The answer of course, is you.

You need to know you the best before you even think about planting a church. If you don’t, you’re heading for a fall.

Unless you know who YOU are, you could be headed for disaster.

I was asked that question this very morning about what a planter needs to know about the core team, and my answer was simply that. Unless you know who YOU are before you go through the tough, beautiful, difficult, precious process of planting a church, then you could be headed for disaster.

Yet, as activists and optimists, so many times church planters go into the task missing that vital first step and then looking for the core team that they think that they can plant with.

My experience in coming a cropper with our first church plant was that I probably knew myself—and certainly understood the need to know myself—less than was necessary. Because it was necessary; not only for the plant’s survival, but for my survival too!

Nowadays there are far more rigorous and mature processes in place for planters. But that’s precisely because we’ve been able to look back at the last two decades and see that there was an incredible naivety around what was happening. And that naivety was cute and funny and full of faux horror stories, IF, and it is a big IF, we made it through to the other side more or less intact.

But there were real horror stories too: suicides, marriage break ups, prison time and everything in between—things that weren’t on the radar when the young planter and his young wife (because that’s mostly the way it was and still is), decided to plant a church.

Unless you know yourself—your weaknesses, the weaknesses you did not know were weaknesses, but which others have to point out to you—then you can train-wreck that thing not long after it gets out of the station. And it won’t be a train you are wrecking, by the way, that’s just a nice euphemism. It will be people. People like your core team. People like your spouse and yourself.

So what should I have known about me? There are plenty of things, but for the sake of brevity I will throw out a few that I have found to be important.

My Functional Justification. 

When things got hard it became clear that I had not locked away the justification issue as much as I had thought.

I was pretty clear about my actual justification, because I’ve read the books, done the theology and committed to the gospel. But I am not sure that went all the way down. And I’ll tell you how you know if it has: your reaction to something not going the way you want it to, or someone not responding the way you had anticipated that they would.

Church planting is hard, but too much of the early push to plant was based around the false idea that it was an easier way to do church—and that all you had to do was send out the call for missionaries to your suburb, and a whole bunch of Ninja Christians would appear from the woodwork. I had always assumed I would seek my justification in Jesus at all times, but that was an untested assumption. When things got hard, and disappointments hit, it became clear that I had not locked away the justification issue as much as I had thought I had.

My Relationship to My Father.

By that I mean my Heavenly Father. But sooooo much of how we relate to God as our Father springs from our own relationships with our own earthly fathers. Now I had a fairly disastrous relationship with my own dad (who I loved deeply) from about the age of 17. We did mend a lot of things along the way and I was with him the night he died, and conducted his funeral, but I missed a whole chunk of fatherly years from him that I still regret not having. We did not have a really affectionate relationship when I was younger, cos he just wasn’t that bloke. And older … well he was gone.

The older I have gotten, the more I realise that how we view God directly colours how we view others.

And by the time we reconnected it never felt like father and son as much as I wanted it to. Yet I suddenly realised when doing church planting, that I needed a fatherly affection and approval more than ever. In God, of course, we have that in spades. What more could He give to us that He has not already given? But to avail myself of that? I found myself being somewhat transactional with my Heavenly Father to the point that, although it was unspoken, I could imagine myself saying, “All these years I have served you and you have not given me a young church plant that I might celebrate with my friends!”

The older I have gotten, the more I realise that how we view God directly colours how we view others. If our relationship with a core team in our church plant is transactional, and we value them, primarily, for what they can give us, then check upstream. It could be that you have an older brother syndrome about you that has been untested and unchecked until things get tough. Sort it out early for the sake of your spiritual and mental health, and for the spiritual and mental health of the sheep under your care.

My Besetting Sin.

If you have a problem with porn, then trials of leadership in the church will exacerbate it. If you have a problem with greed, the challenge of ministry will make that more problematic. If you struggle to forgive people, then you will be in danger of creating a culture of (perhaps silent) unforgiveness in your church plant, and you will have all of the theological tools available to you to mask it.

These things will turn your church toxic. As the saying goes” The fish rots from the head.” You will create a culture that reflects your leadership strengths, and your leadership weaknesses.

A ‘gospel-centred’ this, that or the other can cover a multitude of agendas

The simple truth is that you must be putting sin to death—putting a bullet in sin’s brain so to speak—because your unguarded weaknesses will be exploited by your enemy (and remember, your enemy is Satan—not the wife of your core group member who you think is a difficult character).

But perhaps it’s the “good” sins that will most trip us up. We value “excellence” and we want to see “gospel growth”—so we will push and push and push to get those things, all the while not realising that we are supposed to take the sheep with us. I have heard the word “gospel” weaponised so many times to push an preference or shut down an alternate viewpoint, that I am leery of it being used without some serious explanation. A “gospel-centred” this, that or the other can cover a multitude of agendas. And I have come to the conclusion that is sinful to use the word in order to shut down dissent or push an agenda.

My Psychology.

Well I am married to a psychologist, so of course I am going to say that. But I am also going to say it because it’s so often over-looked. Church planters need to know where their triggers are; what their emotional framework is and how robust it is; whether or not they have tendencies towards being narcissistic (something we self-diagnose!). They need to examine their pattern of emotional response in given situations.

My wife Jill and I, we had to sit down and discuss at length how our psychological selves were fitted for the task of church planting. And there would have been no shame in saying that we were not fitted for it, or in seeking to guard ourselves against a psychological meltdown by setting up pre-determined safeguards or escape-ramps—e.g. “If we get to this situation and life looks like this we’ll plan an exit strategy.”

Psychological assessments won’t do everything, but they are often under-rated by go-getting church planters. Which is why planting networks have had to embed such assessments in their programs. There are some things in us that we can ride along with us without us knowing, only to trip us up when (and not if) things get tough.

Of course there are plenty of other matters that we need to be aware of, but at the very outset the first person in the core team that you need to assess is you!

The happy trade-off of doing that well, and of being aware of yourself and your predispositions, is that the core team you eventually do form will mirror your self-knowledge in a positive way. By that, I mean you won’t end up attracting people who are in some way drawn to the unattended and dysfunctional aspects of your character. I have seen that happen too often—especially when younger, less experienced people join planters who unwittingly seek their justification and their relational fulfilment in the approval of those who have gathered around them.

Remember most, to trust yourself to the LORD, for as we must remember, he knows us better than we know ourselves:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:9)

That’s a sobering reminder of our blindness, but also a clarion call for us to throw ourselves upon God who graciously will give us the self-insight we need, if we ask Him. He will use His Spirit-empowered Word, His people, and our circumstances to craft a level of self-awareness in us if we are willing.

First published at stephenmcalpine.com