One of the most frustrating realities about a turnaround is that it takes more time to get ready for a successful turnaround than it does to grow a church. 

Let me explain.

There are Several Ways to Grow a Church

  1. Give me a big enough budget and I can fill your church I don’t care how many seats you have or how many worship services you need to max out. The power of marketing is still a tool to be reckoned with. Throw enough money at marketing tools, gimmicks, and come-ons and you can virtually guarantee standing room only. It will only last as long as the money lasts (unless you’ve got some pretty great follow-up and connections processes – which if you had those, you’d probably not need the big marketing budget because your church would already be growing).
  2. If you have the money, and don’t want to go with the marketing route, another way to grow a church is to launch a new church – but if you’re looking for quick growth, you’ll need a well-trained and well coached planter and a committed team. And you’ll still need a good sized budget to get everything in place (launch space, worship equipment, etc.) as well as funding for marketing (but not as much as the above). Of course, the best “marketing” will be sending forth the team into the community, building relationships, recruiting and mentoring and deploying new disciples, and building a core launch team. It’s not as “fast,” but you’ll likely end up with a viable and effective church.

But if you’re in an existing church and don’t have a large fortune to throw at mass media, then you’re probably going to have to settle for a turnaround. And a turnaround isn’t a quick fix. In fact, successful turnarounds take a significant investment of time and not an insignificant investment in resources.

There Are Few Successful Ways to Transform a Church

Growing a church that’s been in decline is a temporary “fix.” Getting more bodies into the pews is only good if you have a way to retain them in the church long enough to turn each person into a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus Christ.

There are lots of ways to grow a church, but only a few successful, sustainable ways to transform a church. And there are no quick fixes to transforming a church. If a congregation has a history of decline, as most US churches do, then many of those in that church believe in their heart-of-hearts that the way the church is doing ministry is the way it should be doing ministry. Decline is the only thing they’ve known and the state of the church “feels” normal. And God help you if you try and show them differently. Many of these members will never agree with what it takes to turn a church around, and some of them will actively try to undermine you in order to maintain the status quo. And that’s why a church turnaround is a long game. At best, it takes three to five years to lead a church to the point where it’s willing to do what it takes to reach new people for Jesus … and to get the hearts and the systems aligned for the transformation.

And so, below are the first two steps … the foundational steps … of church transformation.

The Longest Game: Discipleship

The first long game, and in fact the longest game, is to get your congregational leaders discipled. There are a number of proven and successful ways of doing this … discipleship groups are probably the most common. But to be honest, I’ve not seen as much success in small groups as I’d like to see. More often than not, they turn into fellowship groups or task groups [see Small Group Thinking for more].

Over the past decade I’ve seen a significant rise in the one-on-one mentoring model of discipleship. The mentoring process should include encouraging daily study and prayer (and not of a devotional like Guidepost or Our Daily Bread – it must be a substantial, heart-challenging daily study and prayer time …  I like the SOAP model, personally [see S.O.A.P. Bible Study for more]). It should also include some sort of a plan to move into deeper issues of discipleship as time passes. In reality, the curriculum isn’t as important as the time spent together – but spent together with a purpose.

One last note about discipleship: If you’re pastor isn’t willing to be discipled, then don’t expect your leaders to jump into discipleship either. It takes a measure of humility on the part of long-time church members to submit themselves to being in mentoring relationship. Every leader should have a Paul and every mentor should have a Timothy. That is, every Christian needs someone to mentor them and every Christian needs someone that they’re mentoring – and that includes to top leaders. They set the example – and if their example says, “I don’t need this” then others won’t “need” it either.

The Long Game: The Leadership Exchange

As go the leaders, so goes the church. A turnaround demands strong and united leadership, but most churches that are turnaround candidates have gotten into the mess they’re in because they lack unity in leadership – or if they have a unified leadership, it’s mobilized around maintaining the status quo.

Although the first step to a successful turnaround is always leading heart-change through discipleship, the more difficult step is effecting a leadership exchange. As Jim Collins suggested, it’s not enough to have the right people on the right bus … you need the right bus going to the right destination with the right people sitting in the right seats. And then you’ve got to have the guts to leave the bus station, even when that means leaving the undecided’s and the over my dead body’s protesting in the bus station.

To get the right people in the right seats on the Transformation Bus means that you’ll need to replace some of the current leadership. If you don’t do that, then your transformation attempts won’t just falter, they will fail altogether. And it’s no easy task uprooting people from their seats. Some have been in those seats for decades. Others feel entitled to their seats because of longevity or because they perceive they’ve “paid for” the seats by their giving. But remember, no one in the church is entitled to anything – it’s not their church and it’s not our church. It’s Jesus’ church and Jesus’ mission: to make more disciples … and anyone who is not intentionally making more disciples is not a disciple of Jesus.

There are two steps for a leadership exchange.

First, you have to identify the right people. This is not a quick task. There are some very nice people in every church who just that … they’re nice. And it seems too many church pastors think that it’s good to have nice people on their leadership teams. But most nice people have no business in any leadership position other than, perhaps, teaching. Turning a church around is not just hard work, it brings out the worst in many people. The fact is, nice people don’t have the stomach for doing what it takes to turn a church around. Nice people believe that everyone is a child of God who, if they just understood, would get on board of a nice bus going to a nice place. Nice people don’t take either John 1:12 or Matthew 10:34–38 seriously enough.

John 1:12
Matthew 10:34–38
Don’t be fooled: not everyone is a child of God – that’s a common misreading of the Bible. And no matter how you spin them, these are not the words of a “nice” Savior. Putting Jesus’ words into practice for the sake of the kingdom isn’t going to be nice work. As Matthew 18:15–17 and Titus 3:10–11 suggest, some people in the church may just have to go. 
Matthew 18:15–17
Titus 3:10–11
Nice people can’t abide the thought that for the sake of the church, those who don’t support the mission, the vision, the direction, and the values of the turnaround must be given a gentle (or not-so-gentle) ultimatum: Get on board or be left behind.

So, who is a good candidate for church turnaround leadership? When I teach Pastoral Leadership at Phillips Theological Seminary for their online program, we talk about building an effective church growth team and how to identify those who you can build with. Below is a bullet list of those qualities you should look for in a potential leader – and these are in order of importance:

  1. Spiritual Commitment. Are they faithful in attendance? Do they give sacrificially? Which list of Spiritual Fruits do they manifest (Galatians 5)? If you have any reservations in this area, then don’t consider them. Just don’t.
  2. Passion. You can train for almost anything, but if they don’t have passion for the mission, vision, values, and direction then you don’t want them on your team. Ever.
  3. Loyalty. Don’t even consider anyone for any position of leadership you don’t trust 100 percent.
  4. Teachability. If they have all the answers, don’t consider them. If they could have turned the church around with what they knew, then they would have done it before you got there.
  5. Chemistry. If you (and others) don’t enjoy being around them, then move on.
  6. Teamwork. Do they play well with others? AND if a decision is made, even if they were opposed, do they support it as if it was their idea? If they won’t play as a team member, you don’t want them on your team.
  7. Intuition. That is, your intuition. If something in your gut says “No,” then run. Fast.
[For more on this, see the article on Hiring Church Staff – the same principles apply.]

Second, presuming you’ve identified people you want in leadership, then the next step is to remove those who wished they were on a different bus, those who wish they had a different bus driver, and those who are committed to undermining your leadership (either intentionally or unintentionally).

There are a couple ways to effect a leadership exchange. The most important step is to get yourself embedded on the nominating committee. The pastor should always be involved in leadership selection – including having veto power over anyone being considered for leadership. As the pastor, you’ll have information about people that ought not be shared – but if Mr. Rossiano is having a secret affair and you’re aware of it, and if he’s nominated for a position, then you need to be able to veto his placement with no questions asked. Similarly, if the congregation’s leadership has approved the church’s DNA (the church’s mission, vision, values, and direction), then you’ll need to “veto” anyone who doesn’t fully support the DNA. Do not put a voice of dissent into any leadership position just so they can represent a different point-of-view or the minority. To successfully move a church through a true transformation, you must have unity (Paul pleads for unity in his letters to the churches in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians). Replace anyone and everyone who isn’t going to fully 100 percent without reservations support the direction of the turnaround.

There are additional ways to effect a leadership exchange. If you can lead the board/council/vestry/session to create and approve a leadership covenant, insisting that leaders follow the covenants can help you remove those who attempt to undermine the majority’s decisions. In extreme circumstances, you can actually turn to the New Testament and the apply the teachings of Jesus and Timothy to gently, but firmly, remove someone from the church who is actively or passive-aggressively undermining the congregation (Matthew 18:15–17 and Titus 3:10–11). In over thirty-five years of ministry, I’ve only had to do this twice … but the two churches involved were much better off when the antagonists were removed (and for the record, both of the members who were gently but firmly asked to leave ended up being much happier in another church where they could be an active blessing).

Here’s the reality of making a leadership exchange: It nearly always takes a minimum of three years to replace your existing leadership team with one you can work with in complete confidence. It’s a long game. But once you’ve exchanged your leadership and once you have a spiritual foundation to build on, then turnaround becomes possible. But without a leadership exchange and complete unity – and without a leadership team that’s committed to discipleship (and personally practicing disciple-making) – then church transformation is impossible. Not unlikely, impossible.