Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course!
By Patrick Lightfoot, church planter and lead pastor of Traverse Christian Church
Louisiana is known as the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” and for a good reason. Some of the best waterfowl hunting in the world is found in Louisiana. Growing up in southeast Louisiana, the bayou was my playground, and one of my passions as a kid was waterfowl hunting, especially duck hunting. I started at the age of 12 and could not get enough of it! Even to this day, as I get ready to turn 46, being outdoors is still a passion of mine. From waterfowl hunting as a kid to elk hunting nowadays in the Rocky Mountains, I learned that each season and every animal to hunt down had a story and a lesson, like the one back at Pace Road Swamp when I was a kid.
Pace Road Swamp is where I “cut my teeth” on waterfowl hunting. I had NO IDEA what I was doing, yet my brother Ronnie, my two friends Jimmy, Mick, and I hunted most Saturday mornings to chase the ducks at Pace Road Swamp.
One hunt stands out, not because of how successful we were, but because of what we had to overcome to get home. The area we liked to hunt at Pace Road Swamp was about a mile’s paddle in our pirogue (a Cajun canoe that has a flat bottom and is perfect for paddling the shallow swamps). The swamp we hunted was tidal fed, and after hunting all morning, we soon realized the tide was falling fast, and we had a mile to paddle back so we wouldn’t get stuck in the swamp. Do you how difficult it is to paddle in a swamp with no water?! Needless to say, we were in uncharted territory!
You’re In Good Company
Lewis and Clark found themselves in the same predicament. They were not exploring Pace Road Swamp but the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1803 after being commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson wrote these words to Captain Lewis, “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean…may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” They believed the western portion of this new land would be just like the lands of the eastern United States, but boy, were they wrong! What they found at the end of the Missouri River was the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. They, too, were headed into uncharted territory!
What do you do when the tide falls in your swamp or the river you are paddling ends at the base of a mountain? Or you are planting the church of your dreams, and it’s turning into a nightmare? In his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger gives us a maxim to live by when we’re in uncharted territory: start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course. (watch a replay of the Nexus webinar with Tod Bolsinger)
Start with Conviction
Paddling out of Pace Road Swamp, our mission was to get home to Mom! Lewis and Clark’s mission was to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. And your mission as a church plant is “to make disciples who make disciples who start churches that start churches.” Mom wanted us home, President Jefferson wanted a water route located, and Jesus wants you to fulfill the Great Commission through church planting:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 NIV
Things will get difficult, and in those moments, you must remember your convictions! Convictions are firmly held beliefs that keep you on the mission when you run out of money, when you don’t have a place to gather on a Sunday morning, and when those around you want to give up! Tod Bolsinger states it like this, “To be blunt: The leader in the system is committed to the mission when no one else is” (pg. 131). If we are going to be committed to the mission Jesus gave his disciples and gives us today, we must start with our convictions.
I don’t remember ever getting scared or freaked out over the tide falling. I just remember we had a mission to get home to Mom. One moment as we are walking in knee-deep mud, my buddy Mick said, “I just lost one of my shoes in the mud.” Even with Mick down a shoe, we did not lose a beat. We just keep walking slow and steady with the mission of getting home to Mom. Honestly, I was glad that it was Mick who lost one of his shoes and not me!
Similarly, the real challenge for church planters is not church planting strategies, management of staff, or building teams from scratch. It’s keeping your emotions in check when things are not going well. At the Art of the Start, Phil Claycomb teaches that leading is “walking naked into the land of uncertainty.” The four of us boys were uncertain whether or not we would get home, Lewis and Clark had no idea what was around each turn, and I promise that if you lead, you will also find yourself walking down an uncertain road.
As a church planter, you will experience moments when you:
- Lose your hunting boots in the mud, but stay calm.
- Find yourself at the bottom of a mountain with a paddle in your hand, but stay calm.
- Lose your first family to another church in town, but stay calm.
- Lose the keys to the trailer on Sunday morning before set up, but stay calm.
- Will lose your mind if you are asked one more time, “What time does service start?” but stay calm!
Staying calm will ensure this: “For leaders, the point of calming down is not to feel better; it’s to make better decisions. It’s to make the best decisions for furthering the mission” (pg. 144). If you want to feel better, then take a nap, drink a cup of coffee, or buy yourself a puppy! But if you want to make better decisions, make “calm” your norm.
We were four boys with two pirogues and all sorts of gear, and we made sure not to get separated! No man left behind was an unspoken rule that day in the swamp. We would all get home that day, or we would spend the night in the swamp together. As four best friends all through high school, we had been through some difficult times, and we got through them because we stayed connected (even without cells phones, although Mick did have a pager!). We would often ask each other, “Are you down” (meaning: “Are you ready?”), and we’d respond, “Like 4 flat tires!” (meaning: “Yes, we are in this together.”).
As a church planter, I want to encourage you to stay connected to the following:
- Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.” John 15:5
- Your wife: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.” “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” Proverbs 31:10-11; 31
- Your family: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deut 6:4-7. What good is it for you to win your community but lose your kids?
- Your Nexus family: Here is the Nexus promise to you and your family: “We promise to provide the best possible care for church-planting leaders and their families. We are Nurturing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today!”
These are the tires you need to be down with! Without a strong connection in these four areas, your journey in church planting will be a bumpy ride at best!
Stay the Course
There was only one route home, and it was back through the swamp. There was no sidewalk nearby nor a side route out to Lake Pontchartrain – just back out through the swamp. One way in, one way out! I remember staying the course by pushing and pulling our pirogues through the mud, full of our heavy hunting gear, and DYING of thirst. You lose a lot of fluid in the humidity and heat of the swamps, and it doesn’t help when you are walking in mud up to your knees! Lewis and Clark knew the cost of staying the course:
“Miles from St. Louis, facing their first winter before they headed off the map, they had to deal with the attitude-poisoning influence of Private Moses Reed on Private John Newton. Reed had been caught trying to desert and been removed as an official member of the party. Instead of executing him (which was standard practice), the captains demoted him to civilian status, made him give up his rifle, and declared that he would be sent back to St. Louis in the spring with the next trapping party they encountered. But now Reed’s grumbling became contagious, and Newton had made statements that the other men, in an official court-martial, found treasonous. The captains allowed the men to decide Newton’s fate, and he, too, after being punished, was demoted from the official status in the party” (pg. 173).
What will it cost you to stay the course when planting a church?
- Relationships: People will leave your church who you thought would NEVER leave. And no, you can’t execute anyone for a poor attitude or treason!
- Dreams: If you think this journey will be “dreamy” or “easy,” find another course! In church planting, you will find yourself knee-deep in mud with a falling tide, but you must press on.
- Finances: When money gets tight (and it always does), you must be creative in making things happen for your church.
- Your hair: I hope you enjoyed what you had before you started. If you lose your hair, then grow a beard – it’s the hip thing to do!
“The journey was longer and harder than they expected and had led to a most stunning discovery: all the ‘maps’ were wrong. All of the assumptions and expectations of generations of explorers and rulers of European ancestry had been debunked. The western front of the continent was completely different geography. Most significantly, there was no water route. Explorers and settlers would not be able to use a single waterway as a convenient route for commerce and expansion. Indeed, the ‘new world’ was filled with even more territory to explore than Jefferson could imagine” (pg. 205).
The same holds true for us church-planters. We have more territory to explore, disciples to make, and churches to plant. For us, to complete the mission, as we traverse off the map, remember: start with convictions, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course!