Recently, I wrote a post about starting a turnaround effort in a small church that’s been in decline for years (Ten Things to Do to Lead a Turnaround). I immediately got requests from church leaders of declining mid-sized and large churches: “What about us? What should we do?”
So, here is a list of things to do if you’re in a mid-sized or larger church with an extended history of decline. If you read the first list, you’ll note that a couple are exactly the same. I’ve marked these with a leading asterisk. The “new” items are about the same as the first list, but you’ll have to accomplish those tasks through the hands of your staff and your key leaders.
- Hand off everything you possibly can. Don’t do regular hospital visitation, shut-in visitation, member care, etc. Instead, you (or better, your staff) must build teams to handle virtually all the “pastoral care” responsibilities. Do no counseling. Free yourself from doing most funerals and weddings. No pastoral counseling at all. And keep administration to a minimum, as in, virtually none at all. There are very few things that only you can do … so only do those things and figure out how to hand off the rest.
- Stay out of the office as much as possible, which is to say, get out of your office. Instead, manage by walking around and touch base with any staff that’s hanging around in the building (and find out why they’re in the building … most of the time they should be out in the community just like you should be … see #5). The more you’re in your office, the less chance you have of turning your church around.
- Choose carefully which of your church leaders you spend your time with. Only invest in those who “get it” and sideline those who don’t. Invest most heavily in your staff and in your key lay leaders. Meet one-on-one with your key staff members every week. Meet one-on-one with your key lay church leaders once a month. Set ministry goals with all of them and hold them accountable to meeting those goals. Results count … ineffective efforts don’t. If leaders are consistently underachieving, remove them from staff or from leadership and replace them as necessary. (If the church has been in a long-term decline, you might as well count on removing some, most, or all of the staff. It may be unpleasant, but the truth is that they have been a part of the problem.)
- * 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 at least 50 percent of your time in the community networking with the unchurched and building relationships with key community influencers and leaders. Own the reality that you’re the face of the church in the community, so brand yourself well and represent your church well.
- The bigger the church, the more time you should spend crafting and practicing your sermon. However, keep this reality in mind if your church has a history of decline: Great preaching doesn’t grow churches (but bad preaching will kill a church). So make sure your sermon is on the “good” side and save “great” for when you’re preaching to 500+.
- Create and implement systems to ensure the four core processes are effective (The Four Core Processes). In most declining churches, expend most of your church’s energy and resources on Invite and Connect and a lot less energy on Disciple and Send. Most churches are in decline because they have gotten that backwards to the detriment of the two key growth processes.
- * 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.
- Empower your staff and your leaders. Define responsibilities. Define success. Clearly define your expectations. Then give them the resources and the authority to make decisions and do their jobs. If you don’t trust them, fire them. If you do trust them, give them lots of encouragement, stand by them, evaluate them, hold them accountable, and help them succeed beyond their wildest imaginations.
- * 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.
Here’s the bottom line: The larger the church, the more time you must spend leading and managing staff to turn the church around. On the other hand, don’t forget there are things you may never hand off, including being the primary vision bearer and being the primary model for evangelism and conspicuous discipleship practices. Lead by example. Period.