First of all, kudos to you for even letting me ask you that question. I assume the best of motives for pastors who desire to plant a new campus or church without hurting other local churches. There are some inevitable mistakes every church planter or planting church will make, but some missteps have further reaching implications.
I have planted a church as well as helped others plant churches, and hope to encourage well-intentioned missionaries to learn from both my touchdowns and turnovers.
Here are three questions to ask yourself to help discern whether you are personally being a church planter or a church pirate.
1. Am I recruiting other church members privately?
You can assume that you will be seen as a pirate instead of a planter if you are meeting with prospective church members without their pastor’s knowledge. Half-heartedly telling members from other churches that you do not want them to leave their church to help you plant is manipulative. Ask the Lord to make clear your motives.
The people who leave their church to help you plant your church should be called by God, not recruited by you.
Be cautious about labeling members from other church families as “unchurched” just because they have been thinking about leaving their church. It is not unusual for members to consider leaving their church at some time or another, for one reason or another. Pirates bait moderately committed members away from their churches whether they intend to or not.
2. Am I intentionally avoiding other pastors?
A common mistake church planters make is avoiding other pastors in the area. Some of those pastors will have members who will visit and join your church—even if you have discouraged them. Avoidance will only delay the awkwardness that inevitably comes with sheep-swapping or stealing.
You can practice “double-honor” with other pastors by initiating coffee or a lunch weeks or months before you launch. Our churches and communities benefit greatly from healthy friendships among pastors.
Some of the local pastors may become insecure and unsupportive, regardless of whether you are planting or pirating. Love and respect them anyway. God will bless you if you will.
3. Is our campus too close to a church I have previously served?
Regardless of what you hope will happen, if you plant a church close to the campus of a church you have served, several members from your old church will, for various reasons, come to your new church. Church planting trainers from ARC (Association of Related Churches) encourage a 30 mile radius, which seems reasonable to me.
Some will come to your church plant out of curiosity. Others will come out of love and loyalty to the leadership team. Some will come because they are mad at someone at their home church.
Church members will invariably jump off the mothership whether you recruited them or not, but simply because you baited them by planting too close to your home base. Additionally, they will come from other churches in the community you have been serving in partnership with.
I don’t know of any church planter who intentionally seeks to grow at the expense of another church, but it happens way too often. My hope is that you will move forward with the humble discernment of a planter, instead of the swashbuckling swagger of a pirate.