Key Challenges in Church Planting Today: Challenge Five


“A successful startup is not your crowning glory, rather it’s the legacy of you leading well and after the manner of Christ that’s your high prize. Let faithfulness be your metric…”


Challenge Five: Point Leader(s) Undervalue Cultivating a Safe, Developmental Team Ethos

One of the ugliest team implosions I ever witnessed involved a huge church planting team that parachuted into a European context full of enthusiasm, ministry expertise, and resources. The team leader was exceptionally bright, communicative and full of vision, so much so that he was commissioned to lead with only a hasty intuitive assessment by our Mission’s president. Exuding an air of gravitas, he readily elicited followers from his teammates and could dazzle groups in any conference setting. Over time, we as the oversight body of our Mission began to get alarming reports from his team members. Within the private confines of the team, this leader was regularly resorting to coercive, manipulative, and shaming behaviors to get team members to toe the line. Eventually, we had to intervene and confront him, but instead of owning up to his “stuff,” he went AWOL and eventually joined another Missions agency. The team tried to salvage the project, but within months the initiative collapsed.

In this case, the team culture gradually became toxic due to the leader’s hidden character flaws, which became apparent in the crucible of planting pressures. He had decided early on against pursuing vulnerability and his own development, and as a consequence he placed little value on creating a team ethos conducive to undergirding the lives and callings of his team members. The bright and promising goal of a new kind of church in a city with few churches carried the team for two years, but ultimately that was not enough to compensate for the erosion of what I would call a safe, developmental team culture.

When Practicality Combats Team Cultivation

This situation may strike you as an outlier and not something that could happen to you as a team leader. To that I would say, be careful. To cultivate within your team the kind of respectful collegiality, openness, and concern for one another’s well-being and growth requires ongoing, persistent intentionality. And that intentionality is as much about the work of creating conditions within our team as it is about ongoing attentiveness to our individual soul formation as leaders (or, as Fuller leadership guru Dr. J. Robert Clinton used to say, “ministry flows out of being”).

With the clock ticking and the momentum and relational load rising over time, it’s not uncommon for point leaders to gradually shift their focus toward the product they’re trying to deliver at the expense of stewarding their own growth and the growth of a healthy team ethos. In other words, as a leader you can get hooked on responding well to practical urgencies because they offer more immediate rewards than the non-illustrious background work of leadership development, accountability, and team cultivation.

So, I would encourage you as a lead planter to carve out the time and space to undergird your own formation, and work to make this a high value within your team. Set aside specific times to share with one another how God is challenging you, what you’re learning, what specifically you need to confess or own, where you’d like prayer or tangible help, etc. The safe, grace-filled, transformative team culture you cultivate is key to seeding the same within the wider community you’re planting. A successful startup is not your crowning glory, rather it’s the legacy of you leading well and after the manner of Christ that’s your high prize. Let faithfulness be your metric, not whether or not you end up with a sustainable church.

Let Faithfulness Be Your Metric

What’s needed to create a team environment conducive to growth, perseverance, and effectiveness, of course, will vary from team to team. But the strands of practicing vulnerability, extending grace, and showing genuine concern for one another’s development and performance are a good baseline. On top of this, we need to give attention to seeding and maintaining a healthy team dynamic that fosters the kind of openness, communication, and understanding conducive to team effectiveness and satisfaction. To bolster this way of acting, I always encourage teams to articulate their own clear, agreed-upon guidelines for healthy team interaction and for handling conflict. Also, periodically set aside un-rushed times to hear one another’s stories and to affirm the gifts, passions, and unique personalities each team member brings to the table. The payoff for operating this way is deeper trust, respect, and mutual satisfaction, which invariably produces greater staying power and ministry effectiveness over the long haul.

Lastly, to steward our maturing as leaders, it’s always a good idea to proactively seek a mentor or two to keep us reaching and growing. It’s also wise to develop safe relationships with peers outside the project, especially friends who will tell us the truth when we’re off base or deceiving ourselves. I can’t say enough about the value of enlisting both an appropriate therapist and a spiritual director for whatever season of life we’re in. Ultimately, whatever effort we expend in the direction of helping ourselves flourish and grow will help make us more grounded and safer as people. And this will bleed into every relationship our leadership touches.  

Some thoughts and suggestions for further study:

  • What does your commitment to leadership formation look like in practice—for yourself and for your team? What basic practices might your team agree to share to foster safety, vulnerability, accountability and your mutual development as servant leaders?

  • To promote healthier team interaction, study a few “rules of engagement” examples devised by effective teams. As a team design your own. Also, articulate your process for addressing conflict, not simply stating Matt. 18, but flesh it out! Have your team interact over it - explore how it works specifically, including its suitability as a church-wide process.

  • Excellent resources: The Emotionally Healthy Leader, by Peter Scazzero (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002); The Leader’s Journey, by Herrington, Creech & Taylor (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

Also, this is a brilliant and practical current resource for church starters: “Why Character, Why Now?”
See also “16 Questions” for a host of helpful ideas on 16 crucial features that truly formative organizations tend to possess.

written by Dan Steigerwald

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