A couple of days ago I read a troublesome post in Christianity Today written by a pastor who was touting what may be to him a new church-building strategy.
Ed Stetzer called it church “replanting.” He describes the basics and promises more details.
There is nothing in this post that our congregation has not experienced. It is a modern church-building strategy that has been devised by pastors breathing the clean air of lofty pulpits, where pastors don’t have to work with laity if they don’t want to. They can choose which laity will support their efforts without question. In fact, this plan allows for a pastor to hand-pick all members! As for the rest: off with their heads.
The premise is simple. Treat existing members as a lost cause, an impediment or as enemies or adversaries. Ignore their sacrifices. They have probably held things together through decades of pastors that might have been sent to their small congregation because of failure elsewhere. (In the comment threads of the post, one pastor questions what to do with pastors who fail. The commenter was pretty much alone in suggesting that this might be part of the problem! The answer provided in the thread: Send them to small churches.)
Small churches are accustomed to “throwaway” pastors. When they continue to fail, the people are blamed. The laity become targets for the cruelty of church “replanting.” There is an unappreciated upside. The absence of effective pastoral leadership can create strong lay leadership. But that is a problem for clergy who crave CEO-style pastoring. Capable lay leaders are easily seen as a liability. Hence the “replanting” strategy.
Here are the basics of “replanting” and some reasons why it is a very bad idea.
1. You have to get rid of the people.
People with knowledge of the church and the community are of no use to pastors who need total control to achieve their goals, which are likely set without knowing a thing about the community.
Many Protestant churches practice congregational polity. Getting rid of the existing people means finding an acceptable way to bypass church rules, which often give congregations decision-making power over ministry, membership, and property-ownership. Replanting can be the answer. Its ideals are not scriptural and may not be constitutional, so “replanting” will have to rely on “spin.”
Success relies on the enlistment of people who would otherwise be uninvolved in the targeted congregations. Some may have followed the replanter from a previous replanting! With no firsthand knowledge, they’ll accept whatever church experts tell them.
Successful replanting relies on knowledgeable lay members having no voice.
This article advocates excluding current members with acceptance of member-involvement at the pleasure of the pastor. That kind of power is not likely to be ceded—ever. Trouble-free congregants, if they are to be found, are desirable. Labels will be helpful in excluding the loyal members. The labels are not likely to be kind. The result of this exertion of power? Negative word-of-mouth in the community. The only way to discredit the home team is to escalate your counter word-of-mouth. No one will want to get involved in the resulting ugliness.
2. You have to make a public statement that your mission plan is better than anything the community has seen before.
One pastoral option would be to demonstrate loving concern for the community day in and day out for a year. A new pastor could visit every member and listen to their stories and gain trust and support. The pastor might attend community events and visit other churches or ask questions to find out what is plaguing ministry. The new pastor might find out that the clergy played a role in the downfall. He or she might discover that no one is ready to trust new outside experts supplied by the denomination that has been sending them problem pastors.
But Replanting is so much easier!
Replanting is an “instant church-building mix.” Just stir. The process is easy to control. The pastor changes the name. No input from the community needed. All signage needs to be removed. Locks need to be changed. Make sure there is only one key! Close down all ministry for — oh, six months ought to be enough to erase a hundred years of history. Whatever you do, don’t serve the existing members. Let their hurt and anger simmer.
This article doesn’t specifically address this, but there is the matter of land and asset ownership.
The replanting process just kicked out the people responsible for the land and bank accounts. So how are assets transferred to the new entity? Theft. It’s legal in the church because the courts won’t get involved in enforcing church law. You may have to quickly write some new rules that make this permissible to any conscience-laden leaders that might be watching from the wings. Any backfire from former members still in the community can be controlled with gossip (and/or law suits).
A Quick Fix with Long-term Problems
This article does not address what happens to all the hurt and angry members that have been exiled. Lay people are not like clergy who can pick up and move to find easy acceptance in a new faith community. These lay members, despite having faithfully served their church for possibly decades, have just been labeled “trouble.” There is really no place for them to go. They are going to continue to be active in their community where they are likely to still be respected as leaders of that 100-year-old church. What was its name?
Pastors don’t always realize the intricate interrelationships in neighborhoods. The members might be officially kicked out, but replanters will still have to work around them (with no control). That’s good news. The lay people can continue to take the blame for failure. How can anyone build a church with disgruntled former members still living in their community?
The author of the post promises to expand on his ideas. Will he talk with the lay people who have experienced this strategy? All the steps outlined in this article were carefully followed in our congregation with a result this post does not anticipate. Once the property was safely in the regional body’s hands, the land was quickly sold. One way to get property and assets is to pretend you are replanting a church when what you really want is that endowment fund!
Ministry is so much easier when you don’t have to deal with people.
But isn’t that why Christ died for us?