Church Planter: Don’t Beat Yourself Up When People Leave!

... and other vital pre-launch lessons you need to know for navigating this inevitable ministry reality

Dave Page

When I first started out as a church planter, I had what I now realize was an idealistic dream of having friends I started the church with go the distance with me. I thought we’d be serving as ministry partners for 40 years and then riding off together into the sunset–much like the legendary trio of Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea.

It didn’t happen.

Here’s what I know that I didn’t know pre-launch: 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 will probably not be the people with whom you grow the church. 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 working together as a team to see changed lives.

Anytime someone left the church, it was emotionally painful for me.

However, part of the process of growth was learning–and embracing–the law of scaffolding.

In the late 1800s, missiologist John Nevius once referred to missionaries to China as “scaffolds” to be removed when the building was established. In building construction, 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. These people 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 plant 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 area churches 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. After the first experience, I learned to prepare for it and how to better deal with it. Here are three lessons I learned that I hope will encourage you wherever you are in your church planting 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 at one point even begged someone 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 left my team, I panicked. Who is going to replace this star player? In the beginning, I thought nobody could replace them. Some of the hardest losses were those 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 repeatedly 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 reachable 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 them. Reward them. 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 my lessons learned.)

Dave Page serves as director of church planting for the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) West District and is a strategic leadership coach with NEXT Coaching Networks. Follow his website and blog. Dave will be one of  five leaders sharing personal stories and insights at the Pre-Launch Forum at Exponential West, Oct. 6-7. Learn more about the Forum and see the complete list of speakers.