Training pups and planters

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

Marlan Mincks is settled ― but sharp ― as he looks over the Belgian Malinois before him. The man’s eyes glimpse the fawn color, the strong muscles and the smooth hair.

There’s something else he wants to see. As he walks around the dog, he watches how the dog responds to him.

Belgian Malinois dogs often serve alongside police officers and soldiers. Together, they attack armed suspects, parachute out of planes or rappel down vertical surfaces.

A dog that can do that must be tenacious and teachable. That’s why Mincks looks beyond the alert eyes, the black mask darting left and right.

It was a Belgian Malinois breed that deployed with Navy SEALs to the Pakistani compound where Osama Bin Laden died. That’s just one example of the skill and drive a dog must have in lethal environments, Mincks said.

“The dog says, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to stop you, I’m going to do this,’” he explained.

This is why Mincks works with them.

Church planters may just be the Belgian Malinois of ministry.

This is why Mincks also works with them.

When he’s back home in Waukon, Iowa, Mincks trains the dogs alongside Lt. Trace Erickson. Erickson, of the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, trained the nation’s number one Police K-9 two years ago.

He met Mincks in a gas station parking lot. They quickly connected and started working together.

A good trainer, Mincks explained, builds a relationship with the dog. Then, the trainer focuses the high energy and drive of the sixty-pound dogs toward mission success.

That drive and teachability is something he seeks in church planters, too. Anyone who plants a Converge church first embraces three intense days of assessment under Mincks’ leadership.

“That person is what you’re looking for ― where they say, ‘Everything is stacked against me, but I guess that’s the way it is. I’m going to do this anyway,’” he said. “This is an all-in, all-win deal.”

That’s why, whether pups or planters, Mincks prioritizes relentless obedience and unconventional excellence.

“It does wash out certain dogs that have all the drive and you can’t train them,” he said. “You see church planters who’ve got all the stuff, but they won’t learn from anybody. They’re not adaptable or trainable and they wash out.”

Mixing it up in life

Whether decades before or days ago, Bryan Mincks is quick to say his dad kept him, his mom, Terri, and his brother on edge.

“We’re all nervous around him sometimes. What’s dad going to have us doing next?” Bryan joked.

Marlan Mincks has pretty much attempted whatever came to his mind. Hand-digging a koi pond. Building a garage. Raising bulldog pups, which require attention every 30 minutes. He’s had 25 different breeds of dog. Golf. Gunsmithing. Having a 1000-pound aquarium.

There was one endeavor that seems obvious for someone who now evaluates church planters. Marlan started Iron Ridge Church in Waukon, which Bryan now pastors.

“Growing up with him, he was the kind of guy who never said, ‘We can’t do that,’” Bryan Mincks remembered. “It seemed like there was a new idea every other weekend and we did it.”

Bryan Mincks, now 37, sees his father’s creativity and resilience essential for life and ministry.

“I have a work ethic that has blossomed because of that,” he said. “I don’t see many roadblocks in life.”

Related: Why church planting is the best investment

That doesn’t mean Bryan hasn’t had challenges. He and his wife tried to have a child for seven years.

One day, after a challenging moment in that journey, Bryan broke down with his dad. Bryan and his wife couldn’t find a way forward, especially with choices like in vitro fertilization, foster parenting or adoption.

“He looked across the table at me and said, ‘Well, let’s just do it all. Let’s just do all of it,’” Bryan said. “Let’s look down all the roads and see which one God lets us walk down.”

For Bryan, that reveals more than his dad’s resourcefulness. He also sees his dad’s deep faith in a God who calls all to trust him, especially when God’s will is confusing and uncomfortable.

“What can we do to allow God to work where he wants to work, not where we want to?” Bryan Mincks said.

Relationships and redemption stimulate constant change

Marlan Mincks said he loves newness and freshness, creativity in whatever he does.

“I’m always wanting to change things,” he said. “I am always unhappy (with the status quo), always thinking there’s got to be more.”

He rewrites sermons on Sunday mornings when he thinks they’re not good. Sometimes, he thinks they’re too similar to something he’s preached before.

A defining trait of Belgian Malinois is a need for activity. The American Kennel Club says the dogs are “smart, confident … world-class” working dogs. But a dog without something to do and a trusted master by their side quickly has challenges.

“It’s a little bit like having a tornado in your house. They don’t calm down,” he said. “The reason they can do what they do is because of that drive.”

Mincks’ comfort level with the dogs’ natural energy and missional personality helps him train dogs and test church planters.

“The church planters we see today are different than the ones we saw five years ago,” he said. “You’ve always got to be in touch with those people. There’s no mold, there’s no typical church planter.”

Related: The next generation of church planters

Instead, the key to assessing church planters and helping them succeed is relationship, he said. He believes that not because of training dogs, but because of how Christ engaged people.

“He doesn’t just want religious people. He doesn’t just want people with all the tools. He wants the relationship,” Mincks said. “These church planter assessors really deeply care about [church planters’] future and their ministry. We’re friends for life. We continue to coach these people, talk to them, give them wisdom. It’s a brotherhood that surpasses anything I’ve seen.”

The darkness and dysfunction can’t be denied

Mincks isn’t the religious type. For most of his life, he didn’t have the tools and, although he was Irish Catholic, he didn’t know Jesus as Lord.

His father died from complications connected to diabetes when Mincks was about one. His mom worked two jobs, and no one had a car. The rest of the family were alcoholics or abusive, or both.

Everybody in the family loved each other, he said. Still, he said, sarcastically, “Finding your way out of that ― good luck. It was just finding your way. There wasn’t a leader in the family who could champion [me] to be something.”

An often-used test today, including in Converge’s assessment for church planters, is the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, test. Marlan scored a nine out of 10, meaning he experienced nine of ten significant threats to a child’s well-being.

Outside the Mincks’ home, Decorah, Iowa was a tiny college town near the Minnesota border. Norwegian Protestants filled the community, making high school challenging for a short Irish Catholic guy from a rough family.

However, there was a couple, Earl and Arlene Bigalk, who owned the Harmony Skating Rink. The couple farmed most of the time. But, at the skating rink, they were like a mom and a dad. They often supported and encouraged Mincks and other youth in the area.

“They kept you in line. You didn’t get away with stuff,” Mincks said. “At the same time, they inspired you to do something with life.”

A few years after finishing high school and marrying Terri, whom he met at the Bigalks’ hockey rink, Mincks drifted farther and farther from a plan.

Mincks had met some people at Luther College who were selling marijuana.

“It looked like Christmas trees hanging upside down in their apartment,” he said.

As a new dad, he was doing construction work in 1985. Then, he started selling drugs, and one criminal effort led to another. He was stealing something when police caught him and came to his home to search for the stolen goods.

Related: Hope dealers

“[They] took me to the farm where we lived. There were six cars with lights and law insignias,” Mincks said. “There stood my wife with my son who’s just learning to walk.”

He was looking at two years in jail, one more fulfillment of a shattered family and sinful desires. The sheriff’s deputies left. Mincks agitated for four days.

The darkness and dysfunction can be stopped

“I asked God, ‘What do you want from me?’” Mincks remembers. “He said ‘Tell the truth or this is the end of you. I’m not going to let you live this way anymore.’”

His family questioned him about the stolen goods. At the same time, his wife tried to defend him against his family.

“She didn’t know because [I’d] been lying so far,” he said. “I paused. ‘No, I did that,’” he told his family. “And I did this, and I did this. I confessed to all those things.”

Related:Building community by being vulnerable

Then he walked over to a window looking out over the farm. “I took this deep breath,” he said. It was like a baby drawing its first breath outside the womb.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Mincks recognizes. “It was a long, slow turn in becoming a follower. It was a long, loping turn. While we were still sinners and selling drugs and stealing things and lying and cheating, while we were still doing all of that, Jesus died for us.”

If Jesus does that, why the local church?

Now, director of church development and directing Converge’s Church Planting Assessment Center, Mincks focused his tornado of motivation toward the mission Christ inaugurated: start new churches so more people know Jesus died for them.

He’s hyper-focused and precisely committed to church planting for one reason: he and his wife Terri grew in Christ in the local church.

They were isolated believers obeying the best they could on their own until a Converge pastor began Grace Fellowship Church. They connected with Christ-followers in that church. Marlan even became associate pastor and discovered a gift for preaching and pastoring.

Then the church split, the people arguing and attacking. That was one of the most painful moments of his life.

“One particular night, I picked my wife up off the parking lot because of an anxiety attack at a church meeting that was so antagonistic and filled with hate,” he said. “If this is ministry, I quit.”

Related:How anxiety affects the pastor’s brain (video)

Mincks has always worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker. So, he asked Terri where she wanted to live. Arizona, she said.

Their pastor, from the church splitting apart, told Mincks they should plant a church. However, the pastor didn’t know the family wanted to go to Arizona.

“No, I’m done,” Mincks told him.

The pastor tried one more time. He told Mincks about an assessment through Converge and offered to pay for Mincks to go.

“No, I’m not going,” he told the pastor. “We’ve had enough of ministry.”

No idea what they were walking into

The assessment is in Arizona in February, the pastor offered. So, Mincks ― always open to new possibilities ―thought to himself, “We can get there and get a free trip and look for jobs there.”

He and Terri walked into the assessment center with no preparation or confidence at all. Their Christian life had been mainly self-directed formation ― read the Scriptures, order CDs of sermons or read books and go do something.

Part of the assessment requires prospective church planters to share a philosophy of ministry, preach a sermon and outline a plan for a new church. Not that the Mincks had a clue.

“We were pretty empty coming out of a church plant days before,” he shared of their experience.

Related:Two  brothers shape Converge church planting

When Mincks’ turn to preach came, he had days of looking at the Bible and hearing nothing from God.

“I remember walking to the front of that classroom,” he said. “‘God, if you’re real, just one more time, give me the words. As I turned around, I felt the Spirit hit me and I had the words.”

Then, the assessment required him to meet with a counselor, Jerry Dahl.

“Now, I thought, we’re going to find out we’re crazy,” he said.

Instead, they got approved to start a church. As part of their confirmation, Mincks remembers Dahl saying God would use them wherever they went or whatever they did.

“My wife and I just sat there in tears,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in ministry today if it was not for that moment right there.”

No more koi ponds. Well, probably no more koi ponds.

Minks dedicated himself to seeing new churches start on a lasting foundation, not a split. He wants to make sure that churches start for the right reasons with the right leaders.

He finished the assessment in 2000, saying that he would one day lead the assessment center. In the years to come, he learned as much as he could. He befriended the leaders and traveled to assessments on his own dime time after time.

He attended and helped lead every assessment since 2008. Mincks has been the full-time director of the assessment center since 2018.

Last year, Converge held five assessments around America so a new generation of church planters could pursue the movement’s goal: start 312 churches by 2026.

Related:Unfilted podcast: real church planting conversations

When he’s not in the field with Belgian Malinois dogs, Mincks is working with church planters.

When the assessment is happening, he’s putting in 12-hour days with the candidates. He listens to philosophies of ministry and sermons. He observes role-playing and teamwork activities. The emotional and mental health of the prospective pastors holds his attention.

He’s watching, walking around, looking for qualities beneath the surface. Does this man have the temperament for starting a church? Is the grit in his heart?

Mincks' role as director of church development includes oversee Converge's Church Planting Residency program. It's an extension of his assessment duties, connecting existing local churches and potential church planters. Mincks and Converge help coach and provide resources to the churches who are preparing those up and coming planters to start a healthy, multiplying, gospel-centered church.

Related: Converge church planting residencies

Like many from dysfunctional families, Mincks learned to read people at a young age. But through the work of Christ, Mincks sees his insight into human nature now advancing the Lord’s desires.

“All of the negative things I experienced as a kid, God used for good,” Mincks said.

Now, his own alert eyes sift through the evaluations and conversations. He’s sizing up church planters so God’s redemption through new local churches continues.

“It’s a passion. This saved my ministry life,” he said of the assessment. “I get to help people right at the beginning to understand if they are wired to plant churches. It’s the best fit of anything I’ve ever done in my life.”



Have you been called to start a new church? How can you know for sure? And what does it take to succeed? Converge’s Church Planting Assessment Center can help you discern your calling, ministry fit and leadership capacity as a church planter. 

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene