Preventing Discouragement and Keeping Church Planters Productive on the Field

by David A. Diaso

A study of church planters reveals that they are more likely to be motivated to continue on the field if certain criteria are in place. The author offers help for mission agencies and team leaders looking to help their church planters succeed in their tasks.

All church-planting organizations long to see God do great and powerful things through their efforts, acknowledging that the source of all missions comes from the heart of God for the world, and that it is only through his power that the best of human efforts can be effective. Most also acknowledge that a large portion of an organization’s responsibility is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by assisting workers to be effective and deeply satisfied at the end of the day.  Why, then, with such worthy goals, do church planters regularly quit in defeat or retreat to places of discouragement and permanent paralysis? Past and current studies demonstrate a strong correlation between cross-cultural church planters’ satisfaction, sustainability, and the undergirding they receive from their sending agencies. How can mission agencies equip missionaries to thrive?

In the northern Indian state of Punjab, I recently observed a rapidly reproducing church-planting movement. The high excitement in evidence came not only from seeing entire villages come to Christ, but also from the quality training and coaching of the church planters. Regional and strategic leaders come together once a month for training, prayer, testimony, and encouragement. The church planters are not only motivated, they are confident because of the intentional training in evangelism strategies, discipleship, church formation, and leadership training they receive. Assessment and accountability are present at each stage of the church-planting process. The church planters obviously know their task; they receive ongoing, on-the-job training in effective church-planting and discipleship strategies. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.

I was a church planter in Mexico City for ten years. My family remembers the time fondly, yet we were often frustrated. Our team struggled to form shared goals, and when we began a partnership with the Mexican national church, we realized that we lacked a cohesive plan for our work. What would a healthy, biblical church plant look like? How would we know when or if it was successful? How would training for reproduction occur?  

Yearning for answers, I ended up on the doorstep of Dr. Thomas Graham in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Tom, recognized as a wise professor, an experienced consultant to mission agencies, and the “father” of church-planting assessment centers, helped me to voice my confusion, begin to ask the right questions, and transfer those queries into a survey and study that might assist others to find answers for the dilemma of church-planting equipping and supervision.     

What the Church Planters Revealed

The mission agency and team leader/supervisors play key roles in church planters’ well-being and effectiveness. They must assume responsibility for creating church planters’ job descriptions, developing shared criteria for success, providing training, and offering tangible support and encouragement to those who focus their energies on establishing churches. At some level, organizational leaders acknowledge that mandate, but often don’t know how to proceed, so the intentional work of providing clear descriptions needed to achieve success is left undone. My study1 confirmed research results from the mission community (2006, 110), and correlated interestingly with comparable findings from the world of business and development and management. The responses to a survey I conducted demonstrated that church planters are more likely to be motivated to continue if the following are in place:

• a clear definition of the criteria for success;
• a clear description of tasks required to plant a church;
• training, coaching, and mentoring in tangible church-planting principles; and  
• consistent encouragement and feedback from the mission agency and team leader/supervisor.

Let’s consider implications of the four components.

Success: A Clear Definition
Clearly defined criteria for measuring success need to be in place in order for the agency and its church planters to know when a job has been done well. A clearly defined job description is also necessary so that the missionary knows what tasks are to be performed. What are the organization and its missionaries seeking to accomplish? If they do not know, how will they accomplish it? As David Garrison says, the first of the seven deadly sins for church-planting movements is blurred vision (2004, 239-240). If church planters don’t have a clear vision for what a church-planting movement should look, likely they will fail.  

A Clear Description of Tasks Required

The definition and design of the church-planting task will significantly influence the church planter’s success. Ferdinand Fournies (2000, 94) surveyed twenty-five thousand managers and supervisors from around the world regarding the poor performance of their employees. He listed sixteen of the top responses he received.  

•  Employees don’t know what they are supposed to do.
•  Employees don’t know how to do it.
•  Employees don’t know why they should do it.
•  Employees think they are doing it (lack of feedback).
•  There are obstacles beyond their control.
•  Employees think it will not work.
•  Employees think their way is better.
•  Employees think something is more important (priorities).
•  There is no positive consequence to them for doing it.
•  There is a negative consequence to them for doing it.
•  There is a positive consequence to  them for not doing it.
•  There is no negative consequence to them for not doing it.
•  Personal limits (incapacity).
•  Personal problems.
•  Fear (they anticipate future negative consequences).
•  No one could do it.

The majority of these problems relate to the managers/supervisors not doing something right in supervising their employees. There are also a number of problems that can be traced back to a lack of clear direction and/or a lack of feedback, similar to the points that Thomas Gilbert made in his human competence model (1996).  

Fournies’ study relates to the question, “Does the employee know what is supposed to be done?” He reports, “The most common missing information which causes project failure is they don’t know what finished is supposed to look like” (2000, 120). Another way to say it is that there is confusion concerning the process and tasks involved in doing the job. Failure to know what a good finished product looks like emphasizes the need for job descriptions and performance outcomes. Fournies states,

Every business consultant and professor I have ever heard talk about increasing worker productivity has preached, “Tell people what you want them to do; give them good job descriptions.” And business has flubbed that advice because most job descriptions don’t describe the work; they describe the job responsibilities. Unfortunately, you can’t do a job responsibility. (2000, 121)

The worker doesn’t know how to do his or her job; he or she is confused and it shows in his or her performance. This problem is equally significant for church planters—they need a description of their work to help them in achieving agreed upon outcomes. The church planting survey findings indicate that the church planter’s perceived lack of a definition for the criteria for success in church planting does lead to more dissatisfaction. Also, if the church planters perceive that they have received a poorly defined task description, this leads to increased discouragement. Statistically, this was one of the most highly significant findings in the overall study.

Training, Coaching, and Mentoring
While following sound wisdom and principles learned along the way, church planters work hard and depend upon Christ and his Spirit to provide the increase. The practical issue that frequently emerges is the mission agency’s inability to achieve the success it desperately longs to see. They do not adequately educate their church planters concerning how to achieve their purpose. Gilbert posits that when results are not being achieved, the ultimate cause lies in the organization’s management (1996, 81). His table for “Creating Incompetence” (1996, 87) graphically tells the story of how organizations desert their people by lack of information, instrumentation, and motivation. Obviously, the supporting environment affects behavior positively or adversely. Gilbert’s framework also takes into account the person’s knowledge, skills, and attitude he or she needs to succeed. The following steps (1996, 179) help in organizing information for clear criteria for success.

•  Identify the expected accomplishments: mission, responsibilities, and duties.
•  State and explain the requirements for each accomplishment. 
•  Describe how performance will be measured and why.
•  Set exemplary standards, preferably in measurement terms.
•  Identify exemplary performers and any available resources that people can use to become exemplary performers.
•  Provide frequent and unequivocal feedback on how well each person is performing; usually expressed as a comparison with an exemplary standard with good and bad consequences made clear.
•  Supply backup information to help people troubleshoot their own performance and those for whom they are responsible.
•  Relate various aspects of poor performance to specific remedial actions. 

The results of the church planter survey indicate a strong correlation between the preparation and ongoing training and coaching of the church planter and a subsequent sense of support and direction experienced. When church planters did not feel supported by their mission agency, they almost always felt discouraged enough to leave the field.

Consistent Encouragement
Team leaders and supervisors are critical in forming and maintaining strong church-planting teams. Marcus Buckingham insists that supervisors are key to building a strong workplace environment (Buckingham and Coffman 1999, 32). In fact, immediate leaders may be the single most significant factor in determining whether employees have a successful experience in the working environment. Employees are likely to leave the organization if their experience with their immediate supervisor is poor. Buckingham states,

We have discovered that the manager—not pay, benefits, perks, or charismatic corporate leaders—was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was “key.” Competent leaders are needed. If you have a turnover problem, look first to your managers. (1999, 32-33)   

Paul McKaughan agrees that attrition is often related to management inefficiencies. He says,
Often, rather than evaluate and admit our organizational guilt or ineptness, we mission leaders abdicate our responsibility and too easily write off the individual as somehow not having measured up—another casualty of missionary attrition. Individuals become the problem, not the management or system which misused them. (1997, 20)

This is the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one is willing to talk about or deal with directly.

Mission field team leaders may believe they are too busy with their own work to give assistance to church planters. Jerry Gilley states,

Performance standards also are not used because managers are too busy managing and workers are too busy working. They don’t have the time to identify the standards. Quality is another thing jeopardized during this period. (Gilley and Boughton 1996, 8)

Too little time is spent thinking what the end product should look like (in this case, a healthy church). As a result, church planters learn how to do the job through the school of hard knocks. Gilley states,

Distress and confusion are words connected with periods of growth and expansion. Managers may miss opportunities to reduce employees’ distress by not clearly communicating expectations. They should also provide feedback while employees perform their jobs. (1996, 9)

According to Gallup research, only twenty percent of people in the workplace believe they are in the right role where they are doing what they do best every day. This likely means there are a lot of frustrated people, and this phenomenon affects missionaries as well. Missionaries are often called on to do numerous activities, some of which are not their area of strength. If missionaries end up with too many tasks that they are not good at, then they will become frustrated. It is important to know where the missionaries’ talents and gifts lie and capitalize on these.

Below are four recommendations for mission agencies and team leaders as they think about success and church planting.

1. Mission agencies and team leaders/supervisors must provide a clear definition of the criteria for success. Since the study indicated that church planters are more likely to be encouraged if they have a clear definition of the criteria for success, mission agencies and team leaders/supervisors must provide those definitions. Do church planters know what a successful church plant looks like? If not, this needs to be described and defined for church planters as they take up their ministries. One church planter I surveyed commented:

The job description is vague at best. There is absolutely ZERO accountability when jobs are changed, both before arrival on the field and during time on the field. The expectation is that we all need to be “flexible.”

Mission agencies dare not neglect to provide up-to-date job descriptions. It is also true that certain mission fields are more difficult than others, but that is not an excuse for unclear task descriptions. The church-planting ministry I visited in India had simple, but very clear, descriptions of what church planters needed to do in order to plant a healthy church. This fostered confidence in the church planters. It gave them cause to celebrate, and they deliberately took time out to praise God for what he was doing among them.

2. Mission agencies need to provide for a clear description of tasks required to plant a church. Mission agencies should take the time to study the most basic and important tasks necessary to plant healthy, biblical churches. That will help them describe these tasks to church planters. For example, what does evangelism look like in the context in which the missionaries are working? When church planters understand the tasks and desired outcomes to be achieved, they will be more confident and motivated.

3. Mission agencies need to provide training, coaching, and mentoring in tangible church-planting principles. Church planters are likely to be more confident and motivated if they receive training, coaching, and mentoring in church planting. One church planter commented, “Early on in my ministry I was discouraged because of the lack of mentoring given and because of the lack of vision that was evident in the church planters.” On the job training is vital, and it is one of the key components of the church-planting movement I saw in India. Mission agencies should assign new church planters to a mentor/coach. They must take care to ensure that church planters receive training throughout their missionary careers. To provide effective training requires studying the criteria for success and the tasks required to plant healthy, biblical churches. If the organization provides mentoring and adequate training for church planters, they will be more likely to perform well and more likely to experience job satisfaction.  

4. Mission agencies and team leaders/supervisors need to provide consistent encouragement and feedback. Finally, church planters are less likely to be discouraged if they receive support from the mission agency and team leader/supervisor. In this study, the highest statistical correlation between whether a missionary felt dissatisfied to the point of leaving the field depended upon whether he or she felt supported by the mission agency. If he or she didn’t feel supported, he or she was much more likely to be discouraged, and to possibly leave the mission field. Team leaders, supervisors, and managers are crucial to forming and maintaining strong teams on the mission field. This seems obvious, yet it is often overlooked. This is part of the genius in bringing the church planters together once a month in India. Thomas Peters speaks of the importance of what he calls “transforming leadership,” which is evident in great companies:

But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both the leader and the led, and thus has a transforming effect on both….Transforming leadership is dynamic leadership in the sense that the leaders throw themselves into a relationship with followers who will feel “elevated” by it and often become more active themselves, thereby creating new cadres of leaders. (Peters and Waterman 1982, 83)

 Mission agencies can lead well by showing interest in their missionaries and being willing to listen. They have valuable insights to offer. One discouraged missionary I surveyed commented:

When the mission agency insists on using methodology from other parts of the world and tries to impose it on our ministries, it becomes ridiculous and irrelevant. Thus the leaders appear to be friendly, but at the same time unwavering. This brings frustration, and the church planter, who is indeed the only one who truly knows his field, feels obligated to accept and go along with the new system or resigns and goes back home. This is indeed sad.

Another church planter commented:

Most of my frustration has come from lack of communication in the midst of massive change. I have made my issues known, and I have been able to have some dialogue with my leadership. My feeling is that they still don’t understand how I feel. The strategy and objectives are what seem to be more important than the people implementing them.

When agencies and team leaders involve church planters in the process of making changes and important decisions, it is easier for missionaries to accept these changes. This process will prevent an “us versus them” mentality and create a healthy environment in which church planters will thrive. Feedback to church planters is also important. They want to know how they are doing, and their progress should be acknowledged in appropriate ways. One church planter commented, “There is little feedback (either good or bad) and little opportunity to bounce ideas off fellow church planters.”

Peters offers a positive way to reward people for a job well done: “The systems in the excellent companies are not only designed to produce lots of winners; they are constructed to celebrate winning once it occurs. Their systems make extraordinary use of non-monetary incentives. They are full of hoopla” (Peters and Waterman 1982, 58). Mission agencies can celebrate milestones of individual and corporate accomplishments. For missionaries who work in difficult places where there are few tangible results, faithful service and new innovations can be rewarded. The Bible teaches that some people plant and others water, but God gives the increase. Each of these endeavors can be celebrated.


I have found that little serious study has been made among Christians in the areas of discouragement, criteria for success, and the tasks required to plant healthy, biblical churches. This present study shows a correlation. Based on the findings of this study, it is recommended that leaders in mission agencies study and define expectations for church planters, define criteria for success, develop the necessary training, and create avenues to give and receive feedback from church planters. These practices will serve the mission agency, church planter, and the kingdom with the hope that fewer church planters will leave the field discouraged, and encourage church planters to be more effective in their ministries.

1. 180 missionaries from fourteen agencies were involved: 64% of the church planters served in Latin America, 6% in Africa, 10% in Asia, 12% in Europe, 1.4% in the Middle East, and 3% in the United States.

Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. 1999. First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Diaso, David Anthony. 2006. “The Relationship between a Cross-Cultural Church Planter’s Discouragement of the Mission Field, and the Criteria for Success, and the Task Descriptions Required for a Healthy Biblical Church Plant.” DMiss dissertation. New Geneva Theological Seminary.

Fournies, Ferdinand F. 2000. Coaching for Improved Work Performance. New York: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company.

Garrison, David. 2004. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, Va.: WIGTake Resources.

Gilbert, Thomas F. 1996. Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Tribute Edition. Silver Spring, Md.: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Gilley, Jerry W. and Nathaniel W. Boughton. 1996. Stop Managing, Start Coaching! How Performance Coaching Can Enhance Commitment and Improve Productivity. Chicago: Irwin Professional Publishing.

McKaughan, Paul. 1997. “Missionary Attrition: Defining the Problem.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Ed. William D. Taylor, 15-24. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. 1982. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Dr. David A. Diaso, along with his wife and their three children, live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. David is presently ministering with Greater Europe Mission, and involved in preparing new missionaries for their ministry on the field.

Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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