I had a dream of having friends I started the church with go the distance with me serving as ministry partners for forty years and then riding together off into the sunset much like Billy Graham has done with Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea. It didn’t happen.
Here’s what I know: Those who start the journey with you seldom finish with you. In the church planting world I call this principle THE LAW OF SCAFFOLDING. The people you start the church with are not the people you grow the church with. This is one of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a church planter. I am a highly relational person – a people person. I enjoy people and working together as a team to see changed lives. It was emotionally painful for me anytime somebody left the church. However, part of the process of growth was learning the law of scaffolding.
In the late 1800’s Missiologist John Nevius once referred to missionaries to China as “scaffolds” to be removed when the building was established. Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support people and material in the construction or repair of buildings. It must eventually be dismantled and removed from the building.
In church planting scaffolding refers to believers in the core group that God uses to help build the early structure of the church body. They are compelled by a vision of starting something new from scratch. Most of them are early members of the new church that transferred in from other local churches to help get the church off the ground. Once the church grows and becomes sustainable these pioneers normally move on to do it again somewhere else.
SWAT (Servants Willing and Temporary) workers are a unique type of scaffolding. SWAT workers are believers on loan from other churches in the area who help serve on a temporary basis, usually just at the monthly preview services and at the grand opening. After the church starts they return to their own church.
I ended up starting three churches so I went through this process multiple times. I learned to prepare for it after the first experience and how to better deal with it. Here are three lessons I learned that I hope will help you on your journey:
1. Don’t Beat Yourself Up When People Leave
Whenever people left our church I took it personally. I thought it was a reflection on my leadership ability and maybe it was but I needed to learn to not beat myself up when people left. Early on I tried to hold onto people and even begged one person not to leave. I learned it is better to bless people as they go. You can’t effectively lead those who don’t want to be on your team. Move with the movers and trust God to lead those who leave to a church where they fit better.
2. Don’t Believe The Fallacy That Good People Can’t Be Replaced
Whenever a key player would leave my team I would panic. Who is going to replace this star player? In the beginning I thought nobody could replace them. Some of the hardest losses were people who were tithers. Not only did the church lose the service of these gifted people but it also took a hit financially. I needed to change my perspective from one of scarcity to abundance. I needed to increase my faith and believe God could and would replace those who left. I learned that there are good people all around me and saw God replace what I thought was irreplaceable.
3. Do Appreciate Those Who Were Briefly With You
The wise sage Solomon said, “There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). There is a season when a unique person is needed to help the leader succeed. This is especially true at the beginning of a church plant. God brings highly skilled people to help the church get to the next level that would not have been possible without them. These people travel with the leader for just a season and then move on. I learned to let them go gracefully. I realized that some of them needed to play that role for other leaders.
It’s never any fun seeing people leave for whatever reason. It hurts. I miss many of them. I hope they miss me too. I never want to get to a point where it doesn’t hurt. The good news is some people will stay! And for that I am extremely grateful. These people will charge hell with you with a squirt gun! Celebrate these people. Love these people. Appreciate these people. Reward these people. Treasure these people. They will always have a special place in my heart.
(A special thanks to my mentor, John Maxwell and his book Leadership Gold, for my thoughts on lessons learned).