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.