Planting a new church

Mother-daughter strategy today’s approach to new UMCs in S.C.

By Jessica Connor

When it comes to starting a new United Methodist church in S.C., it all boils down to two things: the right place and the right person.

For years, the UMC used a “parachute drop” style to start new churches: find a good site, buy the land, then pow! In drops a pastor to take the reins and steer the church into a successful future.

But sadly, that’s often a recipe for failure, said the Rev. Rusty Taylor, director of congregational development for the UMC’s S.C. Conference–80 percent of churches that started that way don’t make it.

A vastly more successful strategy is the new way of doing things, and South Carolina is solidly on board.

Called the “mother-daughter” approach, this style aligns a healthy, established church in a growing population hub (the “mother”) with a dynamic, Paul-like pastor “daughter” who would be a good fit as a church planter.

“Most of what congregational development is currently doing in South Carolina is identifying the right places and the right people,” Taylor said.

S.C. is one of the leading conferences in supporting congregational development, and with a 2010 budget of $1.1 million, it puts its money where its mouth is. In the last few years, a host of new and reworked churches have sprouted up: Ashley Ridge, Summerville; Esperanza Mission Congregation, Greenville; Rocky Swamp, Neeses; Waters Edge, Beaufort; Journey, Columbia; Grace Community, Fort Mill; Good Samaritan, Lake Wylie; Point Hope, Mount Pleasant; and West Metro Hispanic Ministry, West Columbia. So far, these churches are thriving, as are some older church starts, such as Advent, Simpsonville (23 years) and Christ, Myrtle Beach (11 years).

Most new church starts these days are mother-daughters, though some (notably, Journey and Waters Edge) are successful parachute drops; S.C. still does the latter only when the right situation is in place.

“Most conferences say they want to support congregational development, but don’t provide the funding. South Carolina says, ‘Yes, we want to’ and provides the funding,” Taylor said. “Annual Conference made a commitment that this is a priority.”

Indeed, it costs a lot to start a church. The conference invested half a million in Journey for salaries, musicians, sound–and now, land for a church home.

But it’s paying off. Ashley Ridge went from 150 to 300 members in one year. Journey grew from 30 to 475 in less than three years. The list goes on.

“It’s biblical – look at Mark 4, where the planter comes out and scatters the seed,” said the Rev. Randy Madsen, of Grace Community UMC, which averages about 240 worshippers each week. “A new church doesn’t get started because the conference says it must be so; not because somebody writes a check. It’s God that’s going to start it, and God has already shown us how He’s going to do that. He has seed that’s going to be planted, so if a church is willing to let its seed grow, it’ll work.’”

And it’s also very important, as new churches often reach new believers. With 195 million unchurched in the U.S. right now, the UMC is trying hard to reach these people, Taylor said. And some existing churches are no longer in places where the people are – or no longer reflect the area’s demographic.

How does it work?

The mother-daughter approach is a strategic 12-step recipe, according to Taylor: Discover potential new church start pastors. Provide training. Assess/ train those identified for appointment. Identify “mission fields” ready for planting. Identify mother churches. Align planting pastors, mother churches and mission fields prior to appointments. Assign a coach. Provide intensive training prior to fixing the appointment. Define benchmarks for continued funding. Fix the appointment. Evaluate progress at least annually. Purchase property when milestone is reached.

As for location, it’s not just random. The S.C. Conference subscribes to a service (iMark) that breaks down census information and reveals a population in a one-, three- and five-mile radius, broken out by age, ethnicity and income. To know where to scan, they explore population hubs, number of existing churches and more, Taylor said.

After all, he said, the fastest-growing corridor in the U.S. is along I-85 from Atlanta to Raleigh – and 80 miles of that is in S.C. Given that approximately 6 percent of the state’s population is UM (240,000 of the 4 million people in the state), “that means anywhere you have people, potentially 6 percent could be United Methodist,” Taylor said.

The leader is key

A gifted church planter is critical to starting a new church.

In S.C., congregational developers visit seminaries to know the people coming into the conference – some who have expressed an interest in planting a new church. Also, for the last four years, the conference has hosted a Discernment Academy for current pastors and seminarians to assess potential planters.

The Rev. Jenn Williams, pastor of new church start Ashley Ridge, which launched in January 2010, was the associate pastor at Bethany UMC in Summerville when she was invited to the Discernment Academy.

“I fit the profile – I’m very extroverted, I’m an influencer, I’m a firestarter, I guess,” Williams said. “There are Pauls and there are Barnabases. … I’m more like Paul. I’m more interested in who’s not in church than who is in church.”

It didn’t take her long to realize she was being called as a church planter. From there, it was a matter of timing – preparing Bethany to be a mother church, getting ordained and preparing for the launch of Ashley Ridge.

In the midst of all of this, she and her husband had their first child, Jacob, born in February 2009.

“Suddenly, we became a young family out looking for other young families,” Williams said. “When you are a young mom and interacting with other young moms, reaching young families ended up being great.”

The prelaunch phase for Ashley Ridge was “hugely critical,” William said. And that’s where a need for the right church planter becomes obvious.

Eighty percent of her time had to be spent networking. Instead of exercising solo, she joined the Y. She started working in coffee shops on her laptop, and she joined the young professionals group at the chamber of commerce.

At first, she was a little worried about coming across as a used-car salesperson or a political campaigner.

“As much as I’m an extrovert, I didn’t want to be that scary person giving out a card,” she said, laughing.

But to her delight, it was entirely organic, evolving out of the new relationships she made and her naturally outgoing personality.

“You are in the places you would be anyway, and you’re seeing someone in a cardio class for a couple of weeks,&rdq
uo; Williams said. “You are talking. Eventually it comes up. Someone will say, ‘What do you do?’ And I say, ‘I’m a pastor, I’m planting our church and you should come join us sometime.’ It just comes out of who you are.”

The Rev. Bob Howell, pastor of Ashley’s Ridge’s mother church, Bethany, said he and his team saw in Williams the skill sets needed to be a church planter.

“It’s all about leadership,” Howell said, calling Williams a “natural.” “I didn’t want to have to go to people and beg them to go to the new church. I wanted [Williams] to develop a group of people who would willingly go with her to the new church.”

The Rev. George Ashford, of Journey, agreed.

“I think the right leadership is paramount,” Ashford said. “Initially in a new church start, people will be coming to witness and to see the leader, the pastor, and it takes a leader willing to be transparent and open about his or her life and calling, and perhaps even to dedicate 65-75-hour workweeks to really nurture the birth of a church.”

A good mother

Just as crucial to finding the right leader is finding a good mother church that wants to give birth to a new church.

Madsen said it’s not about cloning the mother church – that would be modeling, not parenting, which runs opposite to Natural Church Development. The mother-daughter model is like creating a DNA cocktail.

But, he cautioned, “The mama has to let the daughter be her own self, and be willing to do that.”

Howell agreed, saying the mother church needs to trust the daughter to take the lead in developing natural pastoral relationships and not be “envious or jealous of taking people away.”

“Sixty-five to 75 people left from Bethany [when Ashley Ridge started], but I’m excited about that because they’re now having 150-200 people on their own. And that means there are 175 people who are United Methodists who weren’t United Methodists a year ago. That’s pretty remarkable.”

His church has talked a lot about being a Great Commissioned Church, from Matthew 28. To Howell, that means the notion of making disciples, generally, trumps making disciples for Bethany. By serving as a mother church, Bethany becomes an instrument to empower that commission.

“It’s an effective way to increase the church’s reach and make disciples,” he said. “I tell my people you will never understand the Christian faith as long as you think it’s about you.”

Ashford said a mother church has to be extremely healthy for the mother-daughter model to work.

He likened it to a parent’s natural instinct to make miniature versions of themselves in their own children. He said mother churches should take care to avoid duplication and over-parenting.

Keeping it going

The mother-daughter strategy seems to be working in this state.

Williams said Ashley Ridge draws about 300 people each Sunday–70 percent from the community and 30 percent from the mother church. That percentage was her benchmark.

“We’re really on target,” Williams said. “I have every expectation now we are going to continue to grow. We’re seeing lots of new families every week. We keep pushing forward to the next piece and the next piece.”

From here, the conference continues to identify more mother churches and to identify and equip potential planters.

And as long as funding remains strong, Taylor said, they’ll keep starting new churches in an effort to make more disciples.

“As Jesus said, ‘I want you to go into the world and make disciples,’ and, ‘When you do it for them, you do it for me,’” Taylor said.

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