Turning a church around is a messy and lonely responsibility. I know because I did it three times and each time the early years were depressing enough to damped even the strongest spirit. When you consider where the church is and where it needs to go, attempting a turn around appears to be an impossible task. And in some ways it is because 75 percent of pastors who attempt turnaround lose their job. That statistic alone is enough to dampen one’s spirit.
But here’s the good news. Even though it may appear impossible in the beginning, turning a church around is possible. After my third turnaround, I stayed on for twenty-four years. During that time the church went from a worship attendance of 19 to over 2200. I left the church in 1993 to begin a consulting ministry. For the last twenty-five years I’ve worked with many churches attempting a turnaround and learned a few things about what to do and what not to do. I will pass them off to you in the hope that your turnaround will be successful.
So before you attempt a turnaround please count the cost and make sure it’s something you just can’t live without doing. Ask yourself these questions.
- Can you handle conflict? It’s 99 percent inevitable that you will encounter moderate to severe conflict.
- Are you prepared to lose some friends? Don’t be naïve about this. You will lose some friends, I promise you.
- Are you willing to stay for ten years? Turning a church around takes at least ten years. Why? Because it takes that long to change a church’s culture. A church can be turned around in as short a time as one year, but the culture hasn’t changed. And if the culture isn’t changed, the moment you leave the church it will revert back to what it was.
So if you’re okay with the above, let’s proceed.
Three Things Happen In Every Successful Turnaround
We will look at the actual turnaround steps in a moment, but first we need to see the big picture. Every time I see a successful turnaround I see three things happen.
One, the church gets a new pastor! Don’t panic. There are two ways this can happen – literally or spiritually. My point is, either you are literally their new pastor or YOU NEED TO CHANGE. It’s that simple. You are the example, which means you either set the tone for the turnaround or for continued decline.
My favorite example is a Lutheran pastor who had been at the church for twenty-two years and watched the church decline to fewer than 400. Then one day he was reading one of my books and had an Epiphany. And guess what? His life was changed and he began doing ministry in a totally different way and over the next few years his church grew to over 900. But he had to change for the turnaround to begin.
Two, the key leadership must be changed or replaced! I warned you about conflict, well here it is.
Three, the congregation is radically changed by some bold tactical ministry move. The bigger the move, the bigger the change. Make as many changes the first year as you can make and survive. I know, most people tell you to spend the first year getting to know the people, but that’s bunk. Studies show that the groundwork for the majority turnarounds is laid the first year. And incremental change seldom works. Instead point out the elephant in the room and do something big and bold.
Most turnarounds required either a change in the worship style and format or the addition of a new worship service. Usually this change is from a traditional, 1950 style and format, to a worship style more indigenous to the present culture. Pastors who aren’t comfortable with this style of worship have two choices: one, do nothing and let the decline continue; or two, hire someone who is comfortable in that setting and let that person preach that service.
Steps to Turnaround
Now that we have the big picture in front of us let’s look at some of the actual steps in turnaround.
Step One: Realize It’s Not About You
Authentic turn around is a God thing; you’re just the tool. You can’t turn a church around, but God can with your help. So decide now to rely on God for guidance and strength. I know this might sound corny but it’s the only thing that got me through the darkest hours of turnaround. And it’s hard to avoid those dark moments when either your integrity is questioned or someone is out to get you fired. So realize that you’re never alone in this quest.
The other issue here is when you are challenged for some bold move, don’t take it personal. Remember, it’s never about you; it’s about the other person’s fear of change. Most people hate change and will do anything to avoid it – even allowing their church to die. So you have to be strong and, once you make a decision, never blink.
Step Two: Change the Way You Go About Ministry
I like to tell pastors “You are the curriculum.” People watch what you do and what you do says a lot about who you are and what you value and that translates into new disciples. The way you spend your time is one of the critical pieces of turnaround.
When coaching turnaround pastors I use the following formula: If your church is under 200 in worship, spend 80 percent of your time attempting to reach the unchurched; if 200-400 in worship, spend 60 percent of your time with unchurched people; if over 400, hire a person who is good with people to work full time doing those things that will lead to more new people. Of course the biggest obstacles here are:(1) the laity will feel as if you don’t care about them anymore; and (2) you may feel more comfortable with a shepherding role than with being a transformer. Pastors have to move out of a shepherding role into the role of a transformer to lead a turn around.
Step Three: Gather Your Allies
Keep in mind two things: you need allies to pull this off and not everyone is your ally. Remember, not everyone in your church wants you church to change enough to thrive.
Your goal here is to develop a cadre of spiritual leaders who understand the seriousness of the situation and are willing to assist and defend you and the turnaround no matter what. Turnaround begins not only with you changing but also with your top leadership changing. The more discipled your leaders are the more willing they will be to do their part in the turnaround. Our churches have far too many church members who love their church the way it is. What is needed for turnaround to happen is a growing group of people who see the need and are willing to pay the price. Turnaround is not for the faint of heart.
Summing Turnaround Up
My first Sunday morning, at my last turnaround, I preached from Acts 1:8 and laid out my vision for the future. At the end of the service I invited all nineteen of those present to join me that evening at my home to discuss the vision. That night twelve people showed up. It was a rag tag group but they agreed to meet with me every Friday night and pray and strategize about a strategy to make the vision a reality. We met for eight months. During that time we also gathered on Saturdays and knocked on over 2000 doors asking what they needed from the churches in the area that they weren’t getting. At the end of the eight months I had twelve people who not only saw the vision but also were willing to live into that vision. A year later we had over 250 people in worship and the turnaround began.
You can read more about the actual steps of the turnaround moves in my book, Unfreezing Moves: Following Jesus Into the Mission Field