For even if you were to have ten thousand teachers [to guide you] in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers [who led you to Christ and assumed responsibility for you], for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the good news [of salvation]. 1 Corinthians 4:15 AMP
Nine years ago, my husband and I moved nearly 1,000 miles to plant our church. We packed our furniture into the moving truck, buckled our kids into the car, and left with only a slight sense of what we were getting ourselves into. We both agree that these last nine years have been the most “brutiful” (my invented word for brutal yet beautiful) years of our lives.
I often get asked the question (mostly by would-be church planters) if planting and pastoring a church is the hardest thing we have ever done. I consistently answer, “No! Parenting is.” Navigating through 2020 has challenged my assertion! But as I reflect on lead pastoring over the last decade, I realize how similar pastoring and parenting really are, or at least, how similar God designed them to be.
We have four children now. They range from an almost senior in high school to a preschooler. The longer I parent my four kids, the more I am humbled by how much I don’t know about parenting, and the more I realize how utterly dependent I am on God’s wisdom. I by no means make claims of expertise in parenting or lead pastoring, but after parenting for nearly 17 years and lead pastoring for almost ten, I can’t “unsee” how God desires to use our kids to teach us to love and lead His.
Paul modeled for us the ultimate example of a church planter who viewed himself not as a teacher or inspirational speaker (though there seemed to be a plethora of those in his day too), but rather a father. He implies a lack not of theologians, but of spiritual parents for spiritual orphans. The single greatest piece of advice I could give any new lead pastor would be to approach church planting and pastoring like a mother (or father).
How to plant and pastor like a “mother” (or father):
01. Realize pastoring a church is much more than the high-needs, exciting newborn stage.
My husband would have four or five more babies running around if I agreed to it. Being the submissive wife that I am, I tell him to take Tylenol for that baby fever! But even I must admit that if all that was required was snuggling babies, I would keep having children. However, the truth of the matter is that those little crazies grow up! Parenting is not like getting a puppy; it is a lifelong commitment to the soul of a human being.
The adventure of a church plant is exhausting but rewarding. Many thrill-seekers enjoy this stage (including me) and could almost do it again and again. But we must be careful to think beyond portable church and mass mailers, realizing the covenant we are making to a community by opening those doors. This is a love covenant that will stretch you to the brink of your own capabilities, bring you to exhaustion, and sift through your motives.
Just as certain stages in a child’s life require more of your attention, certain seasons in pastoring will also. Be aware that in high-needs seasons you will need to be anchored to your commitment to the flock. Remember that many of the people in your church are likely wounded. I once read that the average stay for a lead pastor is only four years. Imagine a foster child who has a new set of parents every few years. For there to be any emotional stability, there must be a reassurance of long-term commitment.
Practically, this means you may not be able to travel as much as you like during certain seasons in pastoring. If you have transplanted communities prior to your plant, avoid open statements about “missing home” or even calling your former location “home.” I strongly suggest verbal, public affirmation of your love for the community. Our community was particularly wounded by high pastor turnover. I have been quite intentional to assure them that even if my husband were to pass away, I have no plans to leave. Our church has seen us personally sacrifice, and I attribute the depth of the covenant we share (at least in part) to our willingness to love first. We love Him because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19
02. Prepare to offer strong leadership tangled up in unconditional love.
In case you don’t yet have teenagers, please be advised that teens are the same as toddlers, only with higher stakes! Just as toddlers and teens bemoan our authority, they secretly value it! Likewise, your church needs and desires strong leadership that will love them through their messy, emotional, and sometimes unkind stages.
Clear-headed, rational, and prayerful decision-making is necessary during chaotic times. 2020 forcefully demonstrated how loud and irrational the masses could be. It also revealed some immaturity in many of our own hearts. These turbulent seasons can be “brutiful” opportunities for us to hold the line and prove how anchored we are to the wisdom of the Word. But if we pastor out of our own insecurities, projecting our needs onto the flock, we will only cause further confusion.
Be stable. Be careful to respond rather than react, especially in highly charged encounters. Practically, this means having someone filter your social media posts when you are emotional or even slightly provoked to respond to a personal situation on a public platform. I have learned the hard way to give situations time to breathe (and myself a chance to pray) before responding to heated concerns. I also have my spouse proof any posts, texts, or emails that may be controversial. There’s safety in a multitude of counsel. Once it’s sent, it’s sent. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Psalm 4:4b
03. Allow pastoring to make you more like Christ.
Father/mother kind-of-love steps out of glory into a manger, out of green rooms into homes, and out of the office onto the playground. It stays home when it could travel because it senses the season necessitates it. It embraces in love today the one who slammed the door in hate yesterday.
Both pastoring and parenting have the potential to bring us to the brink of our own abilities, forcing us to the foot of the cross. I’ve come to learn that to “pastor like a mother” means loving the flock like I’ll be held accountable for God’s kids. To do it well both requires and inspires a deep covenant love for Him.
“Simon son of John, do you love Me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love You.” “Then take care of My sheep,” Jesus said. John 21:16
Melodi Hawley is an author, speaker, women’s pastor, and mom of four. She and her husband Brandon launched I Heart Church in Mt. Hope, West Virginia, in 2012, and now pastor this vibrant, multi-site church. Melodi has a passion to use the Word of God (combined with humor and transparency) to empower women to rise up from any circumstance. She uses this passion for God’s daughters to fuel the annual Arise Women’s Conference, which equips women from all walks of life to live victoriously through Christ. Melodi also founded The Safehaven Campaign, a non-profit organization with a strategic goal to reduce the amount of children negatively affected by the drug epidemic in the state of West Virginia.