I’m grateful to Brian Bowman for this contribution to Lifeway Pastors. Brian is founding pastor of Valley Life Churches in Phoenix, where he lives with his wife Brooke, and children (Bailey and Britton). Valley Life Churches exist to make disciples and plant churches throughout the Phoenix metro. Brian was my guest on Pastor Talk, Ep. 8, How One Small Church Started a Church Planting Network.
They say that everything rises and falls on leadership. Of course they say a lot of things, many of them true, but not all of them helpful. This is one saying that is true enough to help.
I only made it through five pages of the first leadership book that my church planter coach asked me to read. We had just launched Valley Life Church in a movie theater after a year of planning, recruiting, and discipling. I remember reading a line in those first five pages that shut me down. It basically said that to lead anything is to first have a preferred future, a destination in mind. I didn’t, so I figured there was no reason to continue reading.
One of these days I may go back to that book, but those first five pages have helped our church tremendously in the five years since. Once I determined our preferred future, where the church should go, everything else felt like drifting off course. To lesser and greater degrees Valley Life has constantly drifted since we became a church, but course correction has kept to the same pattern:
- Notice the drift
- Call a meeting
- Tell the people
1. Notice the drift.
They say that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” but again they say a lot of things and this one isn’t really that helpful. Not that it’s false, but the nature of church planting lends itself to distraction so that every opportunity to be with people looks like a gospel opportunity, every chance to serve the community seems like missional engagement. Drifting off course doesn’t look like forgetting the main thing. If often looks more like a church plant 18 months into a three years of funding and engaging the community in every way possible except actually planting a church. Whether by spreadsheets, timelines, or just a sense of how things are going, the planter’s job is to feel that drift.
2. Call a meeting.
Armed with a few pages of leadership reading, I knew that Valley Life had to have a preferred future and that it must be more specific than simply keeping the main thing in mind. After determining what was next for us, it seemed natural that I had to tell people about it. Even though there were not yet members, elders, or deacons, these were people invested in our church who would certainly be impacted by this course correction.
Since those early days course correction is no different. If the destination is clear, the leader of a team or of the church can feel the drift. The next step is to gather those people who are impacted, involved, or responsible to talk about it. The fact is that Sunday morning problems don’t get fixed next Sunday, and small group issues don’t get resolved at the next small group. Leaders must call meetings. They say “leadership is a contact sport,” and that one might be true enough to help if it means that your church isn’t going to get planted without being in constant contact with your leaders.
3. Tell the people.
It’s tempting to think that the real work of correcting the drifting church is in the correction itself. In reality the correction itself is often the simplest step. Telling the right people at the right time in the right way is the step that should command most of your attention. Once the planter has identified the drift, called the meeting, and effectively addressed the people, the correction is all but completed.
I once had the opportunity to sit down with one of my church planting heroes. He told me, “don’t stop planting the church.” By this time our church had grown to financially support itself and had planted other churches in our city, but he wanted me to know that moving forward feels the same as starting over. Telling the people about a course correction requires the same four steps as initially casting vision for your church plant:
- Define the problem
- Create urgency
- Encourage the people
- Outline the plan
Valley Life has experienced her share of drifting off course in these five years. Course corrections came in the form of one budget reduction, many staff adjustments, and a few passionate speeches. The ways to correct your off-course church are as varied as there are ways to get off course, but when it is done well it has basically followed this three-step process.