Factors against Planters of New Churches

A question was raised on an email list that I am on regarding why we are not having more church planters in the Unitarian Universalist ministry.    I think there are multiple factors  why we do not have more church planters. I will try to elucidate what I believe are some of those factors.

I was a co-founder of a non-profit agency.  I served on the founding board, then as president of the board, and then as executive director; did so for a total of 15 years.  The first few years of that organization took a dedication and a willingness to sacrifice personal life goals to birth that organization.  Colleague David Owen-O’Quill in a sermon he gave to Pathways Church about church planting used the metaphor of child-birth to describe the journey.  He called it a dangerous journey towards new life.  You can watch his sermon here:

Pathways Church – Sermon from 10-17-2010 – Standing For Grace

There were moments in the developing of the non-profit agency, where all seemed hopeless and lost.  We had severe money issues, I did not draw a paycheck for several months, yet in order to birth this organization we had to keep moving forward against the odds.  I as leader of this organization was committed to the mission of providing services to people living with AIDS. I was determined to find a way when there looked like no way.

There were developmental milestones we had to make that would indicate the likelihood of our thriving.  The majority of new businesses fail within the first year, and a majority of those fail within the first five years. It is the same of non-profits and for congregations. How many fellowships did Munroe Husbands plant in the fellowship movement that did not make it the first few years of their life?   The mission of getting from here, this place of where we are to over there, where people would find support, nurture, and sustenance to live with HIV/AIDS was the primary focus and everything was on the line for that to happen. I was not going to allow a simple thing like lack of money  stop me from fulfilling this mission.

Our ministers leave seminary with huge student debt, they do not have the capability to be the mid-wives of a live birth of a congregation. They are already in serious financial trouble before they even start.  They need settings where they can pay off their heavy loans–new starts do not guarantee that setting. The risk can be seen as being too great from the concept side of church planting.

They also need to be equipped with the skills including the physical, psychological, and emotional endurance to weather the birth process of a new start. They need to know the difference between when the road gets bumpy  and driving off a cliff.  There are moments in an organization’s  development when it is supposed to get bumpy right about when it does.  That is not a sign of needing to exit here but rather to fasten the seat belts, make sure the brakes are in good working order, that there is oil and gas for the engine and to continue through.

If my education at Meadville / Lombard is typical of the available seminary training then our seminary’s focus is not on organizational development skills.   They are barely teaching what is necessary administratively for seasoned congregations.  So huge student loans and weak organizational development skills are two factors that prevent newly minted ministers from seeking to be church planters.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association does not have the patience to support new starts to enable them to make it through those initial milestones of one and five years.  We gave up on Pathways Church even before our pre-designated commitment time frame was finished. [There may be very good reasons why the UUA pulled the plug of support but that is not the point I am making here.] Unlike widget production we are in the business of transforming people’s lives and growth where people are concerned does not always follow the best laid plans.  We cannot measure success where people are concerned by the same measuring tools that measures widget production.   This is part of our inherited DNA as an association, the Unitarians and the Universalists associations did not have the patience to birth new congregations–especially new congregations in uncharted waters.

It is erroneous thinking to believe that if we simply plant it, it will survive without nurturance. If we are serious about planting congregations, then we have to be serious for the long haul not just for the first year or two.  We cannot expect a congregation to thrive if we walk away too soon.  The parable of the true shepherd and the hired hand applies here. The true shepherd does not abandon the flock when the first sign of trouble (wolves) appears.

Back to David Owen-O’Quill’s sermon.  A clear and compelling mission.  Why is it important for this congregation to exist in this community?  It must be compelling. It must be full of purpose.  What does this congregation have to do, must do, to have meaning and purpose in life?  The church plant that David Owen-O’Quill has started in Chicago has as its mission to “connect the dis-connected.”  That is a powerful, transformative mission statement.  That is something that people can sink their teeth into and nosh around a bit.  Let’s face it, many of our congregation’s mission statements are simply not that substantive.  They have been wordsmithed to death and go on for paragraphs. No one can remember the mission statement off the top of their head. They are safe and as a result they are shallow. There is no risk embedded in them, no possibility of failing.  In short boring.

How can we start a new church with missions that are wilted from the get go?  Likewise ministers  need to have a compelling mission, a driving purpose that will propel them into being a church planter.  Ministers need to know who or what has their back when times get rocky.  Our evangelical friends believe that God has their back, in a faith that does not presume God as a safety net, who or what is their support system?  If we are going to take serious our faith and if we are going to be serious in having church planters, then we must remove the barriers institutionally for church planters to thrive in our religion.

To recap on why we do not have a multitude of church planters:

1. Huge student loan debt

2. little to no organizational development skill training

3. A compelling mission that is transformative from the word go.

4.  A willingness  on the part of the church planter to place one’s life on the line for that mission / purpose believed in

5. Our association does not have a history of supporting new starts beyond the initial phase.




  1. You make some good points. I also think that we do not recognize that planting–starting an organization–requires different skills and personality characteristics from maintaining one. If we allowed people to specialize earlier (interim, new starts, small congregations) we might have more people who were good at those things.

    I agree.

  2. Fred,
    The new way to start a new congregation by having a muliti-site configuration seems to be working, especially, 2 campuses of a large church. I don’t think that it would work with mid-size churches because of the infrastructures.

  3. Why don’t we presume that God has our back? From Singing the Living Tradition: “We’ll build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, may then create peace.”

    That’s the best overarching church-planting mission I know – and we sing it all the time. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of this more often?

  4. I was asked to plant with two others an outpost of the Jesus Freak organization called the Children of God in 1972. In May 2004 a “suggestion/call” to co-plant a new UU church was presented in dream imagery. I think the ministry–just like any calling–requires a strong inner compulsion that forces an individual to move on in spite of the difficulties. The ordination of Rick Masten by the UUA in 1971 shows that in some cases the UUA might not necessarily expect a church planter to particularly need a divinity degree. The remark by Leelah is spot on, planting and adminstering may be two different skills. Yes, Anna, God–or Godot if you wish–has our backs. I feel there will be lots of start-ups by lay folk, mostly small intimate fellowships, some perhaps not even ever on the UUA radar screen. I brought my roomate to the UU Church several years ago and introduced him to the minister as one who wanted to start a UU Church in Shanghei. It was my personal investment in him in his role as a grad student from China.

    I remember the Children of God from the 1970’s, had not heard their name in many a year. I agree there needs to be to that inner conviction to do whatever it takes to start any new organization be it church or non-profit agency like I did or any other group. It does indeed take a different skill set to do start up than to maintain an organization.

  5. This is a question about history.

    You write:

    This is part of our inherited DNA as an association, the Unitarians and the Universalists associations did not have the patience to birth new congregations–especially new congregations in uncharted waters.

    But didn’t at least the Universalist side have a strong circuit-riding and Evangalizing tradition in the 19th century?

    Are there lessons we could learn from that?

  6. Both the old AUA and the UCA had Church Planters in the 1800s. The UCA had “missionaries” on the payroll (replacing the non-paid ones) – and the AUA was good with grants and $$ donations. Indeed we still have several congregations with roots to those planters. The early days of the Fellowship Movement also had a paid supervisor of the program – some of those fellowships were planted. Of course that was then and this is now – 40s years later, and things are indeed different.

  7. It is interesting that Edgar puts missionaries in quotation maarks. My sister Debbie in Chattanooga would not do so as a head of a ladies missionary circle in a church that at one time billed itself as the largest church in the world. Long time pastor Lee Roberson used the phrase Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1971 when I was a student there at Tenn Temple. Now Thomas Road is known as one of Jerry Falwell’s
    first stomping grounds or perhaps just the original name of his church.
    Our theological grounding includes doing justly,loving mercy, walking humbly with thy god and letting justice roll down like waters. “God is the saviour of all men, especially those who believe” is validating although probably not known in UU circles as scriptural validation of Universalism.I decided to mention John 3:16 in a recent email to an acquaintance but that is pretty off limits in UU circles. Not the soteriology? we would want.Bumbaugh recognizes a need for language that articulates our vision of the sacred and the holy, but our desire to appeal to conflicting mindsets could hinder new UU influence and church planting.

  8. Mickbic: In an interesting coincidence, Chattanooga was the site of the Universalist’s summer School for Evangelists (ie: Missionaries) in the 1900s-1920s or so.
    The Church was named for the last famous Universalist missionary as the Shinn Memorial Church.

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