by Warren Bird
Students and leaders at a NewThing conference hold up their “dream napkin” asking Jesus to use them to start new movements of reproducing churches dedicated to helping people find their way back to God.
When you think about a residency program, you might envision doctors in training, honing their craft under the tutelage of seasoned physicians.
For NewThing, the church-planting arm of Community Christian Church (www.communitychristian.org) in Naperville, IL, a 9- to 12-month residency is a requirement for any emerging leader who wants to start a church in NewThing’s network. It’s standard operating procedure for all new church planters.
“For us, residency is the chute before you launch a new church,” says NewThing director Patrick O’Connell. “It’s the final step before you plant a new church, not the place to determine whether you’re called to plant.”
Two big things set NewThing’s residency apart from other intensive leadership development programs that Patrick has seen: Instead of remaining in Community Christian’s fold to fulfill a leadership role there, some of the church’s best leaders are always being pushed out of the nest, and new churches always result.
“A lot of churches develop really great leaders through residencies and hang onto them,” Patrick says. “They plug them into existing ministries or into an existing campus. Those are good things; we celebrate that.
“But the purest essence of a church planting residency is to start something brand new.”
Fishing in Two Pools
That’s the way it’s been for NewThing since it was started 10 years ago as Community Christian’s catalyst for “a movement of reproducing churches.” Reproduction was a primary part of Community Christian’s DNA from the beginning, and NewThing’s residency has been a key driver of that vision.
“We want to plant new churches, that plant new churches, that plant new churches,” Patrick says. “Our focus has always been on multiplication.”
The NewThing Leadership Training Center opened in Chicago in January 2015. The state-of-the-art training facility is for those that want to complete a NewThing leadership residency at one of Community Christian’s 13 locations.
Patrick fishes in two pools for new residents. “Free agents” are ministry leaders—seminary or Bible college graduates, church staff members, etc.—who connect with NewThing through conferences, books, blogs, etc.
If Patrick had a favorite child, though, it would have to be from Community Christian’s “farm system”—leaders who come to Christ at the church, grow into ministry roles and get bitten by the church planting bug.
“We are committed to fishing in both of those ponds,” Patrick says. “But we are deeply convinced that the next generation of leaders in the church can be found in our congregation because of our focus on reproducing at every level.”
Warren Bird interviews Patrick O’Connell on common mistakes and what makes internship/residency programs work well.
Three Phases and Two Focus Points
NewThing’s 50 current residents are dispersed among other churches that are part of the NewThing network, and all of the residents are being mentored by senior pastors or ministry leaders in those congregations around the U.S.
All residents go through three phases of development at their pace:
- “Unlearning” things they thought they knew about ministry that might make them ineffective church planters. “Just because you had a ministry doesn’t mean you will make a great church planter,” Patrick says.
- Learning the key elements to getting a successful church off the ground—leading teams, reproducing, teaching, communicating, vision casting, and fundraising.
- “Sending”—reproducing out of their current role and finishing well, leading a new team of people, fundraising and moving onto the church planting field.
“We find the process usually takes at least nine months, but it could be longer,” Patrick says. “It’s up to the speed of the leader, what they need to learn to be ready and the learning plan they put together to prepare.”
NewThing residents go through a two-pronged development process. The bulk of the time is spent in life-on-life ministry at the field location, with an additional three hours a week in a classroom environment around a 40-week curriculum. Residents can earn Master’s degree credit for the classes from Wheaton (IL) College, and NewThing started a leadership training center to centralize some of the learning modules.
“We think it makes for a fantastic residency to live in the intentionality of doing life and engaging in ministry, and being in the classroom,” Patrick says. “But so much is dependent on the leader in the field being willing to mentor that resident and involve them in reproducing ministry in their setting.
“If we have a great classroom experience, but a poor experience in the field of ministry, it’s all for naught.”
NewThing also utilizes online training as a way to bring cutting edge leaders and practitioners together to equip and encourage network leaders in reproducing churches around the world.
Some Vital Lessons Learned
Since NewThing has been at its work for 10 years, the group has some good lessons learned for other churches that would take on a similar pursuit.
For starters, Patrick says there have been times when residents needed a longer incubation period and they planted a church too early. “They didn’t have the time and space to learn what they needed to learn before we sent them out,” Patrick points out.
NewThing has also learned that there are advantages to bringing all residents together regularly in a peer-to-peer learning environment. Also the money equation is always a balancing act. NewThing’s residency has always been a self-funded enterprise, with some residents paid by their sponsorship congregation and some not paid. Residents are responsible for raising funds needed to plant the new church.
“We’ve never had a big pot of money to distribute to our residents,” Patrick says. “The fundraising piece is the first hurdle we want to see them overcome. There are advantages to not having a pile of cash, because it puts the onus on the residents. But there are some disadvantages to that as well.”
The Ultimate Aim
Through all the growth and learnings of NewThing’s 10-year-old residency program, the primary objective hasn’t changed: Produce more “Patricks.”
Patrick was a business leader far from God when he came to Christ at Community Christian. He got involved in different ministries at the church, and eventually became an apprentice who was leading ministries and coaching others.
Patrick and his family moved to Kansas City as a leadership resident and launched a new church there. He began coaching and training church planting residents—including a leader named Matt Miller who started another church in Kansas City that now has two campuses and two more residents in training.
“That’s a perfect illustration of how it works—people who found their way back to God, found a ministry, got a language and a license around church planting and made their way through the pipeline,” Patrick says. “I never dreamed I would be a church planter, or leading a church-planting organization. That’s proof God has a sense of humor.
“But I like to say I found two big things at Community—I found Jesus, and I also found my life mission.”