It snowed in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 1, 2011. It was the only snow we have seen since we moved here from Oklahoma that same day seven years ago. That first year in Phoenix was completely devoted to identifying and building a core team that would help me launch Valley Life Church 53 weeks after that Phoenix snow day.
Here are four things that I learned about shepherding core team members.
Shepherding Begins Before You Develop a Core Team
After moving to Phoenix, it was tempting to think, “Once I get a core team together and all of the roles and responsibilities are all assigned, then I’ll have to turn my attention toward shepherding these people.” The reality is that simply approaching my new friends about my dream to plant a church began the process of establishing myself as a spiritual leader in their life and setting expectations for the relationship.
Before approaching new friends about being a part of the team to help plant Valley Life Church, I wanted to be sensitive to two things:
- They may not be Christians, in which case I can share the good news with them.
- I want to use this church to build up people, rather than use people to build up the church. By approaching new friends and potential core team members this way, I hoped to set the stage for a shepherding relationship rather than a consumer relationship.
Shepherding Core Team Members Is Exhausting
After we made friends and invited several of them to join our core team to plant the church, we knew that these people were going to take up the bulk of our time until the church launched. To be a church planter is to be a pastor, and to be a pastor is to shepherd God’s people. The fundamental method of shepherding someone is to be with them.
While systems of care, staff members, and church structure can help with the sheer amount of time required to shepherd people, there is no way of getting away from the idea that a pastor must be with people.
The number of people that we were working with was less than an established church, but the time required to talk through the details of a church launch and work through all of the spiritual problems was staggering. I had heard that church plants are prone to spiritual attack, but those first 53 weeks made it apparent.
Shepherding Core Team Members Can Become Distracting
Shepherding your core team is vital, and to shepherd is to spend time with people. But one of the most difficult aspects of planting a church is knowing when to wear the planter hat and when to wear the pastor hat.
When I was wearing the pastor hat, I would listen to people talk about their marriage, visit their family members and friends when they were sick, and even sort through personality differences in community groups or on service teams. This kind of work is necessary, and it validates you as the spiritual leader of the new church. It cannot be ignored. However, it can become a distraction that hinders the ability of the church to become a reality.
A church planter in the core-team stage should be ready to share the gospel with lost friends, capable of capitalizing on opportunities, and prepared to connect with new groups of people. Unfortunately, some aspiring church planters feel so much more at home in their pastoral duties, their church only ever functions like a small group or Bible study.
Shepherding Core Team Members Indicates What Your Church Will Become
The way a core team functions prior to launching sets the stage for the eventual life of the church. I thought about our 53 weeks of core team development as setting the foundation for the structure we planned to build. My hope was that we would teach the gospel, evangelize, model true repentance, and share each other’s burdens before we ever started having public services. I accepted that my actions as the shepherd would teach the sheep how we behave as a church.
In hindsight, I can see the habits we developed in the core-team stage profoundly influenced who we were as a church family for good and for bad. They do not determine what the church will become, but they are a strong indicator.
Every setting is different. What is effective for one planter may not be for another. But giving significant thought to the way you will shepherd core team members will always be a fruitful exercise.