The Story of Sojourn Network
A few years ago, I took a step back to reflect on nearly twelve years of church planting experience. It had become apparent to me that there is a vacuum in local churches when it comes to raising, training, and sending men to begin new works.
Sojourn was indebted to the Acts 29 Church Planting Network for the brotherhood, passion, and vision it imparted to us. At the same time, though, the pace of the network seemed too fast. We loved the growth and evangelical breadth of Acts 29, but we wanted tighter DNA and shared vision with our partner churches. We wanted to have relationships based on affinity, not simply proximity.
We had also been greatly influenced by Sovereign Grace churches. They had (and still have) the shared DNA we longed for, but their pace seemed just the opposite of Acts 29, often requiring years of a man’s life before he could be sent out.
Sojourn Network was birthed from a desire for a middle way between these two ends of the spectrum.
SOJOURN NETWORK: A LOCAL CHURCH PLANTING CHURCHES
Planting a church does not begin with a podcast or feeling “inspired” at a conference. It begins with a calling.
We believe that a “calling” consists of desire, opportunity, and affirmation. At Sojourn, we have plenty of men who come to us high off a conference or book saying they want to plant a church and they have their destination picked out. What is often missing, though, is the affirmation of a local church.
Many networks and denominations rush through an informal assessment process with only a few hours of shared life, while others require years with no end in sight. Again, our desire is to find middle ground. For us, affirmation comes as a man is rooted in a local church, is relating submissively to godly authorities, and is being raised up to lead within that local church.
SOJOURN’S CHURCH PLANTING RESIDENCY
This desire for a middle ground is what has motivated Sojourn Network to require a 6-12 month residency for all potential lead pastors. This residency program is a strategic cornerstone for our church planting efforts and is guided by the following four principles:
1. Training. “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7).
From seminary to conferences and books, excellent teaching tools abound, and we encourage many of our candidates to utilize those tools. Yet there is a fundamental difference between teaching and training. Teaching emphasizes content and understanding, whereas training emphasizes character and competency. Though of course there is a degree of teaching in all training.
However, many of the church’s teaching tools offer very little training. Knowing truth is valuable (teaching), but not nearly as valuable as embracing the truth (godly character) and then putting that truth into action (competency). Our goal is to provide exceptional teaching to our residents while training them to be competent leaders within God’s church.
2. Immersion. “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
We believe that in terms of training church leaders, more is caught than taught. There is a place for formal instruction, and it is an important place. At the end of the day, though, the best way to develop a man is by surrounding him with other men that are further along in their journey. No book or classroom can teach you the same way that praying, struggling, and laboring through the difficulties of ministry alongside other men can.
Our residency therefore focuses on immersing a man into the culture and systems of a healthy church in order to teach him how a healthy church functions.
3. Relating to Authority. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17).
We believe that you need to learn how to follow before you can ever truly lead. Many men can wax eloquently about the virtues of a plurality of elders, but they have never submitted to their local pastors. So, we want our churches to be led by men who learned how to submit before they were ever asked to lead.
An interview is simply inadequate to determine how a man relates to authority. You can ask as many questions as you want, but you will not really know how a man relates to authority until you see him under authority. And seeing how he handles being under authority is one of the best indexes of how he will handle having authority.
4. Prescription. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
We believe that the most effective growth happens as proven, capable men examine potential pastors’ strengths and weaknesses and then offer targeted, specific prescriptions. We do not believe in cookie cutter, assembly-line church plants. Each man has a unique gift set and a unique calling and the church is responsible for raising up these men, not some imaginary “ideal” man. Our churches are not one-size-fits-all; neither should be our training for church planters.
A WORTHY INVESTMENT
Many see a 6-12 month residency program as too time-consuming or impractical. But Sojourn Network is not simply trying to birth new churches. Instead, we are looking to birth and grow churches that leave legacies led by pastors who run strong for 30 or 40 years. In light of that, we think the time involved in a residency program is a worthy investment.
WHAT SOJOURN NETWORK DOES WITH AND FOR ITS PASTORS
One reason this residency program is worth the relational and financial investment it demands is that it exponentially increases the impact of ongoing assessment, ongoing coaching, and ongoing theological training, which are other components of what the Sojourn Network seeks to provide for its pastors.
Here, then, is how Sojourn Network seeks to partner with and serve its pastors in an ongoing way.
Ongoing Pastoral Assessment
Many networks and movements have initial assessment processes to determine whether or not an applicant has the potential to begin a new work. A key difference with Sojourn Network is that there is also ongoing assessment from other pastors within the network.
We are interested in more than whether or not a man is healthy and strong enough to start a church. We want to know if he is healthy and strong enough to have church planters trained under him.
This is what makes our assessment process unique: it is an ongoing process involving likeminded men who are further along and have a vested interest in the planter’s success.
This leads to another practical benefit of Sojourn Network: pastoral coaching.
Being a pastor can be flat out lonely. Not only that, most of us feel inadequate for the task God has given us.
Often, after a short time in the residency program, it becomes apparent that a man needs to take a step back. There needs to be room for older, wiser men to speak directly to our residents, planters, and existing pastors. So, Sojourn Network provides external pastoral coaches to walk alongside our pastors.
The benefit of this is difficult to overstate. As we have drawn near to our pastors and planters, we have begun to see that our guys are running too hard and are stretched too thin. In our church planting we are often filled with a spirit of rush, as opposed to a spirit of renewal. Eventually the rush catches up with us and the dreaded “burnout” sets in. In the midst of this rush, men shift from living out of their calling to living out of their sinful compulsions. Our coaches step into those situations and often recommend sabbaticals or other forms of rest.
The point is that our coaches, some with 40 years of pastoral experience, go to great lengths to care for the souls of our pastors. We do not simply want our pastors to start churches, we want them to have healthy souls.
Practical, Ongoing Theological Training
Finally, the practical, ongoing theological training we offer is essential.
Sustaining gospel ministry requires broad and deep theological training. As opposed to handing off the local church’s responsibility to train its people to seminaries, we find it more beneficial to leverage the resources and expertise of multiple churches within the network to train our men.
To that end, we have developed Sojourn Pastors’ School to train leaders within our church. We are also pioneering a new model with Southern Seminary in which our students are trained by pastors within Sojourn and can complete 1/3 of a Master of Divinity degree this way.
We believe that rigorous theological and pastoral training throughout one’s life is essential to effective long-term ministry. It is Sojourn Network’s desire to pioneer new avenues of training, new partnerships, and new methods to best prepare our leaders.
NOT JUST FOR THE PLANTER’S SAKE, BUT FOR THE MISSION OF GOD
A residency program focused on a man being rooted in the local church, raised up by the local church, and sent out by the local church is not just for the man’s sake. It is also for the sake of the ongoing mission of God.
We want to be like Paul who, when giving reports of God’s grace to other churches, had his joy amplified because of the deep affection and partnership he had with those churches. We want to leave a legacy of healthy churches for our children and grandchildren. Our prayer is that our residency program will result in more and better men being raised up to pastor more and better churches, all so that countless men and women would experience the redeeming love of Jesus.