Several years ago, I visited a large church where the attendance had been plunging.
A key leader told me that the average Sunday morning attendance had once been 1300 but was now 650 … and yet the same pastor was still there.
The church had declined by 50% over the past few years.
Should that pastor have been allowed to stay … or should he have been let go when the church declined by 10% … or 20% … or 35%?
This makes me wonder: at what point should the pastor of a church that’s steadily shrinking be terminated?
This question makes two assumptions:
*that the pastor of a church is ultimately (not totally) responsible for its success or failure, and …
*that there is a point at which church leaders need to dismiss the pastor to preserve their church.
I confess that I don’t have a ready answer for this question … yet … but I plan on consulting with experts over the next few months to see if I can find a consensus.
In the meantime, let me offer a few observations on this topic:
First, many declines occur because a pastor is experiencing burnout.
When a pastor is stressed out, his body becomes unhealthy because he’s overwhelmed by all the demands upon him.
When a pastor is burned out, his emotions become unhealthy because his caring mechanisms are fried.
You can recover from being stressed out by renegotiating your job description … taking better care of your body … doing more things you enjoy … and taking time off.
You can recover from burnout only by taking extended time off … but even then, it’s usually delaying the inevitable.
One well-known pastor feared he was nearing burnout, so he took more than six months off. When he returned, he served for a short while and then retired.
Time off will cure distress, but it usually won’t cure burnout. As Dr. Archibald Hart says, burnout is often the beginning of the end of a ministry.
The burned-out pastor lacks internal motivation. He can only accomplish minimal tasks, like preaching … attending staff and board meetings … and keeping basic appointments.
He also can’t handle people’s problems like he once did. They deplete him of badly needed energy. It’s not that he doesn’t care … he does. It’s that he’s cared about people’s problems so long that they’ve worn him down … a condition Dr. Hart terms “compassion fatigue.”
But here’s the killer: the burned out pastor doesn’t want to see people. He just wants to hide from them. He can’t greet people on Sunday … can’t relate effectively to church leaders anymore … and becomes unpredictable.
And if people don’t feel their pastor cares about them anymore, some may stop attending.
For a church to grow, the pastor needs to be in top shape spiritually, physically, and emotionally. And when he’s emotionally drained, he’ll need months off to recover … and even then, there’s no guarantee that he’ll return healed.
Here’s the tipoff: if a pastor once led the church to growth … but that same church is now in steep decline … he may be burned out without knowing it.
There’s only one way to tell: the pastor has to visit a Christian counselor … take some assessments … and receive a diagnosis from that counselor.
I don’t think that Christians should condemn pastors who have experienced burnout. Sometimes the cause of the burnout is inside that pastor … but other times, it’s found in the way the church functions. Because the pastor burned out trying to serve the Lord, I believe that the church should pick up the tab for his counseling and treat him with dignity and respect.
And if church leaders decide they can’t wait for the pastor to recover, they should let him take some time to look for a new job … and offer him a generous severance package.
But too many pastors fear that if they are diagnosed with burnout, they will be terminated immediately … so they stay in hopes they will recover … which ensures that the church will continue to decline numerically.
Second, many declines occur because the pastor has to control everything.
I recently attended a church where the pastor announced that there was going to be a barbecue … and that he was going to be cooking the hamburgers.
That might be okay in a church of 25 that’s full of invalids, but this is a church of several thousand.
That pastor may be trying to send the message, “Since my whole ministry is about service, I am not above getting greasy for my congregation.”
But he may also be sending this message: “I’m the only person around here who really knows how to cook good hamburgers.”
I believe that a pastor needs to be “in touch” with every ministry in the church. He needs to know what’s going on with the children’s ministry … the young couples … the seniors … and the music. In fact, people expect this.
But many pastors end up sending this message instead: “I know how to do everything at this church, and I can do things better than anyone else. In fact, if I could just clone myself many times over, this church would grow into the stratosphere.”
Control freak pastors can usually grow a church up to a certain point, and then things start to go south.
The pastor doesn’t trust others … and they can sense it. He doesn’t believe others are competent … and they feel rejected.
And when the church begins to decline, the pastor doubles down and tries to control things even more … leading to further decline.
Can control freak pastors change? Maybe … but they have to unlearn some habits first … and learn how to turn over responsibility to others … even if those others aren’t as gifted as their pastor.
And if a pastor doesn’t see the problem … or refuses to change … church leaders need to request his resignation and find somebody who will trust the congregation.
Third, many declines occur because the pastor has no plan to turn things around.
Nearly a year ago, I attended BridgeBuilder training with Dr. Peter Steinke in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I can still hear Dr. Steinke sharing some case studies with the dozen of us in attendance. He said that many times when he consults with a church in conflict, he keeps asking the same question:
“What’s the plan?”
The pastor has to know the plan … and communicate that plan to the board, staff, and congregation … or the church may start to drift and fall into decline.
If a pastor’s primary gifting is shepherding, he’ll usually find himself in a small church … and be very content.
If a pastor’s primary gifting is teaching, he’ll usually find himself in a medium to large church setting.
If a pastor’s primary gifting is leadership, he’ll usually find himself in a large church or a megachurch.
Some pastors who are great teachers and shepherds can only take a church so far. They may have learned some leadership skills, but God never gave them leadership gifts. They may need to step aside so that someone with leadership gifts can take the church to the next level.
However, there are many ways to create a plan for growth:
*the pastor can attend a turnaround conference (preferably with key staff and church leaders)
*the pastor/board can hire a church consultant
*the pastor can solicit ideas from the congregation and key leaders and create a plan that starts from the bottom up
*the pastor can lead the charge to add an additional worship service
*the pastor can find a coach/mentor who will help him improve his skills and boldness
But without a plan … that everybody knows … the church will continue to drift and decline.
And if a pastor can’t … or won’t … create that plan … I believe he needs to go.
Finally, many declines are not the pastor’s fault … but he may need to leave anyway.
Back in the late 1990s, I pastored a church in Silicon Valley. It was a very exciting, cutting edge church, and in many ways, we were ahead of our time technologically.
But on Mother’s Day in 1997, the owner of the building we were renting told us that he wasn’t going to let us renew our lease. (This was around the time of the dotcom boom and he could make more money renting to someone other than a church.)
The only building we could find to rent was the cafeteria at Homestead High School in Cupertino (where Steve Jobs from Apple went) … five miles from our previous building.
When we made the move, we lost 1/3 of our people … those who lived in the opposite direction from our previous meeting place … overnight.
That was the end for me.
Nobody asked me to leave. I just knew it was time. It took us several years to find and assimilate those people that left … and it would take us several more years to regain the same amount of people.
And I lacked the drive and energy to do that.
The best chance the church had to grow again was for me to leave … and for the church to call a pastor with fresh energy and vision.
I once attended a conference at a very visible megachurch. Their attendance had declined by 2,000 per Sunday one year, and they took some steps to turn things around … with the same pastor at the helm.
And since he’s an incredibly gifted leader, they did turn things around.
But I remember having lunch with another megachurch pastor a few years ago. He told me that when the attendance begins to decline at a church, that pastor needs to leave because the same person who presides over the decline usually can’t turn things around … so he negotiated a separation agreement and resigned.
Two questions for you:
First, how often can a pastor who presides over an attendance decline stay and turn things around?
Second, what’s the magic number (if any) for dismissal: 10% decline … 20% … 50% … or what?
Several months later, I consulted with some top Christian leaders and received their views on this topic. Here’s that article: