Steve Bezner has pastored established churches and planted a church. He serves as Senior Pastor at Houston Northwest Church, an 40-year old congregation with a vision to plant churches throughout Houston. He holds degrees from Hardin-Simmons University (B.A., Bible; M.A., Religion) and Baylor University (Ph.D., Religion). He is married to Joy and has two sons: Ben and Andrew.
You’re right. It’s a trick question. But to listening the way some people talk, you’d think one is more essential to the success of the Kingdom than the other. I’ve met pastors of established churches who are threatened by church plants or even find new churches unnecessary. Likewise, I know church planters who direct exceptional amounts of contempt at established churches, accusing them of everything from greed to laziness.
I love the church, in all of her expressions. I love her because she is the Bride of Christ.
Over the years, the Lord has seen fit to let me love and pastor a variety of churches in a variety of seasons. While I would steadfastly argue that each church is essential to God’s Kingdom, I would also readily admit that each church requires a unique approach.
In other words, leading a church plant and an established congregation have similarities, but they also require different approaches and skills.
Here are three things that I’ve learned regarding the difference between leading a church plant and leading an established church.
1. Creating vs. Reinvigorating: Church plants demand “ex-nihilo” work; established congregations need fresh insight.
Planting a church was the single most difficult thing I have ever done in my time as a vocational pastor. I have served in churches almost half of my life (yes, it’s odd to say that), but no other ministry activity I have participated in compares to the emotional and spiritual will necessary to plant a church. Student ministry, college ministry, transitioning/re-planting a church, and educational ministry are all exceptionally valuable for the Kingdom of God. But from the perspective of difficulty, they are all much easier to navigate than church planting.
The reason? Plants, by their very nature, are in a perpetual state of creation. They have nothing from which to build. From checking accounts to governing documents to discipleship processes to sermons to ministry teams, those who are leading church plants find themselves starting something from scratch almost every day.
Personally, I found that task exhilarating. I like to create new things. I always have. But the consistency and demand of constant creation is also exceptionally challenging. If I found myself in the shoes of a church planter today, I would frontload as much of the creative process as possible prior to officially beginning. The more you can decide prior to setting out, the further ahead your fledgling church will be.
By contrast, established churches face a different challenge. With existing facilities and structures, it can be difficult for established congregations to recognize the need to re-create structures and patterns within the church. I served 10 years in a county-seat downtown congregation that is almost 140 years old. Today that church is reaching new families, churning out Kingdom disciples, and sharing the gospel at an impressive clip. Three years ago they baptized 100 new believers! Yet that church is in a rural setting in a town of 6,000. Before it could experience growth, it needed to be reinvigorated.
My current church is quite different. It is young by comparison at a mere 40-years old. But, like any church, it needed fresh vision and direction in order to reach its community. The congregation loves its city, but it needed a clear path to share the gospel. Despite having many things that a church plant would absolutely love to have—facilities, by-laws, elders, excellent Bible teachers, and a top-notch staff—the church was frustrated by its inability to move forward. My first priority was helping the congregation discover its God-given DNA and to set an invigorating vision that would help the church receive its mission.
We began by praying for 40 days for three things: 1) Who we ought to reach, 2) How we ought to reach them, and 3) Unity around that vision. I am scheduled to share the new vision this Sunday, and the church is excited.
2. Recruiting vs. Persuading: Church plants require bold challenges; established churches require the subtle art of persuasion.
As a church plant pastor, I constantly found myself casting vision. Everyone was curious as to why I would start a new church. They asked questions like, “Why do we need new churches?” “How is your church different?” “Will you church fit a person like me?” As a result, I regularly found myself drawing napkin diagrams and re-explaining what our church plant was about.
The point was rather bold: Church plants need leaders. And most leaders are already engaged in existing ministries. As the Lord brought us leaders who considered joining us in our endeavor, we were forced to recruit.
I know that may seem rather crass. We don’t recruit; the Lord calls. This, of course, is true. But Jesus himself asked people to follow him. Many did. But some chose not to do so. I never felt ashamed to share my heart for the city and to explain why we were doing what we were doing. And, if people seemed interested and if I sensed the Lord at work, there would come a moment when I would ask, “Would you like to join us?” I received all sorts of responses, and some of them were ego-bruising. But those who are church planters learn quickly that recruiting new leaders is essential to the mission of the church.
By contrast, in an established church leaders are already present. There are elders, deacons, ministry leaders, group leaders, Bible teachers, and a host of other leaders already present. And, honestly, they love their church just like it is. If they didn’t, they would have left years earlier. They have relational ties to the church. They have invested significant financial resources into the church. And their hunch is that they will be there long after you have moved on. Harsh? Perhaps, but it is a common sentiment.
How, then, is the new pastor of an established church to proceed? I think the loving art of persuasion is essential. I am currently reading Doris Goodwin’s multi-biography of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Team of Rivals. The book is replete with pastoral lessons. Lincoln, through deft diplomacy, recruited his primary political rivals (William Seward, for example) to campaign for him and then join his Cabinet. How? By explaining that the common cause they shared was more important than personal gain.
Pastors of established churches would do well to exemplify such a spirit. By emphasizing the common cause (reaching the city with the gospel) and by taking the time to have loving conversations, the vast majority of church members will gladly join you. But if you fail to take the time to listen and discuss, you will find yourself fighting battles that will prevent the church from moving forward.
3. Marching vs. Strategizing: Church plants require a pastor in the trenches; established churches need a pastor who can move the army around the map.
Let me describe a typical church planting Sunday:
Arise at 6:00 a.m. to review my sermon and pray for the day. Help my wife get the children up and ready. Load the SUV with materials necessary for this Sunday. Meet my team members at a local school at 9:00 a.m. Set up tables and chairs, unload a trailer, and set up a sound system. Join my children’s ministry in discipling kids. Preach. Visit with newcomers. Help load the trailer and reset the school. Head home for lunch and then have any necessary leadership meetings.
Sound tiring? Good. It was. But it was necessary. During our church planting days, I worked alongside my congregation each week in the work of ministry. I discipled new believers and we hosted Community Groups in our homes. We met with people, we prayed with people, and we did the work of the people alongside the people.
Why? Because church planting is exceptionally intimate. The members see their leader up close and personal. They will smell a phony immediately. If you are not willing to work as hard—even harder, in fact—than those you are planting with, then they will resent you. You must never elevate yourself above the team.
We regularly heard from our church plant members how they were grateful that we worked hard. They knew it was difficult. But we knew it was most effective. How could we ask people with children, community activities, and full-time professions to volunteer time if we were not willing to do so ourselves? A church planter unwilling to be in the trenches will not be a planter for long.
Larger established churches value hard work, as well. But they do not expect the Senior Pastor to be greeting in the parking lot or creating the newsletter. In fact, they would be dismayed to find their pastor doing so. They would see a pastor who did so as one unable to wisely lead his team and manage his own resources.
I find myself more regularly engaged in strategic conversations in my current context. I must be able to see the strategy, and then effectively lead our various ministries to engage in the right way at the right time.
Honestly, I struggled with this initially. I wanted to earn the respect of my church, so I would volunteer to help or serve in a way they did not expect. While they appreciated my willingness, they clearly expressed their desire for me to focus my time on the tasks that only the Senior Pastor could do: Lead the staff, cast vision for the church, and teach the Scriptures.
And they are right. It’s the best plan.
The Truth of the Matter
Bottom line: The church is necessary in all of its expressions. And God has uniquely gifted individuals for both planting and pastoring established congregations. No matter the path He has called you toward, it is challenging, but in its own beautifully unique way. Never be ashamed of it, but never cast aspersion on another expression of His Body, either. Simply walk with what He has given you.