Pro Tip: Stay Married

I’ve got two goals for every church planting couple that I coach: Stay Married.

Do we really have to state that goal? Yes. Yes we do.

  • 80% of ministry spouses report that ministry is hazardous to their family.
  • 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month. Planters included.

Church planter types are awesome. Bold, risk-takers, full of faith in God, ready to storm the gates of hell with a super soaker! We are like the Marines of the church. We go first into harm’s way to fight the good fight and see God’s Kingdom advance!

Only you know what? We aren’t Marines. We are, for the vast majority, married and Marines don’t re-locate their families to the front lines of a battle! We do. And it’s dangerous up here. There is a real enemy and he’s mean, he cheats and he wants to destroy you, your family and that church you dreamed up at the coffee shop when you were amped up on your third doppio espresso of the day.

The church planting battle field is not friendly to marriages. So you need a gospel coach that is going to keep you focused on your marriage amidst all the other demands. Twice in one week this month, I heard of two planters I know personally in different states whose wives had affairs. They were successful. They were ‘too busy’ to get a coach. Part of big name ministries, writing and speaking. But they neglected their marriages. How incredibly sad.

Listen, I know planting is a demanding call. There are no distinct time or space boundaries between work, home, marriage and friendship. It’s easy to get busy! It’s easy to forget about your spouse and your marriage. I got busy serving God, winning the lost, starting Bible studies, gathering, networking, marketing, speaking, raising money and planning (and this was 12 years ago before social media and the cloud!) The kind and firm questions of my church planter coach steered me away from the dangers I see so clearly now but couldn’t during the fog of the start up battlefield.

Church planter, you are different. And it’s not because you are better. It’s because you are a marked man on our enemy’s hit list. If you or your wife fail morally, then you and your family will need to step off the front lines for a long time. Neglecting your first ministry to your family is very easy to slip into but its wrong.

According to 1 Timothy 3, a qualification of leading a church is that you are to be the husband of one wife and manage your household well. The reality is, you lose in marriage? You take a seat. Or at least you should.

My wife and I at the CMM booth at an annual church event. We’ve been married 28 years. As cheesy as it may sound, I hope every church planter couple ends up like us – more in love during and after the hard work of planting a church.

So what should you do? Stay married.

That is a moralist statement. There is no power in that advice. You need to put your faith in the power of who God is and what Christ Jesus as done and will do. And you’ll need a coach who will point you to Jesus – not his great advice or expertise.

What should you look for in a church planting coach?

1. Get a coach who will remind you to whom you are married. As a member of the Body of Christ, we who put our faith in Christ are His Bride. You can’t lose your marriage to Him. He’s the best husband you can trust to protect you and yours.

2. Worship God, not your spouse or your kids if you have them. Worship Christ and ask Him about everything. Everything. You’ll want a coach that prompts you to pray. A lot.

3. Work less not simply more or harder. Minute-by-minute dialogue with God requires much more listening and less hustle than you probably tend toward as a church planter. Most of what I did racing around making it happen was my own willful self-effort. Not good. I needed a coach who’d been close enough to burn out that he warned me of the signs he saw in my own life. I had to learn to Sabbath. To cease. To stop. To be human.

4. Depend on the Holy Spirit. There are mountains of great church planting resources and wonderful subject matter experts, mentors, trainers and coaches available. Not one of us will be better for you as a planter than deep, old-school, radical humility and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

If you are stuck or struggling, get a gospel coach. One of our team can and will help you find out why you’re stuck and help you follow Jesus and stay married as you plant a church for the glory and by the power of God.

Married 28 years today

Newlyweds at Westminster Presbyterian, Atlanta on June 27, 1987

My bride Elizabeth and I celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary today.

I am deeply grateful for her. She is my best friend, a most excellent mother to our children and a godly woman who points me and many to Jesus through her music, teaching, serving and example.

Much has changed in this short time and will continue to change. Children, weddings, gospel maturity, pain, poverty, wealth, homes, churches planted, new vocations, languages, technologies and new friends. Amazing how the events of these last two weeks underscore how the world changes quickly and slowly at the same time. But one thing has only increased.

I want her more than ever before.

Being married to Elizabeth is an increasingly beautiful foreshadowing of The Wedding of Eternity for which Christ is preparing His Bride (Revelation 19:6-9). Truth and Grace prepare the Bride of Christ for Final Judgment that ushers in the New Heavens and the New Earth where His people are WITH Him. This is the greatest good. We live in such gratitude that He would chose us for each other and for Himself. It is so good it is hard to imagine. That He would grant us a joy for which we were made, redeemed and celebrate daily? It is a Joy that we could never earn. Intimacy and love that proves His worth and glory. Being married to you Elizabeth as followers of Jesus is an honor. Anticipating eternity.

Happy Anniversary my love. Living with you is like heaven on earth.

I wanted to be a famous pastor

crowd at conference

I used to want to be more famous. I didn’t say it that way, but that is what I wanted. Honestly, I still want it, but less so. Maybe I’m getting wiser. I’m certainly older. And honestly, I’m afraid. For myself and the men, women and their families who lead churches.

Is this the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom? These days I coach several planters and pastors. I’m involved with many church planting networks where we talk about and expect churches to grow. And always to get as big as they possibly can. And we are always sad and devastated when someone takes a fall.

I’m beginning to wonder if wanting to be more famous, have a bigger reach or growing our numbers is a good expectation. Or if we should be a little more suspicious of celebrity. Even small-time celebrity I (still) want.

This may be an emperor’s new clothes set of questions, but I’m going to ask anyway:

  1. As a planter or pastor, is getting more people to follow you better? Is more influence or power, money, buildings necessarily healthy?
  2. Should we planters and pastors produce media content (i.e. blogs, podcasts, tweets, posts, videos, books) or focus mostly on sermons, prayer, disciplemaking and shepherding? (Yeah, that is a leading question and this is a blog. Forgive my mixed signals. I can see my agenda is showing.)
  3. Is the pursuit of becoming a larger church with big followings a biblical or wise way for God’s Kingdom to expand? Or are there unseen, inherent risks to those who lead them?
  4. Should ‘successful’ planters and pastors speak at conferences, author books that require them to travel to speak at more conferences and be away from their family and flock?
  5. Should we ask some hard questions about our role in attending, promoting or supporting conferences that promote celebrity?

And more importantly, what should we learn by how Jesus handled celebrity?

Planting and pastoring a church is already a dangerous calling. I hear far too often of burnout, moral failures, depression, family struggles and even suicide among pastors. That is not the way it is supposed to be!

Are we, in part, hurting ourselves? Are we playing into a scheme of our enemy? Maybe we should examine Scripture and talk about a better way.

Perhaps we should aim lower.

Lord, have mercy.

The Very Personal Life of a Church Planter: Personal Money

The Very Personal Financial Life of a Church Planter is based on a series of short letters about money and sex that I sent to planters and visionary leaders at RENEW South Florida after I had the privilege to speak at their network meeting and spend some time with them. Love those guys.

The Two are Tied Together. One of the most common very personal concerns people have about planting a church is this: money. My money. Not so much how will the church start and survive. More, how will we survive. Good question. Important issue!

I’ve coached and advised more than one church planter who jumped in and started a church without a financial plan. All they needed were a few promises and a huge leap of faith. Some have since left the church plant. Lest you think planning solves all issues, let me say there are others who raise a lot of money but have little impact. There is no magic pill or short cuts. But God’s given us some wisdom and experience that I hope will help you thrive while you plant.

Financial issues are hard on all planters and their families. How you start a church impacts your family and what you do as a family impacts your plant. I hope this advice helps you live well in a sustainable reproducing church.

Consider your wife. As with sex and intimacy (future post), finances can be a significant but relatively hidden point of contention between planters and their wives (or if you’re not yet married, your future wife). You will face temptation to consider short-cuts or cheats that will provide the money for plans you just ‘have to have’ and gratification you think need. Like past sexual conduct, financial decisions made prior to starting a church plant or during a start-up can hinder intimacy, cut into resources for rest and limit flexibility to live and give generously. 

Consider your context and public persona. Financial decisions impact public opinion of you and your church. Whether we like it or not, most people outside the church form their initial opinion of every pastor through the lens of what they see with TV preachers, remember from past bad experiences or hear by way of gossip. The public persona of all clergy isn’t pretty. You are guilty by association until proven innocent by your faithfulness over time. So does the car you drive matter? Yes. What about your clothes? Yes. Vacations? And yes. Your values are exhibited by the spending choices you make.

One financial adviser told my wife and I, ‘Every spending decision is a spiritual decision.’ And if you recognize that it is all God’s money, then you see the point. So is that meant to scare you? To load up some guilt or manipulate? No. Well, only if it’s real guilt. And if you are guilty, then let me encourage you to repent to the Lord and humble yourself. 

Take pains to set up your family finances and church financial practices to be dependent on the Lord, above reproach, trustworthy and able to withstand scrutiny. Here are some specifics

Ask Jesus about spending. Is it too much to ask the Lord about your spending decisions? I don’t know what you should buy or not buy. I don’t know what would be wise in New York compared to Atlanta compared to a small town. But the Lord does. And you have access to Him all the time. Ask Him. Teach your family to ask Him too.

Avoid debt. It’d be wise to have a rigorous plan to pay off all consumer debt before hitting the field. There is a moral question about raising money to start a church plant that will be used to pay off your personal debts. You may need to wait to start and work longer.

If you are thinking about planting in the future, curtail student loan debt. The crisis of student loan debt may be the next systemic road block we face to getting church planters on the field. (See ‘I Owe U’ by Krstina Bell, TIME October 31, 2011) Church planting assessment centers factor in debt load when they considering readiness for planting.

If your wife will be required to work to make debt payments that will add stress to the work of planting a church. It will limit time and energy for your marriage, family and church priorities.

Budget within your family and church context. Live on a written budget. Depending on where God calls you to plant, you will likely need to alter your lifestyles. But remember He supplies all your needs (Philippians 4:19). Some planters have larger reserves and family resources than others. Be aware you can over-adjust to the expectations of your culture too.

When we moved to plant a church, we did adjust to fit in. I hate TV but we got cable. I tossed my youth pastor duds and bought different clothes. Even learned to play golf. (Not well, but I can play.) The temptation to get an upgraded car did pass through my mind, but I settled on a used Accord. It is wise to live on the humble side of your context.

Always tithe and give. Lead by example. If you don’t tithe, you lack moral authority to ask others to tithe. Key people will see how much you give. When my integrity was questioned, those people stood up for us. 

Save. You’ll need margin in your life and the flexibility to give to important projects. Can’t do that if you are scraping by month to month. Current wisdom is have three to six months expenses in reserve. 

Contributing to your retirement is important too. The church should consult standards to determine the contribution. Believe it or not, one day you will retire…

Raise your support before you move or start public worship. Experienced fund-raisers agree: people give to ‘anticipated vision.’ So your urgent need to get support in place goes away after you move to the field. Once you start public worship, it’s exponentially more difficult to raise funds. Until all support is pledged, it is your part-time job. Raise at least 80% prior to moving to the field. If you are stuck here, I’m a coach who can help you.

Who Bears Your Burdens? One temptation is to put your faith in your finances. But that won’t save you. Finances are a terrible savior, whether you have a lot or too little for your comfort. Christ Jesus has taken the full weight of all your debts on Himself on the cross and knowing everything about your finances, God the Father punished Christ in your place. Trust Him, not your financial support. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness bought for you on the cross and he will provide everything you and your family need.

In the next post, we’ll look at corporate best practices for church plants.

If you need more information about the very personal life of a church planter, seek out a gospel coach. Contact me if I can be of help.

First post

I’m a Gospel Coach for Church Planters, Pastors and Ministry Leaders asking Jesus to multiply more Gospel Coaches to reach the lost in North and South America.

We planted a transcultural, bi-lingual church in the Atlanta area and pray for God to give us opportunity to help reproduce in other churches, networks and denominations. I’m a recovering work-aholic. Without the help of a Gospel Coach and a Church Planter Network, I would have flamed out in ministry and sacrificed my family in the process.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I’m learning to be Holy Spirit-dependent, Christ-centered and to live in gospel-saturated community.

My wife Elizabeth and I have three grown children and are overjoyed that they love Jesus and serve in other church planting churches despite growing up as church planters’ kids. That ought to be the new normal.