I’m sure you’ve heard the twin adages “Stop beating a dead horse” and “If you find yourself riding a dead horse, dismount.” But what if that “dead horse” is your local church? What if everything you’ve done as a church leader seems to have been for naught? What if you’ve taken your church’s pulse and discovered the only energy left has been reserved for the dying whisper “But what about us?” What are your options?
In our experience, if you’re the pastor of a dead-horse church … and God didn’t call you to be a pastor who specializes in comforting the dying and administering last rites … then you only have two viable choices. (1) Start a new church; or (2) Find a church that has some life. Although that may sound brutal, the chances of revitalizing a dead-horse church is between nil and none.
When Kris (my wife and ministry partner) and I were led to start a new church in the Seattle area our judicatory offered us the “opportunity” to try and revitalize a small, struggling congregation. Within a couple of months we reported that the denomination was wasting its money. The church had no life and no amount of sugar, smelling salts, or shock therapy was going to restart its heart. It was a dead-horse church. We were ready to walk away when someone asked, “Isn’t there something you can do? We’re people of hope, after all.”
Although we embrace the truth that hope is not a strategy, the Kingdom of God lives and dies by its hope. And though there is no hope for a dead-horse church, there may be a third option for a select few dead-horse churches. It’s more a miracle than anything else, but it’s a painful miracle.
The key difference between a revitalization and a resurrection is found in the words from Jesus Christ Superstar “To conquer death you only have to die.” Although people of faith can confidently say they’re not afraid of death, most of us are somewhere between uncomfortable and terrified when it comes to dying. When someone isn’t ready to die they’ll fight death with every ounce of strength until their dying breath. That goes double for a dead-horse church – if you’ve ever been kicked by one you know what we mean.
We’ve seen three successful death and resurrection scenarios.
The Church Restart
This was the option Kris and I embraced in Seattle. There was literally no one to build with, or even in-spite-of, at the dead-horse church. However, since in this case the judicatory held the purse strings, the judicatory financed the restart. We didn’t kick the existing congregation to the curb, but we did reschedule their worship service to 9 AM so we could launch the new church start at 11 (the best time for a new service according to our community demographics). We also created a new leadership structure for the relaunched church – and none of the dead-horse church members were a part of either the decision-making or implementation process. They went through the motions of being “church” for another nine months before the last member left the building for good.
There are a number of church restart paradigms, but the one we used is probably the most common.
The Church Acquisition
This is an increasingly popular model, especially in churches with an episcopacy polity. In this case, a dead-horse church is assimilated (yes, like the infamous Star Trek Borg) by a strong, healthy church. There are several models used in this process, but in general all the leaders of the dead-horse church are removed from office, the pastor is replaced, and members from the acquiring church are transplanted into the church. A new mission, vision, and values are infused and those who remain from the dead-horse church have the option to embrace the new or to hang on to the past without having a voice. Decisions are made and implemented from afar and the church experiences a resurrection via a multi-site model.
Perhaps the best illustration I’ve heard of this model was when the West Ohio United Methodist Conference brought together a dying small town church with Ginghamsburg UMC. All the officers and leaders of the small town church were removed from leadership, but early on in the process the board met and Mike Slaughter from G’burg was introduced by the former board chair with “I’d like to introduce Pastor Slaughter who will be leading us in this merger.” When Slaughter moved to the podium he responded to the board, “Make no mistake about it … this is not a merger. This is an acquisition.”
The Church Resurrection
This last model is almost so rare that it’s a bit difficult to offer as a legitimate option, but as someone said, “We’re people of hope.” On occasion, a dead-horse church will realize it’s dying. Sometimes they come to the conclusion on their own, but more often it’s because some “out of town expert” comes in, does a consultation of some sort, and then says the same thing the lead pastor has been saying for over three years. Perhaps it’s because they’re fresh eyes or because they use Excel to crunch numbers and PowerPoint to graph and project them better than the lead pastor, but whatever the reason the church leaders recognize the reality of their immanent demise and rather than fight it they decide to do something about it.
These rare churches have two options. Some of them realize that they’re too far gone and/or too set in their ways to believe in their own resurrection and so they decide to exercise a living will. They bequeath their assets – all of them – to a new church start. Their assets may go to their middle judicatory, to the larger denomination, to a church planting agency, or to a church planter directly. Once the arrangements are made these faithful members relinquish their claim and go their separate ways to another local church where they are adopted and given new life.
The second resurrection option is rarer still. In these cases, the members recognize their plight … that they’re a dying church; but here’s the key: they recognize it before they’ve depleted their resources. Together, with unity and consensus they agree that their only hope is to take Jesus’ admonishment to die to self seriously (Mt 16:24-25). They embrace the reality that they can’t resurrect themselves and that their role is to allow their own “death.” In almost every case the hand of the resurrection comes from new leadership, typically in the form of a new pastor. The effective resurrection pastor brings more than a bag of new tricks learned from seminary and a trip to Exponential, Soulerize, or Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. They come with knowledge, certainly, but they also come with a resumé of behaviors that include a track record of clear leadership, the ability to gather a crowd, multi-tasking without distraction from the main objective, and the ability to speak the language of the community culture.
But it takes more than a resurrection leader. It takes a resurrection body. Those who have died to self must be prepared and willing to arise from their deadness to new life beyond themselves. Their focus can never return to the cries of “What about us?” They stop looking for members that “look like them” and instead welcome and embrace those whomever comes. Indeed, they go beyond being the hospitality and welcome committee to make their way out into the community to meet and befriend their neighbors. They raise nary a word of complaint that they never sing their old favorites or that the organ hasn’t been uncovered for two years. Instead they tap their toes to a new beat, they’re honestly interested in the story behind the tattoos, and they hug the unhuggable. They take great joy in not being the leaders who make decisions but in being the followers, the mentors, and the servants of all. And as their church experiences a resurrection they learn the truth behind Jesus’ promise that “those who give up their own life shall live.”