Until recently, a sign hung on the wall at Canvas Church, a new church plant in Goldsboro, N.C.
The sign contains the church’s logo along with the names of the volunteers who made a commitment to launching the church. It dates back to the summer of 2020 when Canvas Church’s pre-launch phase was just getting off the ground.
Each volunteer signed a piece of canvas with his or her name and attached it to the sign. They indicated they were all-in serving the community and the church.
Canvas Church has flourished since its September 2021 launch. As of early last month, the church had baptized 14 people, said the church’s lead planter, Kevin McNeil.
But the canvas sign hasn’t fared as well.
Of the first 40 or so names on the board, 15 to 20 no longer are with the church. Some left for personal reasons. But some simply disappeared without a word.
“They would just bounce. They would just be gone,” McNeil said.
They won’t return texts. They don’t respond on social media. And they are uncomfortable if McNeil runs into them in public.
“It’s weird, but it’s like, ‘Can you say goodbye?’” McNeil said.
IT FELT LIKE BEING ‘DUMPED’
The rapid turnover in a new church plant’s core launch team is not unusual, church-planting experts say.
In fact, two executives at Restoration Movement church-planting groups told Christian Standard they warn their new church planters to expect just such a thing to happen.
Tim Cole, executive director at Virginia-based Waypoint Church Partners, said it’s typical that after two or three years, the “overwhelming majority” of the people who are on a church’s plant team will have left.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say everybody. But man, it’s most,” Cole said. “That’s the brutal honesty of life in church planting.”
Phil Claycomb, who leads Texas-based Nexus Church Planting, said he had spoken recently with a few church-planting couples who were in “severe pain right now” because of people who had left their churches. One texted Claycomb to say it felt like being “dumped.”
Claycomb said the attrition problem isn’t unique to church plants. Every church loses people from time to time. But it hits church planters harder.
“They are feeling it so vividly because everything’s so fragile,” he said.
WHY PEOPLE LEAVE
Claycomb said part of the attrition problem in church plant teams is natural.
Some communities, because of their economics, have high turnover rates. People move on to new jobs in other towns. Military towns frequently see people depart on new assignments.
At the same time, church plants tend to attract people with a certain “entrepreneurial itch,” Claycomb said. It’s not uncommon for a church planter to find volunteers who now are on the third or fourth new church they’ve helped start.
They get engaged in the work and are extremely helpful, Claycomb said. But by the time the church becomes more established, those entrepreneurial folks get bored and move on.
“It also could be a mistake on the part of the church planter that he doesn’t keep the game interesting,” Claycomb said.
Still, some of the excitement is impossible to maintain.
Claycomb recalls planting a church in a movie theater. Only a handful of people were guaranteed to attend the first service. But then 235 strangers showed up. It was an exciting time.
“You just can’t replicate that,” Claycomb said.
OTHER POSSIBLE REASONS
Several other factors play into the high turnover on church-planting teams within the first few years.
Sometimes, a church doesn’t become what a person had envisioned it to be. Other times, a church falls victim to its own success in drawing in people who haven’t found homes in established churches—possibly because of those volunteers’ spiritual immaturity.
Cole said many church-planting teams tend to have immature believers in their ranks.
“Expecting them to make good decisions on why they stay or why they go is probably unrealistic,” he said.
Cole said this trend calls for a renewed emphasis on individual discipleship. Thankfully, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this issue to light.
During the past two years, many churches have been ghosted by immature believers and find themselves with fewer people showing up on Sunday.
“There’s no doubt greater discipleship would help,” he said.
HOW TO COPE
With these trends, lead church planters—the ones who call the shots in these newborn congregations—should be prepared for the early losses in their launch teams.
But too often, they’re not.
“As church-planting director, every single church planter is in denial,” Cole said. “If they hear that notion that most of your launch team won’t be around in year two or year three, everyone will say out loud, ‘That won’t be our church.’”
They’ll think they’ll buck the trend, perhaps on the strength of their own relational acumen. But later, after the attrition takes place, they’ll admit they were wrong, Cole said.
“What probably adds to the pain of that reality is they didn’t embrace it on the front end,” he said.
When people become invested in a church plant and then leave it, they cause deep wounds in the lead planter.
Cole recalled his second church plant launched with four families at its core. Cole and his wife became close with one of those couples—they even went on vacation together.
But about a year in, the couple announced to Cole and his wife they were leaving so their kids could attend the bigger youth group at another local church.
“It was like, ‘Really?’” Cole said. “I thought we were in this for thick or thin.”
Of course, the departing couple said they still wanted to be friends with the Coles. But the pain was too much. Church planters invest their whole lives into their new church.
It’s like someone saying, “I don’t like your kids, but I want to be your friend,” Cole said. “The wound of that is so deep.”
A SAFE PLACE
Cole said church planters continue to need coaching, particularly as this issue of ghosting continues. They need a safe place to share the wounds of those losses, particularly with other church planters who have been through it before.
Church-planting wives need that, too, Cole said.
Claycomb said it’s important church planters realize a church never is stagnant. He describes it as a river—rather than a lake.
“It’s supposed to have a current all the time,” Claycomb said.
He said church planters should plan how to serve people over a period of 36 to 48 months. After that, on average, people will be moving on to somewhere else.
“I’m responsible for a certain portion of the riverbank,” Claycomb said. “I’m not here for your entire river experience.”
He added, “When you leave me, I didn’t lose you. You weren’t mine.”
PUTTING THE CANVAS AWAY
Back at Canvas Church, McNeil said the church recently put away the canvas sign with the names of the volunteers who pledged to help plant the church.
It had been up long enough, he said.
The sign now hangs in the church’s office space. McNeil still can look at the names there . . . including the names of those who are gone.
“I was surprised when it happened to me,” he said of the turnover in his launch team.
He said one couple “bounced” out of the church after having a marital issue. But none of the others explained why they left.
One guy had played guitar in the church and his wife had driven the church’s snow cone truck and helped with social media. And then they vanished.
“They never answered their phones. They never answered texts,” McNeil said.
When he encounters former church-plant members in public, McNeil always tries to be nice, but he admits the departures hurt.
“It’s 100 percent personal for me,” he said. “You can’t deny your feelings. You have to allow yourself time to be upset and mourn.”
But it’s also good to have the attitude of Jesus and “shake the dust off your feet,” McNeil said. The work of the church plant will continue with those who want to be there.
“If anything, you sometimes plant seeds, and you don’t see that fruit,” he said. “Sometimes, your fruit grows on other people’s trees.”