Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lessons from the first year of starting a church

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my serving as the Organizing Pastor of Chain of Lakes Church. I still remember February 16, 2009 very well. I left our home in Rochester driving my uncle’s pickup. In the back of the pickup I had loaded a bed and some other household items. I drove to Shoreview to meet with John Ivers at the Parish House at Presbyterian Church of the Way to unload my belongings. I ended up living at the Parish House for four months. John and I then drove up to the office, stopping by at Matthews in Lexington for lunch. The rest of the afternoon I got ready for our Steering Committee meeting. That night seven families met with me at the office. At the meeting we talked about our dreams for our new church. I shared with the group that the most important task of the year was to develop our culture.

We have made tremendous progress since that day a year ago. Today we are worshipping in a wonderful space. Between thirty and forty people attend worship on a Sunday. We have 26 families listed on our directory. We have a Purpose Statement and our Core Values set. We have hired an Administrative Assistant and will soon be hiring an Accompanist. We’re starting Sunday School this coming Sunday. We are well on our way into living into the Purpose Statement that God gave us.

As this first year passes, I can’t help reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned on starting a new church. Let me share five.

1. Don’t start a church if you don’t have a call.
I’ve felt a call to be a New Church Development pastor for at least nine years. I can’t imagine starting a new church without believing that God wants you to do it. The work is too hard to do this from any other motivation. When we faced the inevitable challenging moments this past year it was helpful to remember that God had asked us to do this. A month before I started this job I led my final Session/Deacon retreat at Community Presbyterian in Plainview. During one small group we read the story of Abram following the call of God in Genesis 12. As we were discussing it one of the women turned to me and said, “this story is like your story, Paul. You’re starting off on something new. You really don’t know what will happen, but you are starting the journey because God has asked you.” I’ve thought about that moment often during the last year—it’s sustained me.

2. Be intentional right away about developing the culture of the church.
I’ve said often that the most important task of our first year was to develop our culture. We didn’t start worshipping for ten months because I wanted us to have a sense of our culture before we gathered to worship weekly. For the first four months we developed our Purpose Statement. We also spent time discussing the name of our church and the type of person we are targeting. This past Thursday night our Steering Committee voted to approve our Core Values. We had a task force working on the Core Values since September. Having our Purpose Statement and Core Values set gives us a sense of permanence. We are clear about the type of church we are going to be. I completely believe that the risk of waiting to start worship in order to develop our culture was worth the risk.

3. Develop prayer support from the wider community
One of my first tasks was to set up a prayer network among people in other Presbyterian churches. I send out a bi-monthly prayers newsletter via E-mail to them. We have over 100 people on this prayer list. I can’t prove it to you, but I believe this prayer support has made a big different in the development of the ministry of Chain of Lakes Church. We’ve had many events happened that we never would have thought would happen. Things just fit. I attribute this to all the people who have prayed for Chain of Lakes.

4. Develop personal support.
I have a trained New Church Development coach who I speak to on the phone once a month; I have a mentor with whom I have lunch once a quarter; I meet with my Executive Presbyter for lunch once a month—he does this not to check up on me, but to offer support; I also know that the Church Development Team of our Presbytery offers support when needed. All of this support was helpful and needed. I can’t imagine starting a new church without this kind of support.

5. Look for ways for people to spend extended time together.
One of the events that just happened was six of us going to leadership training in California. This experience was very influential in the formation of our community. Three of the leaders who went are serving on our Steering Committee; one is serving as our Christian Education consultant. Having three days to just spend time together was a wonderful gift. We were able to get to know each other at a deeper level—and we could in a way that never could have happened “back home.”

It is a privilege to start a new church. Not many people in their lifetime have the opportunity to be part of a new faith community. Thanks to all of you reading this blog who have supported this effort!

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