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Five Things I’ve Learned in Five Years of Leading a Residency

I had the honor of planting The City Church in Fort Worth ten years ago. I did not participate in a church planting residency before planting but was on church staffs for ten years before I planted. So I learned church planting by doing various aspects of ministry. My “informal residency” was learning by doing in the context of my local church.
This experience shaped the past five years, as I have led a national church planting residency for Soma North America. Even before COVID-19 changed the church planting landscape, we had begun a revision of our half-decade’s work. On one hand, Soma is collaborating with more organizations, churches, and planters through the broader work of Saturate. On the other hand, this revision came from many lessons learned in training dozens of residents, from many states, who are now ministering in four countries. Many of those lessons have been affirmed by COVID, and many of the changes now feel even more necessary.
As I reflect on our first five years, I wanted to capture and share five lessons we learned.
1. Residencies must prioritize the local church
There has been some recent lament in church planting circles, about the “pool drying up” of quality church planting residents. Some leaders who have lamented this reality, however, have a specific view of a residency that is commonly called a “finishing school”: these take, say, a “B—  planter” and pour time and money into him for six to twelve months in hopes that he becomes a “B+ planter”. Finishing schools produce high success rates and are easy wins for a sending church. But if this is the only view of a resident, then yes, no matter how big a pool is it will one day run dry. The answer to this lies in the local church.
As most residencies affirm, local churches plant churches. No other organization or training process has the insight and depth of relationship with a potential planter couple than his home church. If we require residents to leave, that church loses its ability to celebrate the sending, and residency leaders lose the best opportunity to truly know the resident: after all, anyone can put on a good face for nine months. The local church must affirm — among other things — a resident’s marriage, followability, elder character, and so forth: there are simply things no residency can measure. The best residencies set expectations and coach residents’ church leaders and involve them heavily in the residency process.
Zooming out, we must additionally learn to see church planter training as starting much earlier than a specific few-month-long process, just before “launch day”. If local churches are intentional about pouring into disciples — and about giving opportunities for those disciples to pour into others — then many “church planting competencies” can be trained much earlier in one’s development. In addition to training in Bible and theology, future church planters can grow in leadership, shepherding, multiplication, teaching, teamwork, humility, and other areas, starting in their late teens or even early twenties. This would prepare them better and earlier, for the day the church releases them to plant.
2. Residencies need to train missionaries
An organization I know had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a church plant, and while the church was seeing fruit and conversions, the sending organization was concerned about the planter’s “lack of scalability” and “slow growth trajectory.” They hired a coach, whose recommendations included marketing brochures, borrowing members from other churches for a few months, and even trying to outdo nearby churches’ Sunday production value, to get people into the new church’s gathering. If I may offer a humble rebuke, scalability, and quick growth alone are not the purposes of church planting.
Many prospectuses remind us Dr. Tim Keller says that church planting, “is the single most crucial strategy for the numerical growth of the body of Christ.” Thus, we do not plant churches so our churches, sending organizations, or “success metrics” will grow; we plant churches so that the Kingdom of God will grow. Period. God never commands church planting as an end in itself; he commands us to make disciples, and church planting is a means to that far greater end.
Competencies like organizational management, fund-raising, preaching, and other competencies are vital areas of training for church planters. But if we believe that church planting exists for the sake of mission, then other than a resident couple’s personal spiritual life, elements of missional living and evangelism may be the most vital element of church planting. Simply put, a much higher percentage of our training must be devoted to helping our planters live on mission, and make and mature disciples, if our residences will be the best they can be.
3. Residencies need to involve adult learning
Education theory labels childhood learning as “formational.” The process by which young minds are shaped can be summarized as “know – repeat.” (For example, think of your weekly elementary spelling tests.) As one might expect, adults learn differently. Adult learning theory is labeled as “trans-formational.” The process by which an adult mind is shaped is different than a child’s “know – repeat”; it is instead summarized as “know – do – own.” This is why medical residents operate on cadavers rather than just read books, and why summer internships are vital in most majors for a student to be hired.
Many residencies — like many other church equipping efforts — seem to be stuck in the “know – repeat” method of learning. The same theory that leads Christians to rely on lecture or reading for most of our equipping efforts, leads church planting trainers to assign books and deadlines, and to at best follow up that reading with a written assignment or roundtable discussion. The best residencies, however, will make residents get their hands dirty: read on vision casting, sure — but then get in front of a crowd and let the proof rest in dollars raised or core team members recruited. Carry out some pastoral shepherding alongside an experienced leader, who can correct you when you err. And so forth.
Too often, we send out planters who understand theories of ministry but have never gotten to practice it. Of course, there is investment and risk involved in letting residents actually do the work of ministry — they will mess something up — just like every pastor has in the course of their ministry! We will have to clean up after them, just like we do when our kids are learning a new skill. But let’s serve residents and their future churches well, as they get their hands dirty, experience ministry, and treat them like adults!
4. Residencies are like premarital counseling
Within the same week recently, I talked with a planter we had trained a few years earlier and also a couple whose premarital counseling my wife and I had led. The planter recalled an area of church life we had discussed in our residency. He said that during the training, he did not believe it was an important topic to learn. But a few years into his church, he laughingly admitted that the topic had proven to be one of the more vital elements of his residency. Similarly, I remembered that the couple had laughed at a certain element of premarital counseling, but had revisited it multiple times in their first married years.
At best, both a residency and premarital counseling introduce many needed topics for participants’ coming years. Both look for areas of concern to work on before a next step is taken. And both affirm a perceived calling (or not). But neither a residency nor premarital counseling can sufficiently touch every area someone will experience as they take that next step. Neither can address every nuance of future needs or unforeseen circumstances. And neither can even dive deeply enough into each topic covered, to the extent that the couple will experience in the coming years. At best, both processes start honest conversations, which will be continued for years to come.
This does not mean we stop residencies or even minimize them. It simply means we must set our expectations correctly, trust God over our processes, and be OK when a planter realizes that he has continuing needs. Continued counsel, wisdom, and growth are part of every church plant, as they are part of every marriage. Let’s continue to craft the best, most comprehensive residencies we can before a planter is sent, and let’s concurrently trust God with the planter and his ministry as he goes.
5. Residencies must change for the future
The scope of the American church is changing. This was true before COVID and is even more true now. Some of our continent’s best thinkers on church trends tell us while traditional churches and historic denominations are in decline, there is growth in other aspects of the US church and disciple-making: specifically, non-Caucasian planting, bi-vocational or convocational planting, and “micro church” planting trends are all starting to see growth. As these continue to grow, and as the trajectory of our US culture is on toward post-Christendom and its impact on the church, residencies must adapt the metrics, goals, and training for the approaching horizon.
The problem is that many churches and networks who host residencies are traditional-model, and often comprised of larger churches. Because of their size, reputation, previous fruit, and even financial models, these organizations may be last to feel the shifting sand of culture, and thus may be behind the ball in twenty years, when these new ecclesiological realities are more normative than they are today.
So, what does all this mean?
Again, this is primarily a reflection on one residency, which has plenty of holes and continued areas of growth. There is plenty more we’ve learned. (The vitality of self-awareness in planters, a need to more strongly consider personal and church sustainability “after the plant”, the place of an objective planter assessment [but one that understands a planter’s specific ecclesiology and our changing ministry landscape], and the need for wives’ and teammates’ involvement in residencies, are examples of four more growth areas.) But I hope this reflection on our residency process might prompt a reflection on others’ processes, that you might even learn from some mistakes we made, and that it might spur on some needed changes and collaboration in this new season of North American church planter training.
In the end, we will never stop growing, and to always be changing and improving. We always want to learn alongside others and have appreciated the humility of many other residency leaders who have shared over the years, their own lessons learned. It is in that posture that I offer these lessons publicly, in hopes that as Saturate Regional Residencies take the next step in each of these areas, and as other churches and organizations take similar steps, God might lead us to create the best training possible, even in a COVID and post-COVID reality, for all our residents and for the future of God’s Church in North America.