One of the primary sources of frustration for leaders, boards, and especially young leaders is the inability to recognize who, and where, they really are. I believe church planters and church leaders experience growth, pain, and opportunities through different phases. While it is not an exact model, I often think the nation of Israel’s return from exile and development as a nation mirrors the stages of growth that a church plant goes through. I am using these as teaching metaphors, and not as precise categories, in a theological construct.
If the Ezra stage, which we discussed in the previous blog, is one of momentum and excitement, the Nehemiah stage is often one of painful progress. Part of the reason for the pain is that in our own idealism and foolishness, we can say some stupid things while we are still in the Ezra phase, such as:
“We will never own a building.”
“We will never do small groups,” or “We will invent our own awesome discipleship structure.”
“We don’t you need you serving here! We want you going out.”
"We will never do multi-site.”
“We will never do a capital campaign.”
“We will give 50% of all our resources to global missions.”
Feel free to add whatever you have been saying that, if God were to grow your church, may no longer be feasible. The truth is that if we are faithful to the scriptures regarding churches, we may have to rethink some of these resolutions and honestly judge where we may be more passionate about our vision rather than Jesus’s vision.
The reason I find Nehemiah helpful is we see the people of God building, securing, and growing their city. Eventually all churches will enter into the tough work of this phase, if they desire to remain faithful.
The reason for entering this phase is simple: effective ministries move from specific to general. For example, if you start a ministry to reach skateboarders and they come to know the Gospel, what happens when their parents become interested? What happens when their (non-skateboarding) friends become interested? The same ministry model will no longer be effective. Healthy ministries often move from specific to general. As you remain faithful, inevitably it will send you into the hard work of the Nehemiah phase. Here are some elements that may make up the Nehemiah phase, and some insights from the book of Nehemiah:
BUILDINGS/ EXPANSION & GROUNDS
Perhaps the most common element of the Nehemiah phase is actually building the church building. Unless you live in Southern California, you are going to need a space, and if your church grows you will continue to need more space. In the Ezra phase a church plant may outgrow its rental facility, an existing church may stretch past its facilities or parking, or God may move powerfully in a youth ministry. All of these great things lead to the hard work of the Nehemiah phase.
Regarding this element of the phase, leaders will most likely need to:
Pray like Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:5-11)
Learn to work with secular authorities (Nehemiah 2). Though we may not risk losing our heads like Nehemiah did, we will need to work with governing authorities for zoning, environmental, septic, and countless other issues.
Manage a project wisely (throughout Nehemiah)
Continually recast the vision for the great commission, teaching the congregation that the building project is simply a tool, not the goal, which is reaching the lost.
Another common element in the Nehemiah phase is the development of a discipleship structure. This is where the discipleship system of the ministry moves from organic to becoming reproducible. The vision, or DNA, of the founders evolves into a clear philosophy, a focus on identifying and training new leaders, and most likely a written out, overall strategy. And though every church leader knows that no discipleship system will ever be perfect, in the Nehemiah phase we need to humbly structure as best and as biblically as we can, all while taking shots from the purists who do not disciple anyone. Simply put, in the discipleship process there is much writing, recruiting, training, and reproducing (Nehemiah 8:13).
HEALTHY STAFF/ LEADERS
Eventually in the Nehemiah phase, you will do your best to bring health not only to the building and the church body, but also to the staff team. Inevitably someone will not be a fit, and one of the most painful responsibilities of a caring leader is getting people into the right spot on the team, and sometimes removing people from the team (Nehemiah 13- though I would not go about it like this!). This is probably one of the most exhausting things emotionally for a leader, but it is the most loving thing for the church and for the team member who is in the wrong spot. The great news is that God made them to do something, and the sooner they are freed up to find it, the more joy they will have.
Finally, it is striking that while the people of God labor to build with a trowel in one hand, they wield a sword in the other (Nehemiah 4:17). Even while we build inwardly, we must recognize there will be opposition from the enemy at every turn. It is essential in the Nehemiah phase to mobilize a prayer team to pray against the schemes of the evil one with a war mentality.
The Nehemiah phase results in a great amount of energy and resources focused inwardly. For most leaders and church planters, this difficult building phase is not why they planted a church, or their deepest passion. This season is one of long, hard work, yet is it essential to not just focus on outward service from the church, but rather on the inward thrust of developing space, building discipleship structures, and investing in a healthy team, without neglecting prayer. If navigated well, this will result in far more external impact in time.
One of the most important lessons a church board can realize or be taught is that if they are unclear to their congregation about being in the Nehemiah phase, some members may grow frustrated that there is much more emphasis on systems, structures, capital, and logistics than there was in the Ezra stage (you can often find this with young leaders in larger churches as well). The great news is that if the Nehemiah phase is wisely navigated it can produce far more impact, both global and local, than it ever could have in the Ezra phase, and as it transitions to the Esther phase, which will be the subject of our next post.
A WORD OF WARNING
If a church is not careful it can become a slave to what it builds. A church needs to make sure they don’t build something so extravagant that they are saddled with debt, and all their resources will be used to maintain their base. While the Nehemiah phase will force a season of spending inwardly, churches need to guard against falling into a financial model that robs them of the ability to send missionaries, bless the poor, plant new churches, fight for and fund justice, and assist with some of the financial needs of the congregation.
Ryan Baitzel is a disciple of Jesus, husband and father of four. He serves as the lead pastor of Emergence Church in Totowa NJ, which was launched in May of 2006. Emergence is committed to planting churches in North Jersey, and currently is training two church planters to plant gospel centered, missional, multiplying churches.