, as we have sent out church planters, it’s cost me in terms of relationships with leaders that I have helped to develop and train. It’s cost in terms of people who’ve gone out on the team. There are relational costs.
It’s like when I start feeling really close to my teammates, and they have to leave now to plant a church, it feels like when a small group multiplies. It feels like the family’s getting split up. There’s a real cost to that.
There can be financial costs. I remember when one planting team was sent out. I wouldn’t recommend doing this, but I went through our finances the very next day and added up what that group of people had given in tithes the previous year. [Laughs] I realized that $40,000 of a $100,000 budget had just walked out the door. I thought, “Oh no! What am I going to do?”
There are costs in terms of the church body itself. Say I have a few leaders that we have trained and they’ve done leadership very well. When they’re sent out, there is a whole bunch of people who follow them and are connected to them. That’s a cost we have to take on.
VCP: Could you talk about the cost of the risk of failure? What happens if the church plant fails?
MG: The cost for me personally as a leader is, if I’m promoting this in my community, and I’m sending this group out and it doesn’t work, not only is it hard for the people who’ve gone that I deeply care about – it’s hard on them and their families and their lives – but it’s also a cost to my credibility, my reputation as a leader; I was behind something that failed.
There can also be a cost in momentum. Say your church is growing at a certain percentage a year. I remember at one point we were a church of about 350 and we’d been growing about 25 percent a year. Over the course of three years, we sent out a church plant each year. So I kept looking at my annual church growth and it was in the single digits. I wondered what was wrong, but my wife would remind me that we’d sent out those church-planting teams. We had continued to grow at the same rate and we were reproducing our church throughout the area.
VCP: The Vineyard has documented this elsewhere. Church planting really costs the sending churches that are smaller.
MG: Absolutely. It does feel like it costs more. You know, 40 people went out and we were down to 300. You get used to the room feeling full, and then the next weekend there’s so many more empty seats. That felt like a huge cost.
But over time, I discovered these are exactly the kinds in costs in ministry that you want to have.
VCP: Tell me why. Why would a sending church be willing to give up money, leaders, relationships and risk failure and loss of momentum? What are the benefits or outcomes for that church?
MG: I’ll tackle each of those in order. Relationship cost – what this did for me was to free up time in my life as a pastor to invest in a whole new group of people that I didn’t have time to invest in before. And so I began to pursue some new leaders more aggressively. Whereas when everything’s going well, I’m not super-hungry for new leaders.
So one of the things that I noticed is that I became immediately hungry again. I’d look at the group of people that were gathered on the weekend and pray and say, “Okay, God, I need seven leaders. Who are you doing something with here?” I had more relational room in my life. I had room to actually invite more people in.
Financial costs – well, when things feel like they’re going well financially, I’ll be less likely to speak or give illustrations on finances and giving. So when I felt financial hurts, I would become really aware of praying for God to meet our daily needs. One big benefit is it improved my prayer life drastically! [Laughs] All of a sudden I couldn’t live without praying over our finances again.
I think we have this mistaken idea that when things are comfortable, they should stay comfortable. Personally, I don’t think comfort and Christianity go hand in hand. I don’t imagine the cross as a place of comfort.
Relationally, leadership-wise, financially – it was interesting: As we began to really invest outside of ourselves, we increased momentum in a way I didn’t expect.
Even people who had been following Jesus for a while saw the benefits in terms of investing in other cities and other communities through planting churches and as a result got more engaged in their own faith. They began to serve more, give more, make more room in their own lives for other people. I watched some people who generally sat on the sidelines get more involved in what God was already doing as we planted churches out from ours.
We would talk about these things. I’d be really honest at weekend services. I put up a map showing where we were planting churches and where we were thinking about next. I’d have visitors who would walk in the door, they’d hang out at the church for a week or two and then they’d walk up to me and say, “Hey, how could I get to be one of those people going to one of those spots on the map?”
VCP: It’s like it takes ministry from 2D to 3D.
MG: Yes. People really begin to get a picture of life outside themselves and outside of their little part of the world.
VCP: Could we talk from the church planter’s point of view for a bit? What are the costs for the lead church planter?
MG: One of the biggest costs for people is the cost of feeling connected and really supported. When you move across country or move to a new city, all of a sudden you feel like you’re on your own. You can’t just go down the street to your old pastor’s office or have coffee with other leaders. So there’s that kind of separation anxiety.
VCP: That’s universal for church planters. There’s almost nothing you can do as a sending pastor. No matter how many times you call or e-mail, you can’t move in next door.
MG: Exactly, and I think part of that anxiety is a good thing. Maybe I was looking to my old church or that senior pastor in a way that I should have been looking to Jesus.
Personally, what I did to adjust was, I started getting to the office at 7 a.m. every day. We actually did have a little building to start with. So I had an old Lutheran church office, and I would go there and get out my yellow pad and just start praying and journaling for an hour, hour and a half.
It’s amazing, but when I started doing that, I quit feeling so isolated. The church belongs to Jesus, and he loves the church, and he’s really good at planting churches. So I connected to him in a pretty deep way. As I did this, not only did I feel personally connected with God, but I felt like he would highlight another pastor or leader for me to connect with for relationship and support. Those relationships are still encouraging for me today.
The other benefit to me is that church planters can also start to get connected to a wider group of people than maybe they could before in their previous settings. They have more relational room in their lives as well. They can begin to have completely different kinds of conversations than they would have before.
MG: Another cost is to give up security. Obviously, this plant might not work. It could really crash and burn. The first year of our plant, during a particularly rough spot, I remember Brenda saying, “What are we going to do if this doesn’t work?”
My response was, “Well, we’re the Vineyard pastors. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just close up shop and start again at a new spot down the block!”
She seemed calmed by that: “He’s thought about it. He’s got it planned out.” [Laughs] And my response was, “Okay, now that I’ve calmed her down, I feel more panic than before!”
That security cost is evident. What I was doing in the context of the mother church felt secure, but when the work started to rely on me, it felt like it might fall apart. It dials up all your insecurities. It dials up all your fears. In those moments, it’s easy to become self-focused and think that the plant is all about you and whether you can make it work.
In some sense, a lot of things rise and fall on leadership. But from another angle, I’m just supposed to be following Jesus. Doing every day what he tells me to do – the weight is on my shoulders to obey, but it seems to me that he is the one who does the heavy lifting. It’s just like in evangelism – we get to share the gospel, but God is the one who brings people to himself.
VCP: Planting a church in my mind is like having a baby in that it forces a kind of growth that just there’s nothing else that will force that growth in you. Not everyone will do it, but the people who don’t will never have to experience what it feels like to have to go out doing that.
MG: For me, one of the costs was that I had to confront the makeup of my personality. I had to be willing to change. That was a cost for me. I’d been working as a watercolor artist in a studio alone for around 11 years. I loved it. I dealt with clients, yes, I dealt with my family, but for the most part I would get an enormous amount of introvert time every single day.
I knew that if I kept doing life that way we would not have that much of a church, and so that’s why I made the crazy commitment to try to talk to hundred people a week. I just needed to break that introvert cycle. And another cost was, I felt like there were a few things I was good at in ministry, but I knew that I needed to become a generalist and be good at all of it.
I needed to become a good counselor. My counseling style had to change from “Get over it!” to “I deeply care about you. I’m going to pray for you. Let’s meet again.”
Those are all very real costs.
VCP: What about career and family? When somebody’s not already a pastor before planting a church, they’re giving up a career and the family’s going to give up something.
MG: I didn’t struggle with that one nearly as much, because I always knew I could go back to my career if this didn’t work. I thought I’d put my heart and soul into this, but I figured if it didn’t work out, I could go back to being an artist.
VCP: But for others that’s a little more real.
MG: Yeah, yeah, it is. How did you feel in terms of that?
VCP: You know, it was the first year, so I was too freaked out to worry about it or to even be fully aware of that cost. But I was a pastor and teacher before, and as the years went by and I wasn’t full-time yet, the church still wasn’t stable and I felt like I was getting further and further away from being a pastor and a teacher.
VCP: And you know, people say things like, “There’ll always be a job for you on my staff.” Well, it turns out when that moment comes it’s usually not as true as they say!
And I was aware that particularly my older daughter lost a lot of time with us in her early years. That was just a very real thing.
So as I felt those things slip away: career, security, time with my family, I had to choose not to be a martyr about it. I had to trust God that he was going to pay us back.
I should mention for those who tend to be workaholics, at some point you have to let God pay you back. We had to have a few years that were quieter to focus more on family, because I think you can get in that trap of always giving up career and family and actually get a little noble about it. Maybe God offers you the space and time to spend with your family, and you don’t take it. You actually have to take it when he gives it back to you, and you can’t whine that you’re not getting it if you don’t take it.
MG: Early on in our plant, Brenda and I were at a Vineyard conference in Anaheim where Eleanor Mumford was a main speaker. Her and her husband, John, oversee the Vineyard churches in the UK, and she talked about how if God’s called you to be a pastor or a church planter, he’s called your whole family.
She told several stories about really practical stuff: John bringing home strawberries and cream in the middle of the day just to sit with her when the kids were gone. Small ways to invest in their marriage. It was really encouraging to hear. And embracing those kinds of attitudes and practices helps our family see this calling as an incredible privilege. And it is! I don’t know of a greater privilege in life than that of partnering with God to help build communities of Christ followers, the church, wherever he might lead us.