5 Critical Lessons in Church Multiplication

Over the last 18 years, Jeff Leake has led Allison Park Church in Pittsburgh on a journey of church multiplication. Leake founded and is president of Reach Northeast, a church planting network designed to facilitate new, life-giving and multiplying churches throughout the northeast United States. Here, he shares some of the lessons he has learned through his own mistakes and watching other planters succeed.

Lesson #1—When sending a staff member to plant a new church, hire their replacement before sending them out. I learned this lesson the hard way. With the first church we planted, I sent one of our pastoral staff members to be the planter. What I didn’t account for was just how much this would impact my life. I ended up with three extra jobs.

After doing this several times, I realized my error and more importantly, how to correct it. If you know you’re sending a staff member out to plant a new church, it is a good idea to delay the plant for a few months while you find someone to take his or her place on your team. You also gain valuable time that can be spent having planters train their replacement.

Lesson #2—Defining expectations upfront can help you avoid so much pain later. Relationships are hard work. Even in the best situations, misunderstandings can arise, feelings can be hurt and partnerships can be damaged. Parent churches often feel they have been more than generous with the churches they’re planting. Church plants often feel that the parent church could have done more.

To avoid all of these hard feelings, we made some changes. Now, we start the planting journey by putting together a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that communicates expectations and outlines exactly what the church planter and parent church are expected to do. Both parties sign this document at the beginning of the partnership, which helps to avoid future misunderstandings.

Realize, however, that an MOU does not replace the need for other types of relational effort. Both the parent church and the plant need to extend prayer, encouragement, friendship and grace to one another. But you will soon discover that putting your expectations in writing will help eliminate unnecessary grief.

Lesson #3—Everyone needs a dad (a spiritual father). This is what I enjoy most about being a parent church pastor. I get an opportunity to form a very unique and powerful relationship with the church planting pastor. My goal is to be more than a coach and a donor. I want to provide a spiritual covering for planters and their families.

I see this as so much more than just investing in a new church; it’s investing in the life of a spiritual son. Approaching the relationship this way sets the tone for every conversation. The planter is not just an employee or a missionary we’re supporting. I’m choosing to encourage, develop and shape them. When we talk, we discuss strategy. But just as often, I’m trying to speak life into their soul.

I want them to feel my prayers and know that in every way I have their back.

This relationship tone also allows for the network to develop organically. Because we’ve made a relational investment, I’m able to provide a natural covering for the church planter even after the church has been planted. We also seek to extend that relational covering not just to planters and their families, but also to the new church. I want the pastoral staff and leadership team of the new church to know they have a pastor who is supporting them and is there for them if a crisis occurs.

Lesson #4—Leaders who reproduce leadership don’t show up ready-made. They must be developed. I absolutely love Bill Hybels’ teaching on the five C’s that Willow Creek Community Church uses when hiring new staff:

1. Character: They must have integrity and be trustworthy.
2. Chemistry: They need to fit with the rest of the team.
3. Competency: They need to be capable in their area of assignment.
4. Calling: They need a sense that God has assigned them to us.
5. Culture: They need to carry the same DNA as the rest of the organization.

When I read this list, I completely agree with these criteria for a long-term and effectively functioning leader on any team. The problem comes when we search for a person who meets all five C’s, and we come up empty. What do you do when you can’t find a 5-C leader to hire or plant a new church?

You have to build 5-C leaders from scratch. In fact, the church at large needs an approach to leadership development that focuses on building future leaders from the ground up. Over the last few years, I have watched one of my spiritual sons build what is much like a leadership “farm system,” to borrow a term from Major League Baseball.

Brian Bolt, one of the planters in our network, leads the CityReach Network and is planting churches faster than any human I have ever seen. In September 2014, CityReach Network planted 13 new churches on one weekend. Many of these church planters who are planting in inner-city areas were addicted to drugs five or six years ago. Now they’re planting churches!

Brian takes former drug addicts and turns them into church planters. I’m always amazed at how he does it. First, he believes in them. From the moment they enter a CityReach Church, leaders are speaking life and faith over people. They preach that God not only saves and sets us free, but also that he gives us purpose and no matter where we’ve been in life, he can use us. Then through a system of opportunities (leading worship, preaching and testing out their skills), these potential planters get several chances to receive some honest and direct feedback. Brian describes these tiered opportunities much like the farm leagues in baseball (A, AA, AAA and the Majors):

A—Small group devotionals or worship times
AA—Friday night outreach services
AAA—Being on the platform to pray or lead part of a church service
Majors—Preaching or leading worship during a weekend service

Every time someone steps out to lead, he or she gets a dose of “grace and truth.” A supervisor affirms them like crazy. Then he or she will identify one area where the planter needs to improve, providing honest and direct feedback to help planters grow in their skills.

Lesson #5—If we love “the one,” God will trust us with more. One of the trends in today’s church planting world is to identify a target audience that seems cool and culturally connected. So many church planters are targeting the young adult, artistic, trendsetting, highly educated, progressive individual. Granted, there is a huge and obvious need among that demographic because so many who fit that description are unchurched or de-churched.

But sometimes I feel that we may be overlooking some other critical people groups. In our context, we use the term “the one” to describe someone who is hurting, forgotten, overlooked and disconnected from God. We draw this concept from the Gospels:

“While Jesus was attending a banquet hosted by a wealthy friend, he said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed’” (Luke 14:13).

I think we could take Jesus’ words here and apply them to church planting: When you plant a church, don’t just invite the trendy, appealing, qualified, educated, artistic or good-looking. Invite the poor, the addict, the sick, the immigrant, the old and the developmentally challenged. If you do this, you’ll be blessed.

My experience has been that when we spend our energies going after ‘the one” that no one else is searching for—but whom Jesus deeply loves and died for—God will give us more people than we know what to do with. In fact, if you lack traction and can’t seem to get people to join your church or connect with your launch team, expand your vision and commit to going after the one.

Jeff Leake is founder and president of Reach Northeast. To read more from him on multiplication, download his free eBook, The Question That Changed My Life: How Planting Life-Giving Churches Became Our Direction, at Exponential.org. Both Jeff Leake and Brian Bolt will be speaking at the upcoming Exponential East 2016 church planting conference. Explore Exponential.org for more information.