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Christ Covenant Knoxville’s Church Planting Residency

Seth Hammond, lead pastor at Christ Covenant PCA in Knoxville, is leading a group of men through NXTGEN Pastor’s cohort model as part of the church’s efforts to hire a church planter in residence. Still in an early phase, this “church planting residency” is creating a leadership pipeline of church planters but also missionaries and worship leaders.

As churches and church planting networks across the nation struggle to find pastors who want to plant churches, leaders at established churches are turning inward to identify and train up men who are good candidates for church planting.

Seth explains, “About two years ago, we as a church started thinking about church planting. We started setting money aside for it, began a church planting committee, and searched for a church planter. We’d been looking for over a year and not found a candidate. Across our denomination, the pipeline is pretty dry.”

Seth says he’s heard various reasons for why this is the case. “People like to go in teams which is more expensive; people prefer to go the counseling, senior pastor, or youth pastor routes; it takes a certain individual to want to plant a church.”

(See this 2023 article on our blog for further discussion from Chris Vogel about the state of church planting pastors.)

After recruiting outside of their community, Christ Covenant’s leaders began asking, “What is God doing here in our own church? Who is He raising up here?”

Members of Christ Covenant's church planting residency (left to right): Arturo Hurtado, Ron Turnbow, Martin Martin, Jim Coffield (guest facilitator)

It appears that the Lord is raising up many leaders from within the congregation. Seth currently leads eight men split into two cohorts, and he is in conversation with several other potential participants.

He says, “We’re fortunate to have had them as part of our church, some for several months, some for several years. Many of them have already jumped into leadership roles and service.” The residency is also open to other men from local churches who are called to ministry, but there hasn’t yet been an urgent need for external recruiting.

Seven of the current participants are in hybrid seminary programs, some at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando and others at Birmingham Theological Seminary. The eighth is a director of worship, and Seth explains that worship leaders are also important for church planting. Three of the eight are also on staff at Christ Covenant.

When a man approaches the elders with an interest in ministry or the elders notice leadership and service qualities in someone, Seth then has conversations with the candidate (and spouse, if married). The men go before the elder board for an interview about their testimony, faith, and call to ministry before joining a cohort.

Using the NXTGEN model, the cohorts meet twice a month and dive into topics like spiritual formation, soul care, marriage and family, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and leadership and management. Citing Titus which focuses on character, Seth says, “A healthy pastor is what will help make a church healthy.”

They read through books, and Seth brings in guest pastors and experts to speak about particular issues. For example, Jim Coffield (who spoke about emotional intelligence with the TVP Church Planting Network) is on staff at Christ Covenant and brings his biblical counseling perspective to the cohorts. They also have an annual retreat.

The residency also includes events/training with the wives. Just as the pastors must be healthy for a church to be healthy, so too must their wives, marriages, and families be healthy.

Seth says, “I’ve seen and been told that a lot of pastors get hired for the hard skills but are let go or burn out for not having the soft skills of ministry. They might know doctrine and pass examination but lack a knowledge of how to minister to and counsel people. The NXTGEN cohort focuses on soft skills. We talk about how to help people through grief, how to do weddings and funerals, how to minister to your family, how to make sure you’re spiritually healthy, and other topics like these.”

The benefits of this cohort model and hybrid seminary education are that future ministry leaders gain experience in a local body of Christ. They are supported while stepping into ministry, and they develop soft skills instead of focusing solely on book knowledge and lectures. Really, the only downside is that it takes longer than the typical seminary timeframe. Seth says, “I call it the long view of ministry.”

Seth explains that the residency ties into Christ Covenant’s mission. “Our mission is to reach and equip people of all ages to know the truth, love Jesus and others, and serve people everywhere (Ephesians 4:11-16; Matthew 28:19-20). It’s in our DNA to be an equipping and sending church. Part of our strategy to fulfill this mission is to equip pastors from within to plant churches in the Knoxville area, to support pastors to plant in other parts of the nation, and to deploy missionaries around the world (Acts 1:8).”

For Seth personally, mentors played a critical role throughout his life, in his faith, and as he identified his own calling to ministry, so he knows how a relational residency can benefit future pastors. “What a blessing and privilege to be a part of God’s work in raising up leaders,” he reflects. “The Lord will guide them as they figure out their giftings, and He often does it through church leadership and people speaking into each other’s lives.”

Also, Seth is a Knoxville native. “I personally have a huge heart for this community and believe church planting is the best way to bring welfare to the city (Jeremiah 29:7).”

Remembering how Christ Covenant was planted, Seth and the leaders of the church want to continue the legacy of church planting. “I never would’ve envisioned this three years ago,” marvels Seth. “I’m thankful for the MNA Committee and NXTGEN. I’ve never planted a church myself, but I’m thankful for people who’ve been in the trenches, who know what they’re doing, and can offer wisdom to men considering church planting.”

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