There are two ways to approach a new calling to a declining church. (1) Start slowly, build relationships, get the lay of the land, and then slowly effect changes. Ready, Aim, Fire. Or (2) Assess quickly, make changes, and then make adjustments. Ready, Fire, Aim.
The first method is the most common approach in ministry. It “feels” more gentle and ostensibly allows for trust-building and harmonious, incremental transitions. It is commonly considered the wiser choice.
The second method is rarely employed. It “feels” rash, harsh, and dogmatic. Instead of building relationships to try and lead change, it leverages the inevitable “honeymoon” period afforded newly called ministry leaders. It is commonly considered the brash, bold, and ill-advised choice.
The first method has the potential to work well for churches that have significant cash reserves, an ample cash flow, a unified mission and vision, have the time for a slow turnaround, and have a strong, self-differentiated leader.
The second method has the potential to work better for churches that have limited financial resources, a disparate mission and vision, strong personalities, limited time for a turnaround, and again, a strong, self-differentiated leader.
In the end, the first method rarely achieves the anticipated results in the church and the decline continues unabated. Relationships and harmony scuttle the turnaround for multiple reasons. First, whether it takes two months or two years, the changes necessary to effect a church turnaround are identical and conflict will arise regardless. Those who oppose any given change will respond as their nature dictates. But second, when change is introduced gradually, those who oppose the changes are better able to organize resistance, thus escalating conflict to a destructive level. In these cases, the average church leader inevitably capitulates or moves on.
The second method rarely achieves the anticipated results either, because churches that are candidates for this plan are often too-far-gone for turnaround. They lack the resources, and thus the necessary time, to pull themselves out from the sharp decline they were in prior to the arrival of the new leader. However, the majority of successful turnarounds in North America have successfully employed the second method. It tends to be successful for the same reasons the first method fails. Although the same changes must be made, the most visible changes are made on the front end of the turnaround. This nearly always creates considerable conflict; however, because the conflict is disorganized, it tends to dissipate more quickly with the inevitable exodus of a few key members and after a few months the slate of changes has become the new norm.
There are no guaranteed success methods for turning a church around. There are no painless methods for turning a church around. And there are no successful church turnarounds that have come about without serious conflict and the loss of key members. But in the end, the church leader who squanders the first six months to a year has not just postponed the inevitable, they have squandered the leveragability of their honeymoon period.