I was recently asked what advice I’d give to a pastor getting ready to start a new transformation effort in a small church that’s been in decline for years. Here are the top 10 things I recommended.
- Hand off everything you possibly can. Hand off regular hospital visitation, shut-in visitation, member care, etc. Instead, build teams to handle virtually all the “pastoral care” responsibilities. And under no circumstances take up bulletin preparation or newsletter writing. Keep admin to a minimum, as in, virtually none at all.
- Don’t spend more than 1 hour writing your sermon and no more than 1 hour preparing for worship. If you are doing screen technology, add 1 more hour if you need to, but no more. Great preaching doesn’t grow small, declining churches (though bad preaching will kill a church, so if you’re not a good speaker, get thee to Toastmasters post-haste).
- No office hours. Period.
- Cancel as many church meetings as possible. Attend only the ones that are actually doing something constructive. Limit meetings to one hour. If your board is doing management, get them to quit. If your board meetings are filled with reports, stop reviewing them during the meeting. If your board meetings are pointless, either move them to quarterly or else don’t attend. Don’t waste your time. Likewise, cancel as many ministries as you possibly can. Choose one good ministry and make it great. But choose well. The one ministry should become the cornerstone of your church’s growth efforts.
- Spend 80 percent of your time in the community networking with the unchurched … but be sure the unchurched you choose to hang out with are representative of the target you’re trying to reach.
- Follow-up with all visitors and returning guests. Spend time getting them assimilated into the church.
- Choose carefully which of your church leaders you spend your time with. Invest in the leaders who “get it” and sideline those who don’t.
- Don’t look for consensus and don’t bother trying to get ideas from the congregation on what they “think” needs to happen or what they like or don’t like. If they could have fixed the problem, they would have before you got there. Remember Einstein’s axiom: “The minds who created the problem are not the minds who can solve the problem.” Be the church growth expert … and if you’re not, become one.
- Strive to meet at least 5 new people a week if you’re part time. And by “meet,” I mean meet someone new, have a conversation, and get their contact information for follow-up.
- Get a coach. Transformations are difficult, arduous, tricky, and will challenge your self-confidence. A good coach will encourage you, listen to your leanings and ideas and help you sort through the great ones and discard the dross, and will be there for you when the days seem dark.
well said and written Bill
These are the very things my coach is helping me to do. Thanks for the reinforcement!
This is very lacking in spirituality and looks like a business management Book. Only one hour of bible study, Sunday School teachers spend more time than this each week on their lessons. Very lacking in Godly Christ like pursuit?????
Sunday school teachers rarely have an advanced degree in biblical studies. One hour to prepare a sermon is not the same as one hour of Bible study. In our books, that are of course not blog length, we take great pains to speak of the need for spiritual depth and personal discipleship.
However, yes, this post is indeed more about the business of church. And there’s a pretty good reason for that. With more than 65% of all US churches in decline and another 20% plateaued but on the precipice of decline (no denominations or theologies are exempt, liberal to fundamentalist each stripe is in decline), the problem with the majority of these churches is that the clergy have been trained in a pastoral care model of church leadership that is literally loving churches to death. Indeed, there are many, many deeply spiritually centered pastors who are trying to lead churches from certain death, but they have been unable to turn the church around.
Most of our resources are for professional clergy who are faithfully seeking to lead their churches from the bondage of decline into the biblical model of the multiplication of disciples. And so yes, we do presume a spiritual center for those who access our materials. Because, in the end, Jesus didn’t say “Stay in your church buildings and study your Bibles about what a disciple looks like and then pray you can make disciples.” He said, “Go …” or literally “As you are going …” We expect those reading and using the resources we provide to Go and make disciples, and the only way that can be done is if those going are disciples themselves.
I hope you’ll read through some other materials we’ve written about radical disciple making, prayer, and other topics rather than judging our work based on a single blog post that was written for spiritually centered and focused professionals.
I am a “seasoned citizen” and laity, serving in a very small church. This may be my inexperience, but what I am feeling led to do is to, first, feed the sheep that are in the pasture. As they grow, they will also be more able to reach out and help make disciples. Am not following the lectionary in my preaching, but am seeking to listen and preach/lead as the Holy Spirit says. I am also reaching out and networking with the other three churches, and seeking to serve the community. This is a resort/tourist community, so learning the demographics midsummer is difficult..
The problem with spending more time feeding the sheep is that in most churches in decline, and in particular this one, the sheep are already so well-fed that they’ve become fat and lazy. They believe the pastor’s job is to feed them AND to grow the church, which of course in not biblical (Ephesians 4:11-12 and Acts 6). Most well-fed church members prefer to hang around with other Christians instead of being faithful to the great commission to get out of their comfort and safety zones and spend time with those who are unchurched and irreligious.
If a sheep has been in the church for more than a year and isn’t sharing their faith regularly, then the problem isn’t that they need more food. They don’t need more information. What they need is to get out of the church and into the community where the unchurched hang out. This is particularly true of those sheep who were raised in the church … ignorance isn’t their problem, faithfulness is.
As to the demographics issue, in a resort town, your target audience can’t be the tourists. They may visit, they may return and visit, but they will never be a member of the core. So getting demographics should be pretty easy. If you’re in a mainline denomination, it’s likely your conference/region/synod/presbytery has an agreement with either MissionInsite or Percept. If so, they can get you local demographics and psychographics at no cost to your local church. Typically, I’d tell them you want a polygon area, 12 minute drive from your church address. That should give you enough information to get you started in selecting a target audience.
I don’t think I can agree with the “just one ministry” thing. Just one ministry which the pastor is personally strongly involved in, OK. Just one for the whole church, certainly not, a church is not a monolith, that’s what a small Rescue Mission is, and not a large one.
The larger the church, the more ministries it must have. However, this post is about turning around a small church that has been in decline. A small church has finite … typically very finite resources. Spread them across even two ministries and you’ll have two mediocre ministries at best. Have the best children’s ministry in town. OR have the best worship in town. OR have the best daycare in town. (Don’t put your eggs in the best “youth group” basket – youth won’t grow the church because they don’t come attached at the hips with parents and few will remain in town after they graduate high school, so there’s no mass longevity.) Be known for excellence in one thing and, coupled with all the rest of the recommendations, a small church has a chance at turning around.
But let’s none of us forget, the chances of successfully turning a declining church around is less than 20 percent … and less than 15 percent if it’s a mainline church. Which means that most churches won’t have the will or the resources to turn around, so 85–90 percent of them will be one of the 150,000+ churches in the US that will be closing and disposing of their properties over the next decade.