Internal Church Planter Pipeline

Why Your Church Needs One and How to Develop It!

April 15, 2024

“You have to figure out how we plant churches, and the only planters you can recruit are inside Hill Country Bible Church.”

“So, you’re saying that I’m not allowed to recruit planters from outside?” I asked.

“You cannot spend one minute recruiting planters from outside.”

And so went the conversation that sent me on a journey. How could our local church plant churches by identifying, developing, and launching church planters from among the members sitting in our seats? We’d have to have an internal church planter pipeline.

What I’ve learned developing and utilizing this pipeline has convinced me that every church needs one. Aren’t sure yours does? Then, allow me to explain how it’s worked for us.

We Were Running Out of Church Planters!

I serve as the Church Planting Director at Hill Country Bible Church in Austin. Our church, by God’s grace, has planted 20 churches, and those churches have planted 20 more, over the past 28 years. The 41st church will launch, Lord-willing, on Easter 2024. We’ve even reached fourth-generation planting, where a granddaughter church planted a great-granddaughter church. Praise God! We’re a Level Five movement! That journey, however, has been a difficult one.

When we began in the mid-90’s, we were following the lead of the Holy Spirit in trying to saturate our city with the gospel under an Acts 1:8 vision. Hill Country took seriously that call to reach our “Jerusalem.” And for the first 12 years, it was phenomenal. Through 2008, every church plant was successful. There wasn’t one closure or merger. As we look back, this was the season where planting churches was going well, both in Austin and in North America at large.

From about 1995 to 2010, the U.S. saw a tremendous rise in church planting activity. Planting was the “sexy” thing to do in that season. Many young leaders coming out of seminary or serving as student pastors (the perpetual hotbed of church planter incubation), heard the call of God to plant. We saw the proliferation of church planting networks, assessment organizations, and churches planted. In hindsight, these planters would have been successful in whatever they chose to do in the Kingdom. But this was the day of church planting, and because of that ministry current, many leaders ended up as planters. Their churches were largely vibrant and successful, until the current began to shift.

In 2010, our now-forming church planting movement started to see its first failures. Our 100 percent success rate was no more. And as the 2010s moved along, our success percentage decreased to something closer to 60 percent. What happened? We knew how to assess planters. We were good at recruiting them to come to the growing, and way cool, city of Austin. We had a proven residency program to prepare them to launch a church. But the low-hanging fruit had been picked. 

In the late 2000s, the quality and quantity of planters started to decrease. Sure, some called and gifted planters were coming, but their numbers were few. What we realize now is that the first batch of the most gifted leaders had already been identified, developed, and launched. The season of attracting the best and brightest planters to come to us had ended, because there were less of them to be found. We needed to make a tactical shift. 

Are You Making Disciples?

As the seasons of big “C” church ministry moved along, the focus on church planting and church multiplication gave way in the early 2010s to a new conversation. What issue rose to the forefront of our collective ministry minds? Disciplemaking. As an interesting data point, the first time the Exponential National Conference in Orlando had disciplemaking as its theme was 2013.

Let’s step back though and think through the history of the church in America from 1980 to 2013. During the 1980s and 1990s, we saw the church growth movement. We learned that we could grow churches large and do ministry at scale. That gave way to the church planting, multi-site, and multiplication focus of 1990s and 2010s (the missional movement was also a part of this season). We learned that there was a limit to the amount of “growth” you could realistically see at any one location, hence the need to multiply churches and/or sites. Starting in the 2010s, our conversations shifted to making disciples who will go make disciples. This year’s Exponential Conference was on that very topic. 

How does this larger move in Christendom intersect the story in Austin?

The Holy Spirit brought the leadership of Hill Country to a repentance moment in 2016. During the early years of the church, the ministry focus was genuinely life-on-life disciplemaking. But, as the church grew beyond 1,000 in Sunday attendance and churches were getting planted, caring for increased numbers of people and raising up planters took more and more leadership bandwidth. And as a result, the church had taken its eye off the disciplemaking ball. So the Holy Spirit was calling us back to it. In 2016, lead pastor Tim Hawks and the elders decided to move back to disciplemaking as the foundation of what Hill Country did as a church.

A few years later, I found myself in that pivotal conversation I referenced earlier. Tim challenged me to plant churches by raising up the planters from within. As I turned to leave Tim’s office, he must have noticed the blank stare on my face. I had no idea where to even begin to build an internal pipeline. Mercifully, Tim instructed, “Go find Ralph Moore.” 

Learning From the Master

If you’re unfamiliar with Ralph Moore, make today the day that changes. From the three churches he pastored, you can trace more than 2,600 churches planted. I found Ralph at the Exponential Regional in Houston in October 2019 and made him my new best friend. After learning from Ralph for about a year, I created our internal pipeline plan which I’d describe as a modified version of what Ralph did in his churches.

First, if you want to multiply in the macro — multiply a local church — you must multiply in the micro . . . multiply disciples. If this disciplemaking engine is absent, you may be able to plant a few churches in the short term, but your planting days are numbered. Focus first on making disciples who make disciples in your own church. This is step one in creating a church planting pipeline. This is what Hill Country felt the Holy Spirit was calling us back to. By the time 2019 rolled around, we had made some progress in having that engine built and seeing disciple makers reproduced. 

Second, you must build a system to multiply leaders. We decided to organize our church planting pipeline around the ministry structures already present in our church to build “leadership development huddles.” Our Church Planting Team deployed across our church to start small groups of leaders who would meet regularly to discuss leadership, with the leaders that God has placed within our church. We’d read a book together on the topic of leadership or ministry. We did this in different ministries present in the church: Students, young adults, small groups, etc. . .

To start these huddles, I first connected with the ministry leader to cast a vision for coming alongside them and their team to help do leader development. I’d offer the free labor of my team as a resource for their ministry to do what they already wanted to do and develop the leaders within their ministry. 

Through this initiative, my church planting team would get eyes on leaders throughout our church by leading these huddles. We’d get a sense of who had significant leadership gifting, and then follow up with these leaders to see if the Holy Spirit might be leading them to pursue something bigger in ministry. If we sensed that God was up to something and greater leadership roles were likely in their future, I’d invite them into a leadership development huddle with me.

Leaning on Ralph and his “Saturday morning fanatics” concept, our huddles read books together. It didn’t matter whether the book was Christian or secular, but one that talked about leadership or ministry would usually suffice. Then they’d ask and answer the three questions: 

  1. What did God say to you? 
  2. What are going to do about it? 
  3. How can we pray for you or help you?

These questions formed the context of discussion. I’ve found they also spur pastoral training moments. As you hear folks around the table articulate what God was saying to them through the book’s content, you see threads that tie directly to ministry situations. In almost every meeting, without fail, we’d be discussing some pertinent piece of the pastoral role. It’s the structure of the questions that leads to the application. This isn’t discussion for training’s sake, but tangible takeaways for ministry application. 

Third, as I got to know these leaders in my leadership huddle, I’d watch and listen for what God was doing in and through them. Then as I prayed for each leader, if I sensed the Holy Spirit’s leading, I’d ask them to a one-on-one conversation where I’d have an ICNU (I See In You) conversation. I’d lay out more of what I was observing in them and my sense of what God may be doing. I’d also hear more of their heart and story and ask them to pray a very specific prayer, “Would you ask God if he’s calling you to plant a church?

After about a week, I’d ask what they felt God was saying. If the answer was that God was not leading them to consider planting a church, then I would not do anything further and continue to help them grow and develop as a leader. But, if they came back and said they felt God saying “yes” to planting a church, or that they felt led to continue down a path that could possibly end in that outcome, I’d invite them to a next step.

Fourth, for those who felt God leading them toward church planting, I’d invite them to be discipled by me. This would begin a year-long disciplemaking relationship, meeting weekly for about an hour, where I took them through the disciplemaking system we’d developed at Hill Country. This training was oriented toward not only making disciplemakers, but toward developing leaders who could lead a movement of disciplemakers. They would get the nuts and bolts of making disciples, but also the vision for how to lead a church with disciplemaking at its core.

Fifth, we’d ensure that, if they weren’t already, the leader was shepherding a small group. It’s well known that leading a small group, caring for people spiritually, and getting those people on mission is some of the best church planter training one can get. Couple that with being able to raise up leaders from your small group and multiply a few times, and you have the makings of a successful planter. 

If the leader was making positive progress through these steps and they felt like God was continuing to press church planting as their calling, we’d invite them to go through a formal church planting assessment through our local network of churches. If that process returned a positive outcome, then we’d take the leader through our planting residency training. And, Lord willing, within the next 18 months, we’d have launched a new local church in our city.

You may be scratching your head wondering if it’s as easy as I lay out here. The answer is of course not. It’s a lot messier than any clean, step-by-step process. There are sub-steps and pivots that we make along the way, with each planter given what they need to be successful and how we sense the Spirit moving. What I’ve listed above, however, are the basics. And that’s intentional. We’ve found that the plan must be this simple otherwise it’s not executable. In addition, only simple plans are reproducible. Our hope, like with what Ralph saw through the Hope Chapel movement, is that the planters who are developed in this system would go on to do the same thing in their church, and so on and so on.

Do You Have the Stomach for an Internal Pipeline?

Dave Rhodes once said in the context of disciplemaking, “The question today isn’t, do you have a heart for disciplemaking? The question today is, do you have the stomach for it?” 

If you’ve read this far, I believe you have the heart for church multiplication. You’d affirm your desire to see your church launch other churches who then would launch other churches to reach your city. But do you have the stomach for it? Are you willing to do what it will take to build an engine within your church to identify, develop, and deploy church planters? 

For the record, we are not against the outside recruiting of planters. We think you should still do that. There is benefit to the both/and of internal/external planter recruiting. But what we’ve seen is that if you don’t make the convictional decision to go after the internal, you will continue to run the external recruiting play with decreasing effectiveness, as we saw here in Austin.

If you want to plant churches over the long haul, you must have an internal pipeline. What we’ve also learned is that this internal pipeline is needed for all the roles you need in your church.

An Internal Pipeline Solves Your Hiring Challenges

I’ve had the privilege of leading a workshop on how to build an internal church planter pipeline on several occasions. This past fall at Exponential West in Oakland, I got into a conversation with one of the pastors at my workshop who was the founding and lead pastor of a large, multi-site church. He commented, “You know, this applies to more than church planting.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, I need this development pipeline for the student and worship pastors I’m having a hard time hiring.”

“Uh,” was my brilliant reply.

Our hiring manager Val told me something similar when I asked her about recent hiring challenges. She said that before COVID, it was relatively easy to find a decent number of quality candidates for each job she posted. Now, it’s more difficult to find the same level of quality candidates she once recruited to our team.

The church planter role was the canary in the coal mine. The church planter is arguably the toughest role to fill because of the level of gifting and calling required. Therefore, it makes sense that this role would be the first place we’d see a decrease in quality candidates. The planter position is the narrowest end of the development funnel. But now church leaders are seeing a lack of quality candidates move up the ministry leader funnel. 

If you develop an internal church planter pipeline, only a few of the leaders who enter will come out the other end as planters. Arguably, we should expect a minority to do so. What we will find however is that as we work our development system, leaders will turn out to be called as missionaries and elders and great small group leaders and, like the pastor I met in Oakland was looking for, student and worship pastors. 

Here’s the blessing of the internal planter pipeline and proof again of what Tim Keller said that when a church prioritizes church planting it produces “the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.” Namely if your church goes after church planting, the rest of your church will benefit. One of those benefits is that you will see non-church planting leaders developed to fill other vocational ministry roles. 

What Can I Do Today?

Start your own leadership huddle. Pray for God to show you the leaders the he’s already placed in your church and start investing in them. Like Jesus, spend some time on the mountain and then call to yourself those whom you desire to develop. Ask each of them to join in a leadership huddle. Meet weekly for two months. After those eight weeks, you will discern what God wants to do moving forward. Pick a book, have the leader grab a copy, and start. Ask and answer the three questions and pay attention to what the Spirit is doing in your leaders. Is he bringing any to mind as possible future pastors or planters? Have some ICNU conversations and listen for how the Spirit speaks to them. And trust what Jesus said when he promised, “I will build my church.” (Matt 16:18b)  

NOTES

Tim Keller, https://www.redeemer-grace.org/journal/2015/8/7/why-plant-new-churches-by-tim-keller, accessed, March 13, 2024.

Eric Creekmore

Eric Creekmore

Eric serves as the Church Planting Director for Hill Country Bible Church Austin where he oversees planter identification, development, and church launch. He also leads the Saturate Austin Institute which equips people biblically, theologically, and practically to live on mission in Austin. Eric serves on the board of the Association of Hill Country Churches, a network of multiplying churches committed to catalyzing a movement of reproducing churches in the city. Prior to his time at Hill Country, he planted and pastored a church in the Dallas area for seven years. Before entering vocational ministry, Eric served 12 years on active duty as an F/A-18 Hornet pilot in the US Marine Corps deploying twice for combat. He’s a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. Eric is married to Heather, and they have four children – Zach, Kaitlyn, Trevor, and Drew.
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