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What Do Sponsor Churches Do?

We talk a lot about “sending” churches today, but what does that mean when we are talking about church planting and what do sending churches do? Other terms for sending churches are partner, mother, starting, and sponsor. All of these terms can be used interchangeably when we refer to churches that start churches. For the purpose of this article, I’ll just use the word “sponsor” to refer to all of the actives of church planting from the perspective of an established church that is starting new churches.

Churches beget churches. associations, conventions and mission boards do not start churches, they only help churches to reproduce and multiply into new expressions of the body of Christ. The role of the association in church planting is, what I like to call the ACTS of church planting – Assessing, Coaching, Training and Supporting. However, it is the local church that does the heavy lifting in church planting such as: recruiting, developing, training, supervising, deploying, and sending church planters and church planting teams. This is what sponsor churches do.

Recruiting and Raising Up Church Planter 

I don’t really like to use the word “recruiting” when it comes to church planters. I’d much rather be writing about raising-up church planters from within the church. However, the reality is that most sponsor churches recruit church planters from outside the church or even outside the city and bring them in to plant churches.  Even church planting centers that offer local church based residency programs often look outside the local body for perspective church planters instead of raising them up from within.

In the ideal situation, the sponsor church discovers church planters either through recruitment or by raising them up internally. However church planters are often born in churches that do not plant churches.  Before the Internet and the proliferation of books and conferences on church planting, the dreams of these church planters would die in a sterile church.  “You can’t do that!” they would be told by someone in authority. And, since there was very little information available to them, these would-be church planters sometimes did not pursue what they felt to be God’s calling on their lives.  The information age has changed that and has created a greater interest in church planting.

Now, many potential church planters start out by contacting their denominational and associational leaders before consulting with their own pastors or church leaders regarding an interest in starting new churches.  I’ve experienced this many times myself. I’ve received numerous inquires from people interested in starting new churches who have not considered talking to someone in their local church before reaching out to the association regarding church planting opportunities in the area. I always ask them, “What does your pastor think about your desire to start a church?”  The response is usually something like this:

“Well, I haven’t told my pastor about my church planting aspirations.” 

“Why not?” I would ask.

“Well, I don’t think that he would be in favor of me planting a church.”

“Why not?” Would be my reply.

“Our church has not planted any churches in several years and it is struggling just to keep the people we have.  I don’t think my pastor would be in favor of sending me or anyone else out to plant a church.  He would think that it would hurt our church.”

At this point, I would encourage the church planter to make an appointment with his pastor. I usually offer to go along with him, if the pastor wants me to be there.  Sometimes, the pastor is sympathetic and agrees that God may be calling this person to start a church, but doesn’t think that the church is “ready.” At this point, I’ll explain to the pastor that he is caught in an awkward situation.  It is as if his teenage son is asking to drive the family car and the father is telling him that it would be too much of a hardship on the family if he let him drive the car. It is ok if he wants to go through the process to get a learner’s permit, but he will not be able to drive – ever.  At this point, the church planter still has a desire to plant a church, but he may have to move out and join someone else’s family in order to do it.

This is where recruitment comes in. A church that desires to plant, but has not raised up any church planters recruits church planters from other churches who do not want to plant. The denomination or association, at this point, acts like an adoption agency – paring the orphaned church planter up with a new family that is willing to launch him.  It is important that the adoptive sponsor church makes sure that the orphaned church planter is a good match for them.  In this scenario, I encourage the recruiting sponsor church to interview the prospective church planter as they would a potential staff member. It is important to make sure that there is doctrinal, missional and philosophical alignment. This does not mean that an adopted church planter has to start a church that is exactly the same stylistically as the sponsor church. On the contrary, church plants should be culturally relevant to their target community.

Recruiting church planters is a legitimate means of becoming a sponsor church. However an alternative approach is to raise up church planters from within the church. This is done as an extension of the sponsor church’s discipleship and leadership development process. For most churches, this means adding some new elements to their assimilation and development systems.  The pastor needs to be comfortable with his Ephesians 4:12 role of developing new workers, leaders, and pastors. I am grateful that I came to Christ through the ministry of a church and under the leadership of a pastor that did just that.  The small church that I grew up in always seemed to have some “preacher boys” who were being groomed for the ministry and mentored by the lead pastor.  I was one of those preacher boys who was raised up from within and who was sent out to help plant a church from scratch. At the age of fifteen, I was not the lead planter but my pastor encouraged me to be a part of the team that planted a new church in a community that was only three miles away from the sponsor church.

Whether it is through recruiting or raising up planters, the sponsor church needs to be sure that they are choosing the right leaders to start the next generation of churches. As I mentioned earlier, it is the sponsor church’s responsibility to vet potential church planters.  The sponsor relationship with a church plant can be trying on both churches. Therefore, the sponsor church needs to make sure that the church planter is a good fit. The planter should meet the sponsor’s doctoral qualifications and he should be oriented on the sponsor churches systems that will overlap with the church plant such as financial procedures, use of office equipment, support staff, etc.

Developing and Training Church Planters  

Not all sponsor churches are experts on church planting and they don’t have to be. But, a sponsor church needs to understand what church planters need in order to flourish and grow. The sponsor church should find out about all kinds of training available for church planters and make sure that the planters avail themselves of the various tools that will help them to start and grow healthy multiplying churches. Ideally, sponsor churches will develop their own church planting systems that include training and resourcing church planters. However, not every church needs to reinvent the wheel.  The local association and the denomination often have people trained in church planting who can, not only train church planters, but train sponsor churches to train church planters.

Church planting conferences, such as the Exponential Conference that takes place in Orlando each year are a good way for potential church planters to be exposed to a lot of helpful information. However, most church planters will also need some form of systematic training that deals with critical issues such as vision casting, team building, strategic planning and donor development. These courses, which take place over several days or weeks are available through the association or denomination.

Many church planters do not have prior ministry experience and they may need training in basic pastoral ministry skills. Sponsor churches can help develop church planters by allowing them opportunities to shadow ministry leaders and learn from practical experience. Some sponsor churches have developed church planter residency programs that last anywhere from six months to a year. During the residency, church planters can learn basic skills that are needed for any church leadership setting. While a church planter is in residence, he can continue to do research, work on his church planting strategy, develop his team and raise support for the new work.

Supervising Church Planters

One of the primary roles of the sponsor church is that of supervising their church planters. The church planter should be considered an employee of the primary sponsor church.  He should have someone to be accountable to and should report regularly on his actives. If not the lead pastor, someone should be designated as the point of contact for the church planter. This person does not need to act like the church planter’s boss, but rather should serve in a supporting role and coordinate the work of the two churches. Sponsor churches often have a mission development team that helps the church planter to connect with the sponsor church on various levels and this is encouraged. However, the church planter should have just one point of contact who can represent the sponsor church on a day to day basis.

The more that the sponsor church knows about church panting the better. However, neither the sponsor church nor its leaders need to know everything about church planting.  It is possible that the church planter may know more about how to start a church from scratch and to reach an unreached community than anyone at the sponsor church. It is ok to view the church planter as the expert while the church provides some guidance in areas such as financial issues, legal issues, organizational structure, and denominational relationships.

It is important to realize that there are significant differences between a church planter and a legacy church pastor.  Church planters typically conduct their daily activities vastly different than established church pastors. For example, church planters are likely to spend less time on sermon preparation and more time on community engagement than legacy pastors.  Church planters usually do less counseling and hospital visitation than pastors of established churches.

Church planters are usually wired differently than legacy church pastors. They are more likely to have a maverick’s heart; an entrepreneurial bent and to be more big-pictured oriented than the average pastor.  Church planters are also less likely to be organized and detail oriented than established church pastors. These differences may cause some misunderstandings between the planter and the sponsor church. It is important that the sponsor church discover the characteristics of effective church planters and how to work with them without stifling them. Not all of the processes and procedures used in the sponsor church will be necessary or effective in a new church start. The sponsor church should also be prepared to learn some new things form the planter and the new church plant.

Deploying and Sending Church Planting Teams

A healthy sponsor church will allow and encourage church planters to recruit team members from the sponsor church. The lead pastor can set the example by introducing the planter to the church at large and letting the church know that the planter will be looking for families to go with him to be a part of the new church plant. The church body may need to be taught that this it is normal and healthy for churches to give their resources (including money and people) away to help new churches to get started.  Sponsor churches should not fear the loss of critical recourses, because we believe that God will take care of those who give sacrificially for the sake of His kingdom.  There is no Biblical basis for churches hoarding resources, but plenty of evidence that it is God’s plan for churches to send their people and their money in support of the mission of the gospel.

The response of the church at Antioch to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit to send out Barnabas and Saul is a great model for churches to emulate today. Sponsor churches often have Acts 13 sending services where the members of the sponsor church lay hands on church planters, their families and team members who are being sent out. This type of public display of support for church planting teams helps to solidify the relationship between the sponsor church and church plants. It helps leaders of the church’s various ministries to set the priority of offer support for church planting on all levels.

When a church gives birth to another church, it involves the entire body. It is not just a mission project that affects only one group within the church; it is an opportunity for every organization within the church to celebrate God’s work of redeeming a lost world through the testimony and service of His people.  Youth and children’s ministries can get involved in church planting by offering their leaders and resources to the church plants. The leaders can offer to train the new leaders in the church plant. The children and youth themselves can get directly involved if the plant is local. They can also collect and package equipment that the new church will need in their youth and children’s ministries.

The hospitality ministry of the sponsor church can offer to help park cars, serve as greeters and man the refreshment table during the first few weeks of the new church’s launch. Senior adults can be encouraged to volunteer to help new churches and to pray for the church planting teams. Likewise, deacons, elders and other church leaders can offer their services as new churches ramp up their leadership training and development processes.

The church support staff and volunteers can help to provide critical services to church plants as they develop their own internal systems. The financial team of the sponsor church can process donations for church plants until the new church develops their own financial system. It can be difficult for a new church to establish a checking account with a local bank until the church has at least some basic legal documents in place. Some sponsor churches establish designated checking accounts for church plants using a DBA (Doing Business As) in the name of the new church. With the sponsor church using their relationship with their own bank, the church plant may be able to save money on banking fees and get their own account set up much faster.

The sponsor church can also help the new church to obtain liability insurance coverage. Most venues will require that the new church provide proof of liability insurance before a contract can be signed to rent a facility for public worship services. The sponsor church can secure a rider on their own insurance policy to help a church plant to obtain proof of liability quickly and less expensively than getting insurance on their own.

Sponsor churches can do a lot to provide spiritual and material support for church plants. A sacrificial attitude that results in sending and giving will result in joyous blessings for church plants and the sponsor churches alike.

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