Before You Plant a Church – Part 1 – Don’t Forget Your First Member

Steph & I - Fall 2013

Steph & I – Fall 2013

The aim of this series is not to discount the power of the Holy Spirit in expanding the Kingdom of God through church planting. I believe that the same power that launched the church in Acts 2 is still at work today. That being said, I think there are a lot of things that need to be considered in keeping with this high calling to plant a church. As I have increasing opportunities to speak to, assess, and coach church planters, I am reminded that if the marriage is not sound, the church is in trouble. If your spouse isn’t on board, you will burn out, and your church will sink.

A few weeks ago I was conducting a church planter assessment for a new planter in the Houston area and when we got to the area dealing with his marriage, he said something that really grabbed my attention. He confessed, “I didn’t realize before we moved down here that my wife wasn’t really on board with the move or with planting the church.” I really wish this was the first time I had heard this, but sadly, it is more common than one might think, and can have some very negative consequences on the marriage.

Now I have heard some planters argue that it is God’s calling, so their wives need to just submit and go along with it. Well, I’ve read Ephesians 5, too, and it also says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25, ESV). Jesus gave Himself for the sake of his bride, the church. Here, the Apostle Paul is encouraging husbands to follow after Jesus and sacrificially give of themselves for the good of their wives. Sadly, I ‘ve seen guys become authoritarian, as in, “She submits to me, so if I’m called to plant, we will plant.” This is not biblical complementarianism. This is a man behaving like a meathead.

It is selfish and uncaring for you to push forward with planting a church if your first church member, your wife, is not on board. This is especially true if you are moving her to a new area where she doesn’t know many people. You will have tons of interaction with people, because you are on mission, but there will likely be times where your wife is experiencing great loneliness and it can be hard on her, and become very stressful for you.

I have met with several couples and the wives feel like it would be wrong to share her concerns about church planting with her husband, as she does not want to be a discouragement to him. However, she usually finds that this concern can turn to resentment towards her husband, and sometimes even towards Jesus. While the mission might be seeing some fruit, the heart of the wife could be withering.

Church planting doesn’t have to be this way. The first member that you need to cast vision to and receive feedback from is your wife. If you and your wife have a healthy relationship, and are praying together, it should be something that the Lord affirms in both of you. However, if you plow ahead, then this could lead to destruction.

Listen, I’m not trying to overemphasize the importance of this for the sake of being provocative. I have been to the funeral of a pastor whose marriage fell apart, and he ended his own life. I have seen pastors step down because either they or their wives had been unfaithful. These issues were in the context of a church plant, and they have lasting negative impacts on many people.

Here are a few questions to help a couple discerning the call to plant a church:

  1. What is the state of your marriage? Couple’s typically have what is called Idealistic Distortion regarding the state of their marriage. They are either wearing rose-colored glasses and think their marriage is much better than it really is, or perhaps they are overly critical of it. I offer a pre-planting assessment for couples and utilize Prepare-Enrich.  You do not have to go through it with me, but I encourage you to have an outside person assess your marriage for you.  Any issues that you currently have will only become amplified and multiplied once you begin the church planting process.
  2. What are your expectations about this process? Church planting is VERY challenging at times, but there is something that happens in the heart and mind of the planter. It’s really quite audacious to start a church and it takes a level of idealistic motivation to pursue this important calling. However, many guys downplay the hard work and expect their church to explode the way the church in Acts 2 did. I’m not saying that this does not occur, but I am saying that this is not the typical experience for the majority of church plants. After all, true success in church planting is not defined by numbers (nickels & noses), but by faithfulness. We are called to obey Jesus, and love and lead those whom He brings to us.
  3. What will we do to make money? God will provide. Absolutely. However, He may provide for you through another job. I’ve written several articles in my series The Lost Art of Tentmaking as well as several articles on fundraising, so I won’t go too deeply into this subject. It is worth noting that the Lord is faithful to provide, but we need to be okay if the way we are provided for looks different than we originally expected. While I’m a huge fan of George Mueller (link), there are still times when we must work and/or ask other believers to assist us financially. I would argue that there are times the Lord uses lack of provision as a sign that you should not be planting the church. After all, we are considered worse than unbelievers if we don’t provide for our families (see 1 Timothy 5:8).
  4. Who can you talk to who has done this before? Your greatest enemy will be your ignorance and arrogance. Even if you have read a lot of books, been to conferences and boot camps, or listened to podcasts, there is much to be said about asking specific questions and receiving feedback about your plans. The sad reality is, many planters opt to be arrogant or un-teachable and believe that all they need is their calling and their head knowledge, and they are good to go. This is simply foolish. There are many pastors who have planted churches who are more than willing to share their experiences with you. If at all possible, find a few church planters that you can ask questions of, and even better, a few wives of church planters who can speak to your wife about the ins and outs of planting. The writer in Proverbs said it well, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22, ESV).
  5. Do you have a trusted friend that can give you wise counsel? This is so important. Yes. It is true that there may be a calling that no one else around you understands, like Noah building a ginormous ark in a relatively dry place, but for the most part, the calling to plant a church should be clearly seen and affirmed by those you do life with. If you tell some close friends, or your pastor that you feel called to plant a church and they all seemed to be very confused or disagree with you, consider slowing down. Additionally, those who know you and your wife may help you to see that your marriage or that your wife is not ready to embark on this type of adventure. You need to be mature enough to be able to receive constructive critique from those closest to you. If your trusted friend tells you need to slow down, or re-think some things, view this as God’s gracious provision for you and your wife. We all have our blind spots, and it is very gracious when those around us care about us enough to help us see them.
  6. What books are helpful for new planters? Two books I usually have couples read when they are making these considerations are Church Planter by Darrin Patrick, and The Church Planting Wife by Christine Hoover. In Church Planter, Patrick does a great job of challenging the reader to really consider his character (the man), the message, and the mission. Christine Hoover’s book is helpful for wives to read as it gives first-hand insight into the joys and struggles of being a church planters wife. There are several great books to read when considering planting a church, but these two really deal with the planter and his wife.
  7. What expectations do you have of your spouse? I am shocked by how often a planter and his wife have conflicting ideas about what their respective ministries will look like. For instance, you might be frustrated that your wife does not want to head up the women’s ministry, or your wife might be frustrated because she thinks you should be using your time studying more or being more proactive in meeting people. You’ll need to discuss what you both think being called to church planting really means. Does it mean that you are a team doing ministry together? Make sure you understand one another’s expectations and don’t automatically assume a role for your wife that includes a lot of church ministry. It is very important for the planter to cast vision to his first member, his wife, as to what he expects of her, and let her provide the same expectations back to him. This is not to say that these expectations don’t change over time, but this communication is key. The wife’s primary responsibility is to Jesus, her husband, and her children. If those areas are going well, and there is something additional that she would like to do to serve the church, then awesome! If not, then she should be encouraged to keep first things first.

All of us have blind spots that we need to be aware of and take into consideration . These blind spots take a toll on the marriage, and your wife will struggle in ways that you haven’t thought through yet. This is not to say that you shouldn’t plant, but it is a strong encouragement to really evaluate your marriage, and communicate clearly with your wife.

Have you sat down with your wife and discussed these issues at length? Set aside some time this week and go through this list and listen carefully, and explore expectations and potential blind spots.

If you’ve already planted, what were some unforeseen challenges placed on your marriage?  Leave a comment below.

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