Planning, Planting and Pastoral Ministry

My dad carried a little note pad with him throughout the entirety of my childhood. I watched him write down what he had to accomplish and then observed him systematically doing all that he had planned to do. I never asked where he learned to do this. He would often tell me that so much of life was “praying, planning and doing.” I cared very little about learning this important lesson for myself until after I was converted in my 20s. I’m a very different person than my dad in a number of ways. I am free-spirited. I am also, at times, the absent-minded professorial type–the guy who would rather live in his head than on a notepad. I seem to work better with a sense of chaos around me than I do in a quiet and organized environment. However, much of what I am most comfortable with has had to change for me over the years.

Tim Keller rightly notes that when a man is called to plant a church or pastor a smaller church in a rural community, he has to learn to “work with musicians, craft and lead worship, speak at every men’s retreat, women’s retreat, and youth retreat, write all the Bible studies and often Sunday School curriculum, train all the small group leaders, speak at the nursing home, work with your diaconate as they try to help families out of poverty, evangelize and welcome new visitors to the church, train volunteers to do some (but not all) of all of the above tasks, and deal with the once-a-month relational or financial crisis in the church.”1 All of this means, that the planter/solo-pastor needs to learn to be a planner. The Scriptures have much to say about the importance of planning. Consider the following:

1. Planning is the Divine Pattern. The Triune God planned the world and all of the events of human history in his inner eternal counsel. The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that the decrees of God are “his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Everything that happens in time and space happens according the eternal wisdom of God. The Apostle Paul speaks of the work of Christ in reconciling all things in heaven and earth as being God’s “plan for the fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10) and “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (Eph. 3:9). Every single part of creation, providence and redemption have been planned by God and executed in time. Just as the living God set apart a 6-and-1 pattern of work and rest (Ex. 20:4), so He sets apart the pattern of planning and executing plans for us.

2. Plan Everything. A church planter and solo pastor must think about the requisite planning for worship services, outreach events, fellowship meals, counseling sessions, small groups and committee (ministry team) structures, Sunday school curriculum, website content, communication channels (i.e. newsletters, emails, texts, planning software), visitor follow up and assimilation, book table, coffee, etc. There is nothing from the front door greeter ministry to the new members’ class that ought not receive a due amount of forethought and planning. Everything that we do sends a message; and, therefore, requires a great deal of thoughtful planning. Many of the members of the church will not understand this aspect of pastoring a smaller church. That should not discourage the planter or pastor from giving adequate attention to every part of the church.

3. Seek Wise Counsel Prior to Planning. Nothing should be planned without some measure of seeking counsel. This can come in many forms; but we must always remember, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). The pastor of a smaller congregation should seek counsel from older and wiser men–men who have a long track record of pastoral ministry and experience. Too many young ministers are enamored by the young, flashy, seemingly dynamic leaders of the world. The reality is that most of them burn out or fall away in time. It is the older, wiser, more patient, godlier men whose counsel we should be seeking after.

If you pastor a church of 50-100, seek counsel from older, wiser men who have had experience pastoring similar sized churches and who have grown them and developed them. It won’t help a man who is pastoring a small congregation to ask a man who has only pastored a congregation of 1000+ what to do in a given situation that is unique to a small church dynamic. Keller explains, “A large church is not simply a bigger version of a small church. The difference in communication, community formation, and decision-making processes are so great that the leadership skills required in each are of almost completely different orders.” Seek much counsel from godly and wise men outside of the congregation–especially when you are planning for a very large decision or for bringing the congregation through a particularly difficult situation.

4. Delegate and Provide Oversight. Congregational assistance is one of the most important parts of pastoral ministry. The Lord wants the members of the church to use their gifts for the building up of the body (Eph. 4:11-16). An extremely important factor to keep in mind when seeking to delegate is that there are many people who do not have the requisite gift set for the ministry need at hand. Resist the urge to delegate to someone merely out of a sense of desperation. It will cost you more time and energy if you delegate to the wrong person. Pastors need to learn to delegate to the right people who have the right gift set for some particular aspect of ministry–and who are willing to have you bring relevant information to bear on their planning process. There is almost nothing as damaging to the life of a congregation as the results that following delegating to an unfaithful man or woman. The Proverbs remind us that it is “like a bad tooth and a foot out of joint” (Prov. 25:19). 

However, even after you have delegated, the leadership must provide a measure of oversight to make sure that adequate planning has occurred and been carried out. Some members will want you to follow up and provide that oversight–while many others will be adamantly opposed to it. No matter what the congregation may think, the leadership of the church must provide a measure of oversight to delegated ministries for the following reasons:

There will always be pertinent information of which congregants will not–and should not–be aware. There will always be pastorally sensitive information that pastors/elders do not pass along to the congregation. There may, however, be times when you may need to pass on information to someone you have asked to oversee a particular ministry team. Additionally, there may be scheduling conflict factors that a non-ordained/non-staff member of a church would not think about while they are planning for an event.

Ministry outcome is always being processed by the men God has appointed to lead a congregation. The pastor, together with his elders and deacons, is called by God to critically assess whether particular ministries in the church are running efficiently and whether or not to continue them. If the pastor of a small congregation has no role to play in the oversight process, he will be severely hindered from being able to help offer leadership to the congregation in an educated way. Just as a lack of communication from the top down can be harmful to the life of the church, so too a lack of communication from the bottom up can be harmful to the well-being of the church on the whole.

5. Be Willing to Change Your Plans.

Expect interruptions. Jesus was often interrupted. If he had lived by the strictures of a notepad, we wouldn’t have the many wonderful encounters that individuals had with the Savior in the Gospel records. Consider the interruptions that Jesus experience from blind Bartimaues, the woman at the well and the disciples in the storm. I have known pastors who refused to allow their schedules to be interrupted. They held so strictly to their plans that they refused to allow the Lord to bring unexpected ministry opportunities into their lives. This is a particularly difficult balance to learn. If we always allow ourselves to be interrupted, we may fall into the snare of being controlled by the tyranny of the (perceived) urgent. However, if we never allow ourselves to be interrupted, we may fall into the snare of thinking that we are in control of our lives and ministries in a way that refuses to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over our lives and ministries. We need to be willing to have the Lord shape our days and ministries. Here the words of Proverbs 19:21 hold true: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”

Additionally, we need to acknowledge when we have made plans without factoring in vital information necessary to the success of the plans. We may have sought counsel, prayed and put our plans into writing. Still, we will always lack the ability to see everything as we ought to see. We need to be willing to rework or scrap our plans when we discover that there was some pertinent factor that we failed to incorporate into our planning. Though you will inevitably feel as though you have wasted your time, there are always a myriad of lessons that the Lord is teaching you through this process.

1. An excerpt from Tim Keller’s 2009 TGC post, “The Country Parson.”

2. An excerpt from Keller’s Redeemer City to City article, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics.”

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