Leading a Turnaround Church
by Donald E. Ross
What is a turnaround church? Turnaround churches experience a decline nearly impossible to reverse, but somehow they do. Most churches in similar situations simply go out of business. What are the critical aspects of a church and pastor that see terminal decline turn into growth?
Let me define a turnaround church. A turnaround church has recognized that, due to consistent decline, within a generation, or less, it will be out of business. This church has courageously faced the truth and made a series of extremely difficult and painful decisions to reverse that trend.
Mission is critical. Understanding that both the leader and the church are part of the mission of Christ gives the needed elements to embrace a turnaround.
Mission says, “This is not about me; it’s about Jesus.” When we understand that nearly 4,000 churches a year go out of business — and we are not planting nearly enough to replace them — we can understand that turning around declining churches as well as planting new ones is very much a part of Christ’s mission.
In many ways, John wrote the challenge of a turnaround church 2,000 years ago in Revelation 3:1–3. The letter to the church of Sardis says, “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold fast to it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (emphasis added).
In a real sense, a declining church may have had a reputation of being alive, but it is not alive now. It is on life support and needs help. Both the pastor and church leaders need to work together to “strengthen what remains and is about to die.” This is hard work — but possible and needed — if the leader and church are willing to pay the price to not only survive, but also learn to thrive.
It takes a visionary leader to lead a turnaround church. This leader often comes from outside the current church culture. The value of bringing in a new leader is that he or she is not stuck in the current thinking trends or bogged down by the church’s history. As the new visionary leader, your challenge is to earn the right to lead this group of people, almost all of whom are stuck in current thinking trends and severely bogged down by the church’s history.
As a turnaround pastor, you must be able to paint a constant verbal picture of the church’s preferred future based in reality. You must also realize, regardless of what those around you say, you are probably the only one who see it, and often it will be foggy to you. Nevertheless, there is a God-given picture, and you must hold on to it relentlessly.
Max DePree says, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” The pastor of a turnaround church must develop the skill set necessary to tell the truth without discouraging the flock beyond recovery. The pastor’s ability to encourage, recognize the smallest progress, and chart a manageable course is critical.
Another element a turnaround pastor needs is the ability to endure pain. This is mostly the emotional pain of rejection, but financial pain, and even physical pain, may be a part of the process.
If the current way of doing things in a declining church is not working, it would not need to turn around. People own and do these things, so to change the way things are done, people must change. Either they change internally or they are changed and new people do new things. This is incredibly painful for both pastor and people.
Imagine telling someone who is very faithful that he needs to change his way of leading a class or ministry after he has done it this way for decades. If the pastor has not clearly communicated the mission, this teacher can feel the pastor is driving him away. Even if the pastor has done a great job of communicating, emotions usually overrule sense.
Urgency is the adrenaline of a turnaround church. Without it a church cannot make the necessary changes. Too much of this ecclesiastical chemical and the church will become discouraged and give up. To little and no change will happen. The pastor needs to become a skilled ecclesiastical anesthesiologist.
John Kotter said, “Instilling urgency … is critical to getting organizations to switch directions; arguing the … case using facts alone won’t create that urgency.”
Although things must change, it will take time. Researcher Gary McIntosh states that a turnaround can take from 5 to 12 years, depending on the setting. Rural churches and churches in dire circumstances can take longer. Ours was a “dire circumstance church,” and we took a bit longer. The more desperate the situation, the more endurance the leader needs.
Here’s the deal … money will be tight. Period. Who wants to give to a dying cause? It takes a while to see a new vision surface, which draws in resources. That’s the downside.
The upside is that often a declining church has untapped resources in facilities and property. The church can tap into these resources to pick up the needed capital to make needed changes and simply stay alive. We tapped our equity several times to make changes and to move us ahead.
The turnaround pastor should be prepared to work a second job or set funds aside to “float” his or her finances during the turnaround recovery.
These are not necessarily first in a pastor’s thinking and planning. Usually an established congregation is deeply rooted to facilities, having sacrificed to build and maintain them. Any changes the pastor makes should be done carefully and part of an overall plan. Getting key lay leaders on board is critical. It may be that the church needs to renovate, upgrade, or even sell its facilities for the sake of its survival.
Remember, buildings are not the church; they are a tool. Sometimes tools need to be sharpened or replaced to accomplish a worthy project. As a part of our turnaround we relocated and sold our old campus.
Researcher George Barna says that most turnaround pastors will only lead one turnaround church in their career. This is true, not only because of the stress and energy it takes, but also the amount of time it takes.
A pastor unwilling to give 5 years to see a declining church turn around shouldn’t get involved. The whole project will take more time than 5 years, but there will be progress by then.
Trust is the most crucial, intangible quality a pastor needs to turn a declining church, and it takes time to gain that trust. Literally, the pastor will be asked to lay down his or her life for this church, one day at a time.
Lone rangers make poor turnaround church leaders. It is just too challenging to do this project alone. They will need to build around them other trusted leaders from outside the church who believe in them and what they are doing. These trusted leaders will listen as plans are processed, and they will talk pastors through the minefields in which they are working.
Pastors of turnaround churches must have a high view of Scripture to be effective turnaround leaders. Being able to regularly download encouragement from God’s Word is an important skill. Remember, Jesus is the One who said, “Strengthen what remains” which is exactly what leaders are attempting to do. Letting Him encourage them through His Word and giving them direction is very important.
Reading the biblical accounts of turnaround leaders like Nehemiah, Joshua, and Moses is not only inspiring; it’s life to the pastor.
Finally, successful turnaround churches have pastors who have created a confidence in their families and core leadership groups that the Holy Spirit is leading their endeavors.
Jesus called the Holy Spirit, “the Advocate” (John 16:7), and anyone leading a turnaround church needs an advocate for guidance. The Holy Spirit will be your life coach, guiding you through tense meetings and difficult financial decisions, and helping to develop a critical strategy to save this church.
Being a turnaround leader is rewarding, but much like a parent who waits years before being appreciated by his or her children, you will need to be willing to wait and endure to see the results you are working toward. There is no quick fix to seeing a declining church reverse direction, but it can happen.
Are you up for it? If you are, there are thousands of opportunities, as America is filled with declining churches. Which one will stay alive because you said yes to Jesus?
Donald E. Ross, D.Min., is lead pastor, Creekside Church, Seattle, Washington, and founder and coach of the Turnaround Church Coaching Network. This article can be found at: http://www.turnaroundchurch.org/articles/Leading%20A%20Turnaround%20Critical%20Considerations.pdf.