Key Challenges in Church Planting Today: Challenge Seven


Challenge Seven: Leaders are Poor at Empowering Diversity and Leading Collaboratively  

Back in the late 90’s, I recall reading a leadership essay by business guru Margaret Wheatley called “Good Bye Command and Control.” Wheatley was predicting the rise of a more participative style of leadership that gave team members greater latitude to self-organize, collectively share ideas, and solve complex organizational problems. This stood in contrast to the prevailing “great man” view, which extolled the highly dominant [male] leader who exhibited both extraordinary gravitas and the capacity to deliver results like a shrewdly pragmatic CEO (kicking people off buses was a common metaphor). 

In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that Wheatley’s call for a more collaborative way of leading has become the preferred style of leadership today. This increasingly applies to team leaders endeavoring to start new churches. As we face ever accelerating change and complexity in all of life’s spheres, contemporary church starters are compelled to collaborate across swaths of diversity, both internally and externally. Even for a "first-among-equals," diversity-seeking model of leadership, there are several values to keep in check as you develop your church's collaborative ethos:

  1. Who are your internal and external teams?

  2. How will you delegate? 

Who are Your Internal and External Teams? 

When it comes to collaborating in church planting, one aspect that’s often viewed too narrowly or superficially has to do with the “who” question. Who are we accessing or including to round out perspective on our internal team? And who are we accessing or partnering with in our city to keep us immersed in wider Kingdom endeavoring? The first question––who we access or add to our internal team as our startup gains people, resources and momentum––is critical to the DNA and health of our initiative, so obviously this is a higher priority in the startup phase than building external partnerships. But both kinds of collaborating are essential over the long haul. 

The internal collaborating helps us express and incarnate the gospel adequately within our context, while also informing how we apprentice our people in the way of Jesus (i.e. discipleship). The external collaborating helps us play our part in fostering new missional initiatives and expressions of church in our city, while also providing a flow of resources to counter the natural turn inward that too often plagues church startups.

On an internal team level, most of us today appreciate the value of empowering an array of leadership diversity. Plurality in leadership not only allows us to prophetically demonstrate reconciliation across many common lines of division, but it can also expand our capacities to cultivate true learning communities. Allowing outside perspective to permeate our leadership ethos and inform our communal learning requires us to cultivate humility and a learning posture. But that posture must work in tandem with leaders doing the work of clearly defining ways people can offer feedback and alternative perspectives. I’d say that half of the battle involves unblocking and encouraging the flow of feedback, and then giving visibility to whatever prophetic edge God may be trying to accent. 

In the building of an optimal collaborative mix, our discernment must be theologically, prophetically, and missiologically informed. We pay attention to what Scripture and the trajectory of the gospel prompts us to pursue. We give ear to whatever prophetic corrective the Spirit encourages us to assert in terms of who should be sitting at our particular leadership table. And we prayerfully listen to our specific contextual realities, who it is God is calling us to reach/serve, and the unique vision God has given us as a forming church. This “stereophonic listening” allows us to populate our teams with that mix of humanity needed to give the greatest advantage for the gospel in our setting.

Of course, we can’t talk about collaboration without also mentioning what Alan Hirsch calls “APEST symmetry.” If God has truly given gifts for the upbuilding of the body of Christ along the five Ephesians 4:11 orientations, we as team leaders need to ensure that we’re accessing all five perspectives in our decision-making. These five-fold orientations will optimally find expression within our lead team, though it’s not simply balancing the five but working to build symmetry of voice (i.e. a strong leader who tends to over-accent their orientation may need more than one offsetting counter-voice). A lot of teams will find, especially in the early phases, that their team mix is deficient in one or more of the APEST orientations. But team leaders can readily cover for any initial lack by regularly incorporating input from trusted leaders in partnering churches or outside entities who robustly express those under-accented orientations. 

How Will You Delegate? 

Getting beyond the “who” and into the “how” of collaboration, it’s important to mention the importance of good delegation on the part of team leaders. Too many team leaders work so hard and passionately to catalyze momentum for planting that they unconsciously settle into a pattern of over-functioning in their role. At the least this involves giving too much time and attention to areas that could be delegated to existing team members. At its worst, over-functioning can amount to a margin-less existence for the primary leader, not to mention a micro-managing style that stifles both the sharing of leadership and the development of leaders. Hoarding work in such a manner is a collaborative no-no for team leaders!

The truly collaborative leader will be motivated to share power because they realize they’re not omni-competent, nor are they necessarily best-suited to lead on given issues or at certain seasons of the church community’s development. But good intention often runs aground in the muck of poorly defined team roles and leadership decision-making protocols. Collaboration becomes so much easier when team leaders do the work upfront to articulate what decisions they are empowered to make, which decisions require input and approval from their sponsoring organization/denomination versus which ones that require input and approval from their team and/or core group, and who ultimately needs to be kept informed about the choices made. These decision-making protocols are often left so fuzzy in church planting that the ambiguity actually undermines the collaborative ethos leaders are trying to develop. 

In your church startup, you may be the primary leader who is building a complementary team around you. Or you may be one among two or three leaders who together form a collective point leadership (i.e. you share the role of orchestration). Whatever the configuration (single point leader or multiple point leaders), such strategic point leadership should ideally be situated within a wider team who are empowered to cover various aspects or domains of ministry, each with clear definition and real accountability. And these all supported by the agreed-upon infrastructure of leadership decision-making norms. 

In closing, I’ll only briefly mention the importance of team leaders collaborating with outside groups, organizations, churches, alliances, denominations, etc. The team’s vision for church planting needs to be couched within the wider work of God going on in their area. This can offer a wealth of resources and encouragement––and the team can also offer what they have, internally, to help foster mission and additional planting in the city. It’s never too early to build that outward reach into the newly forming community, as that posture almost inevitably creates wider berths for more leaders to step in and join the collaborative efforts to make a difference for good in the city.

Parting questions and recommendations:

  • How are you as team leader(s) working to discern your diversity goals and empower others to participate in leadership with you?  What measures are you taking to help your leaders understand and function well in roles that give them real authority? What as team leader(s) can you delegate in this season ahead and to whom, and what’s your plan to wisely hand off those areas?  

  • Who might you collaborate with beyond your project, toward the greater Kingdom good in your city and beyond, but especially toward the raising up of church starters?

  • To help leadership teams with practical skills in how to share power well, I highly recommend Making Room for Leadership, by Dr. MaryKate Morse (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2008).


  1.  APEST is of course an acronym Alan Hirsch has coined for the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherd and teacher orientations the Apostle Paul claims (in Eph. 4) have been gifted to the body of Christ. For more on how to identify these orientations and how to deploy them in a balanced 5 point fashion in teams, see Hirsch’s book 5Q (Columbia: 100 Movements, 2017) and the accompanying 5Q Guide by Hirsch and Jessie Cruickshank (Columbia: 100 Movements, 2018). 

  2.  Co-leading or actually sharing the point leadership function can work well with the right mix of leaders, though it does demand quite a degree of maturity, experience, complementary giftedness, and trust among the point cluster. Sharing the point leadership role is much like a married couple who shares the responsibility for the growth of the relationship, letting each do the dance of co-leading, with each partner taking the lead role in certain aspects of married life as needed within a partnership of mutuality. 

written by Dan Steigerwald

Photo by Cassie Boca on Unsplash

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