An Interview with Tom Planck

Lead Singer of Journey....sort of.

As many of you know, I was a church planter in a former life. Kelsey and I planted in NE Cincinnati, Ohio...a small band of young couples who passionately loved Jesus. We had great ministry times and saw God shape and form us in phenomenal ways. We did the essence of church very well. What we never got around to doing was building an entity that would survive any of us.

After 3 1/2 years, we had changed nearly everything and still were unable to build to critical mass...so we changed leaders. I stepped down and handed it off to a very capable pastor. Alas, it was probably a year too late, and ultimately, the entity dissolved. I hate to say the church died because I'm not sure you can kill the church....but the org as we were doing it went bye-bye. We all remain great friends - these were amazing comrades to whom we recognize that we are forever connected to. I doubt that you'd find one among them who would say different. As closings go, it was as good as they get.

Probably due to our experience, I've had a morbid fascination with unsuccessful church plants. I'm thinking Church Plant CSI is probably in order.

While we were in Cincinnati, I became good friends with Tom Planck. We were close in age, geography, vision and experience. The only difference was that Tom had been struggling with New Life Community Church for longer than I did with SpiritLife. He was still struggling with it when I folded up and joined the staff of the Vineyard Community Church.

One day, I got thise strange email...Tom was sticking a fork in it. He was closing the church, but he was calling it a reboot. After ten years he was stopping to restart. We gave him the thumbs up but secretly were saying Hail Mary's because frankly, this is the nuttiest thing I've heard of since the invention of the Almond Joy bar.

Nevertheless, he's done it. Tom relaunched Journey three weeks ago. With a good number of the same people from his old leadership team, the one that couldn't gather over a hundred people, he opened the doors to 350 and saw 15 people commit their lives to Christ that day.

Granted, a new church opening draws a lot of morbidly curious people...They're still in the shakedown process and it looks like they'll level out around the 200 mark.

Recently, I asked Tom if we could do an online interview....he graciously agreed. Grab a cup of coffee and read this story of one who's been there and back. And watch the Lifetime Channel schedule, because this is the feel-good hit of the season. :)

Interview with Tom

Age: 34
Occupation: Pastor and budding Turnaround Guru
Family: Married 14 years to Andrea, two children, Tytus (10) and Hannah (5)

Tell us about your original plan for church planting and what happened.
In the fall of 1994, Andrea and I moved to Cincinnati to plant a new church. At the ripe age of twenty-three years old, we went to work the best we knew how. We somehow talked a couple friends into raising support and joining our ministry staff. We gathered a few other core families and we were off and running. In the first few years, we made about every mistake a new church can make. In many ways, these poor decisions dictated our future. We were forced to live with the consequences of each decision and the barriers they created. We found ways to overcome some, but most of them were too big to break through.

Our original plan was pretty simple--plant a church for people who had been or were disconnected from the Church. The story God authored over New Life's ten year history was tremendous. There were many stories of changed lives. People who had disconnected from church were finding their way back. People who had little church experience were finding a safe place to process their questions and grow in their faith journey.

The first several waves of people that connected to New Life were under the age of thirty. Reaching and connecting such a young group of people meant a high level of turnover. I have often joked about pastoring and preaching to a parade that we also called a church. We never managed to break the 100 barrier for average weekend attendance. Therefore, we always seemed to find ourselves in a crunch for people and financial resources necessary to really thrive. The lack of resources and high turnover kept us in survival mode for the better part of ten years.

In the summer of 2004 our leadership team began to discuss how we could celebrate our 10th anniversary as a church. We talked about the significance of being able to sustain a nine plus year run. This led our leadership team to ask what would become a very important question, how does God want to use New Life in the next ten years? After a great deal of prayer and discussion, we decided to go underground and relaunch on our 10th anniversary with a grand reopening. We pitched this idea to our congregation in Septemeber of 2004. The idea was radically embraced by our community. However, as we continued to seriously ask the question of how God wanted to use us in the coming decade, we realized it was more than a relaunch. Long story short, God wanted to give birth to something totally new.

This led us into a three month brainstorm of what that new thing would look like. We dreamed of what a new church could do to impact West Chester and beyond. The long and the short of that is what is now Journey Church.

What was going through your mind prior to deciding to relaunch? Fears? Feelings?
I was hesitant. I was actually the slowest of our team to emotional commit to the idea. My biggest fear of relaunching was a repeat of history. I knew I was totally unprepared for that emotionally. After ten years in the game, I knew I couldn't handle that. I never felt like our story was one of failure. However, the story we lived never seemed to match the vision God had placed in my heart. I gave that to the Lord and prayed, "God, if you are really in this new thing then I am ALL IN."

What did those closest to you think when you told them you wanted to shut down NLCC to relaunch?
This isn't related to the question, but I have to share this story because it really prepared me for the discussions that took place in the summer of 2004. A close friend took me to launch and encouraged me for about thirty minutes. I should have seen it coming, but I was totally blind-sided by the statement at the close of his encouraging remarks, "Tom, you are wasting your talent."

I walked away from that conversation angry. The anger finally gave way to God's voice saying, "He's right." I spent much of the summer of 2004 wrestling with what that meant and what changes needed to be made in my life, leadership, and ministry. I am a slow learner. I have never professed to be anything else. As I look back, that conversation and the work God did in me in the ensuing months prepared me to lead our team into the future.

Honestly, there was NOT one person close to me that didn't radically embrace the idea. I am sure there were those who questioned the decision and our direction, but no one voiced them to me.

I had spent ten years preaching the same message our community, "God isn't finished with us yet." Those closes to me bought that promise and continued to commit to the dream!

How long between closing NLCC and launching Journey , and how did you spend that time?
When we finally made the decision to go "underground", we spent fifteen months preparing for the launch of Journey Church. This time was spent praying, dreaming, and planning for our launch. We also invested a great deal of time training the team.

During that time, what did you learn about yourself?
I realized three important lessons about where I was as a follower and leader. These ideas became crystal clear in the fall of 2006:

1) I had lost my passion for people who are far from God/Church.
2) I had lost faith to believe God was able to do immeasurably more.
3) I had lost faith to believe God could use me.

I shared these lessons in a message with our launch team at our Saturday evening gathering on October 1st, 2005. The gathering ended with our entire team kneeling at an altar of prayer repenting and asking God to renew our passion for people and faith in Him. It was a defining moment for our launch team.

As I tell the story of Journey Church, I will always go back to this moment. It was this moment that God renewed the passion and faith required for planting a church.

What was the most frustrating part of that time? The best part?
The most frustrating part was waiting for God to move and provide the necessary resources for the launch. As we dreamed for a new church, we knew it would require people, money, and facilities that we simply didn't have. We dreamed, planned, and waited. We prayed and waited some more. God provided everything we needed over a period of fifteen months. Most the needed resources were provided at the last possible minute.

The best part was watching our team embrace new levels of ownership, involvement, and leadership. Everyone on our launch team really began to own the dream in the fall of 2006. The level of ownership and involvement was unbelievable. I challenged people to own the Journey dream and they did. I challenged people to get involved and they did. I challenged people to lead and they did. I challenged our team to invest and invite their friends who were far from God and they did.

Is Journey a new church? A reshaped church?
Journey is a new church. After 15 months in the preparation stage, what God has given birth to is more than a reshaped/reinvented church. God has truly given birth to something new. During January/February of '05, God began to reveal that He didn't simply want us to relaunch New Life, He wanted to give birth to something new. As we heard His voice and followed His lead, we knew the old needed to be laid to rest. As we did, God truly did give birth to something totally new!

The only part that I would say was reshaped were the people involved. I remember one of the first messages I preached to our launch team in the fall of 2004. I said something like, "As much as God wants to do a work through us, He wants to do a work in us." As God did that work in our fifteen month incubation period, He had a people prepared to launch a new church.

Everyone has a list of things they'd do differently - what are 3 things on your list?

1) I would start with a larger launch team. When planting a church, you never have a big enough team. What they say about critical mass is all true.

2) I would do more "preview" gatherings. Our Christmas Eve gathering was a "preview" event. It was a worship service that was held three weeks before our launch date. We did a full set of music and I preached a Christmas message. If we had been able to pull off a couple more of these events in the fall of 2005, with a soft invite to join the team at the end, I think we would have been able to gather more people to the launch team. When people have a chance to see part of the vision, I think it is more appealing than handing them a brochure and trying to sell them over a cup of coffee.

3) I would launch in the fall. I do not recommend winter launches in the Midwest. We have been blessed with great weather for this time of year. Our story would be much different had snow hit on Christmas Eve or any Sunday in January. A fall launch would also have provided us with four more months before summer hits. With the way God was moving a fall launch simply wasn't doable so we jumped in the winter. We beat the odds and we praise God for that!

9) Three weeks into it - how does this feel different from 3 weeks into NLCC?
Three weeks in, it feels more substantial. I know it isn't about the numbers. I know I might lose some cool points for this comment, but it is about the numbers! If ministries/churches do not have people involved who are investing their resources (ie. time/money) then all ministries/churches have is a dream. I am not sure there is anything more frustrating for a leader or a team than lacking the resources build the dream.

Tom , thanks for taking the time to share the Journey with us - especially three weeks into your launch!


Brent Steeno said...

wow this is a long blog. Im going to stick to the prayer part starting churches seems too complicated for my simple mind. Ill pray for this church though because the guy sounds like a real cool guy! Go God! Go God for creating Tom! Go Tom for listening to God! Go Tom for talking with Randy and giving me a just a bit of insight into starting a new church!

janet said...

How cool to see our Journey highlighted (pun intended). Thanks Randy and Tom did a great job describing what's going on.

Randy Bohlender said...

jae - are you the trouble making leader Tom refers to in our extensive instant message talks? Uh, never mind.