Home > Blog > Why Can't Planters Be Pastors? [Part 1]

May 6, 2017

Why Can't Planters Be Pastors? [Part 1]

By Derek Hanna

That title feels like click-bait. It’s not meant to be. It just reflects my frustration that the word “pastor” feels loaded. Or maybe imbalanced.

The Christian tradition I’ve grown up in has shaped the idea of what it means to be a pastor, or shepherd, of God’s people. I read something from Eugene Peterson that resonated with that understanding. He describes the role of a pastor like this:

If you’re going to preach the Gospel to these people, you’ve got to know their lives. The Gospel is never disembodied. If you’re just preaching to people and you don’t know their names, they don’t know your name, this is not preaching, this is not pastor work.

This blog isn’t a critique of Eugene Peterson (his book The Contemplative Pastor was a formative book at bible college for me). Nor is this blog a call to “corporatizing” ministry. And while I know not everyone reading will have the same view of pastoring as Eugene Peterson, I think it’s fair to say that our reformed heritage (Richard Baxter as a flag-bearer perhaps?) tends toward seeing the role of pastor as teacher, counselor, and spiritual guide as more than an “overseer” or “organizer.”

In Part 2, I’ll return to this idea (with a little help from Don Carson). But for church planters, there are a number of dynamics at play when planting that highlight the imbalance in our understanding of pastor that can limit the effectiveness of a planter.

The rate of change in plants.

For most plants, there is a much higher rate of change within the community: new relationships being formed; new ventures being tried; structures being constructed, destructed, tweaked, critiqued, and scrapped; and the community size generally growing at a higher rate than congregations with history, if only due to the fact that the starting number was small.

And here’s the dilemma: in the start-up phase, is the planter a pastor-in-waiting? Is he merely a Christian entrepreneur who’s waiting to put on his big-boy pants and do the real job of shepherding?

That’s the tension. If a planter’s definition of pastor is something different than what’s needed to launch and grow a healthy, gospel-centred church plant, what does he do? If the work he feels he’s called to do as a pastor differs from what’s needed to launch and establish a new church, how does he decide to spend his time?

The impact on the planter

Now I know that this is a simplistic example to a complex issue. But it’s a real issue. If planters feel like they’re doing less than their biblical calling, there is a real danger they will adjust what they do and in the process be less effective for the Gospel.

And this imbalanced view of being a “pastor” can be reinforced from three sources: the heart, the pew, and the bleachers.

From the heart

I recently talked to a planter who wondered where he would find time for leadership development. The church was growing, the intimacy of relationships with his initial launch group was harder to maintain, and he wanted to know the people God had given him. He wanted to pastor them. It wasn’t said out of arrogance or pride but born from something ingrained in his heart that this was his primary job. So when time is limited, what’s the right choice?

From the pews

But this understanding also comes also from the gathering community, from the pews. Launch teams form a strong bond. The time spent praying, planning, and serving alongside each other in heartache and joy can be hard for a Christian community, even one with a sense of mission, to give up. It’s natural to long for those days when the lead pastor was in their lives, more readily accessible to them, pastoring them personally. To the person in the pews, the individual, that can feel more like what a pastor should be and do.

From the bleachers

Lastly, there’s the commentary (real or perceived) from those outside the church, the Christian bleachers, particularly in periods of growth where structures and relationships are trying to adjust to a new dynamic. The commentary from those outside can be that this planter cares more about numerical growth than spiritual growth. More about pulling people from other lifeboats onto theirs, rather than helping them climb out of the water and rescue others. More about building their kingdom than God’s kingdom.

Where to go from here?

Now here’s why I’m thinking these things out loud: because church planting is hard work. And I want planters to be encouraged in their work, having a clear understanding of what they’re called to be and to do. The place I want them to find freedom in is God’s Word, not human expectation. And the only thing I want to constrain me is God’s Word, not human expectation.

So at the risk of being simplistic, we can either say that planters aren’t pastors or we can say that perhaps we need to readjust our understanding of what we mean when we use that word. That’s where I’ll pick up in Part 2.


Derek Hanna

Derek grew up and became a Christian in Sydney, Australia. After studying Computer Science and working in London, he decided to do something he was completely unqualified for, but desperately passionate about, and started working for the Church Missionary Society helping churches talk to youth & children about what God was doing throughout the world and how they could be involved. While doing this, he studied theology at Sydney Missionary & Bible College and then headed up to Brisbane, Australia to work in pastoral ministry. Nine years ago he planted Village Church in Brisbane City, and this year started working with Geneva Push, an Australian church planting network, as the Director of Training. He's been married to Jacqueline for 18 years, they've got three boys who bring them joy and worry in equal measure, and they're all part of Christ Community Church in Brisbane, Australia.


view all
Finding Your Identity in Christ, Not Your Ministry

Exclusive Content

Your Ministry is Not Your Identity [Video Training]
Leading Through Preaching

Exclusive Content

Three Steps to a Church Plant's Vision

Exclusive Content

Organizational Development [Ready-To-Use-Resources]
Building Back Better

Exclusive Content