For the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would try to turn a church around. I did and I’m glad I did. Still, when I consider that the vast majority of pastors who try either fail or lose their job, I have to wonder why they would try… or why I tried. I guess we all have a loose screw… or maybe, just maybe, God calls us to not give up on a church, even when they don’t want our help. And believe me, most members don’t want help no matter how bad the situation. So if you’re one of those folks with a loose screw like me and you want to take a stab at revitalization, read on.

Make Sure It’s a God Thing

Before you attempt turnaround, let me repeat – the vast majority of pastors who try it fail or lose their job for a variety of reasons. To name a few: people don’t like any kind of change; the pastor isn’t totally committed; the pastor takes the wrong steps; the pastor doesn’t handle conflict well; or the pastor blinks when the bullies try to derail the turnaround. Any one of these five issues would be reason enough for a turnaround to fail. So make sure it’s not about you, but about what God wants you to do.

So before you begin the turnaround, consider the following:

  • Are you willing to deal with conflict head on?
  • Are you prepared to lose some friends? (If you turn a church around, you will.)
  • Are you willing to stay ten years? (That’s how long it takes.)

In 25 years of consulting I’ve never seen a church turn around without losing some members.

Sounds sinister, doesn’t it? But let me assure you: if you pull it off, nothing compares to the fulfillment you’ll experience when you turn a dying church around. So let’s take a look at how turnaround normally happens. And by the way, I’ll be speaking on giving life to stuck churches at Renovate this November.

Step One: Cast a God-Sized Vision.

People need something to believe that is stronger than what they are experiencing at the moment. I remember my first Sunday of turnaround. There were 37 people in worship, and I cast a vision of a church of thousands of people who would change the face of San Antonio. I could see the disbelief in their eyes. I spent the next twenty minutes painting that vision for them by using Acts 1:8, which I called the “ever-widening circle.” By the end of the service I could tell the vision had captivated some of them.

Step Two: Gather Your Allies and Apprentice Them

At the end of that first sermon, I issued an invitation. I asked anyone who had resonated with God’s vision to join me tonight at the parsonage to talk about. Twelve people showed up, and we were on our way.

Right away I began apprenticing those who showed up. We met every Friday for 8-9 months, studied the book of Acts, and prayed for each other. This formed a bond that would help us survive the coming conflict. They became my support as well as a wedge between me and the bullies. Please don’t attempt turnaround alone. If you can’t find a healthy remnant in the church, get out of Dodge.

So what is your vision? Craft it and start living it before you start the turnaround.

Step Three: Define the Reality

People tend to change in direct proportion to their discontent. So fan their discontent by showing them how bad it really is. Most denominational officials will tell you to spend the first few months getting to know the people and nothing else. Bull. That is the worse advice a turnaround pastor could be given. The longer you wait the less chance there is of turnaround.

In my consulting ministry, I’ve found there are three types of churches, and each one requires a different turnaround strategy. There are dead churches, almost dead churches, and churches in need of a tune-up. Deciding where your church falls on this continuum is one of the keys to bringing new life to your church. Let me explain.

If a church is dead, you can’t revitalize it. Can you revitalize a corpse? I don’t think so. I wrote a book a few years ago titled The Second Resurrection, in which I said that revitalization isn’t the answer to what ails many churches in the U.S. Instead the hope for many churches in the U.S. is resurrection. By that I mean they are so dead that it will take a totally new direction and set of leaders to bring about new life.

A church that is almost dead is harder to turn around because the decline has been slow and steady. Like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, most people know the church is smaller but they have no idea that it is on its way out in a few years.

A church that is in need of fine-tuning is a piece of cake with the right pastor at the helm. Usually either the introduction of a new form or worship or the tweaking of the present worship will jump-start the process.

Step Four: Reach Out to the Unchurched of the Area

Never underestimate the power of twelve committed laypeople. Those twelve that met in my home that first Sunday knocked on 2000 doors over the next eight or nine months. Our goal was to create visibility for the church and to discover what a key need was in the area. We accomplished both. People in the area now knew who we were, and we found the key to unlocking the area – one out of every six people we interviewed needed quality weekday childcare. We borrowed money to start the preschool and had over one-half of the members left the church the next month. But twenty-four years later, nine hundred kids populated our weekday childcare system every day.

  • Every city has a key that unlocks a way into its community. Find it and harvest it, and turnaround begins.
  • Turnaround takes 70-80 percent of the pastor’s time visiting in the community and strategizing how to reach the community.

Step Five: Initiate Change

Introducing change is dependent on the type of church. The goal in any turnaround is to unfreeze and destabilize the underlying systems long enough to cause change.

In a totally dead church, everything they have been doing needs to be totally stopped because it obviously isn’t working. Totally new systems need to be put in place, including a new form of worship. Incremental change will not work in a dead church.

All the leadership needs to be changed, including the pastor. Now take a deep breath. There are two ways to change pastors – figuratively and literally. One pastor I consulted with had been at a church for over 20 years. He watched it decline all that time, but he had an Aldersgate experience, and the church grew like a weed for the next 10 years.

In an almost dead church, change must be incremental so that you don’t lose your church. You begin with a few key leaders who understand the problem. Spend time with them, helping them to see both the problems and the solutions. Then prepare them for the inevitable conflict. Use graphs and charts to show how the church has declined over the past decade, and what will happen if it continues. When you are ready to institute change, destabilize the systems and make change before the bullies can respond.

In a church that is in need of fine-tuning, the fastest route to turnaround is a totally new worship service designed to reach the “nones” and “dones,” accompanied by a strong marketing program and faith sharing training for the members.

When Should I Start?

Every study I’ve seen on the subject of when to start a turnaround says that the vast majority of turnarounds start in the first year of a pastor’s tenure. The longer a pastor waits in his or her tenure, the harder it will be to turn a church around. Authentic leaders will lose confidence in you while the bullies will think they have you under their finger. And put this tidbit on your fridge – if you succeed in starting turnaround, you can count on years three and four being filled with conflict unless you are blessed to be in a church that only needs fine-tuning.

How Did My Turnaround Go?

Twenty-four years after beginning my church turnaround, I left a church of over 2200 that had changed the face of San Antonio on the west side of town as well as the racial makeup of the city council. These steps worked for me and they will for you.

Question: Have you used these steps to turn your church around? Are you hoping to put them into practice? Share your experiences or questions in the Comments section below.