Field of Dreams: What It Means to Plant the Church

Risks, regrets and revelations: Veteran church planters talk about starting a new church from scratch.

When sensing God’s unique call to plant a church, most pastors are full of dreams about the church and culture they want to cultivate. But even the loftiest dreams are not enough. The task of church planting requires seeking guidance from those who’ve been there. Outreach sat down with five veteran church planters—Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Dallas, Efrem Smith formerly of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, John Burke of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, Pete Scazzero of New Life Fellowship in Queens, N.Y., and Jeff Mangum of The Vista Community Church in Round Rock, Texas—to dialogue about what they did right, what they would do differently, and how they walked through the challenges of the first few years.

Planting a church requires significant personal risks. What were some of your initial struggles and fears?

Bob Roberts: In terms of difficulty, I think church planting—on a scale of one to 10—is a 10. It’s a difficult thing to do in and of itself, but you’re not just planting a church. Most guys who do it are young, so you’re doing life, too—learning how to be a husband, how to be a dad, how to grow your church, how to be a person. For the first time, you’re really out there.

John Burke: I thought I knew what it took to start a church, but actually it was 10 times harder. We had no money. No team. No core. We had nothing. How in the world is this going to come together? That was a big fear.

Efrem Smith: In the beginning, I was serving as an associate pastor at a historic, established church. Early on, I had all these fears: How are you going to start a church from scratch? What if people don’t come? What if it fails? What if it doesn’t grow? What if people don’t feel compelled to the vision? How am I going to support my family?

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I was fortunate to have some pastors and denominational leaders pray with me through it, coach and mentor me. I feel like you should not plant a church without a team that’s mentoring and coaching you.

If you were mentored through the church-planting process, how did that impact you and your ministry? Would you recommend church planters find mentors?

Pete Scazzero: Yeah, you definitely want to have some older mentors in your life. … And it would be great to get some therapy.

For example, I’m afraid of conflict. Let’s say I’m the classic pastor—telling everyone, “Whatever you want.” I’m taking care of everybody, I’m overly responsible, and I don’t have the guts to say, “You know what … you need to leave.” I couldn’t; I was an appeaser. And so when you get into some work like [therapy], it helps. … [Because] who you are is the key to that church plant. The church will only be who you are as the leader.

Burke: I interviewed or called every young leader I could find who had recently planted a church and just barraged them with questions. I didn’t find just any pastors. I found others who had planted a church similar to the one I wanted to start—a church for unchurched young adults.

So, I would say, find four or five people who are just a few years ahead and doing something similar to what you’re wanting to do. And then keep bugging them. Emerging Leadership Initiative is an organization I started with other church leaders to help equip. … Acts 29 is another one [you] could tap into. And Leading Edge Ministries has a lot of good resources out there.

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Roberts: I also try to have, for me personally, four to six mentoring relationships at all times. … Find people you really look up to. I have some guys who mentor me at the point of marriage and family, another who will mentor me at the point of theology, others at the point of management. You need multiple mentors. … You can find a pastor to talk to, but if he’s not somebody who has been a planter, then you’re in trouble.

Jeff Mangum: I have a church-planting coach now. He’s an absolutely phenomenal man. We meet twice a month. I regurgitate everything going on in me, whether it’s about church or not. And it has been the best emotional, spiritual and financial investment I’ve ever made as a church planter, by far! There is great power in knowing that you’re not the only one feeling these fears or having these doubts.

I also made a lot of phone calls to church-plant pastors from every denomination, saying, “Hey, what are the big snares that I need to be aware of?”