As I consult with leaders from various churches, I often hear the following question asked:
Since our church has been shrinking numerically for a long time, what can we do to turn things around?
And there’s usually a corollary that goes along with it:
If we dismiss our pastor, will that single action turn around our church?
I explored this issue several months ago in this blog entry:
After I wrote the article, I kicked out the following question to my ministry mentor, who seems to know everybody worth knowing in the Christian community:
At what point should the pastor of a church that’s steadily shrinking voluntarily resign or be involuntarily terminated?
I received responses from six top Christian leaders. These men are consultants, professors, authors, conference speakers, and former denominational leaders.
Here’s a composite of what they wrote … and they copied each other for maximum interaction:
First, a declining church should invite a consultant/interventionist to do a full assessment.
One expert wrote, “After the assessment, the pathway forward should be clear.”
In one ministry, I invited one of these six men to do a day of workshops on a Saturday just a few months after I became pastor. We had 43 leaders attend that day, and we made many major decisions soon afterwards that positively impacted our church for years to come.
A consultant can be expensive, but if the pastor and church leaders are willing to consider what he has to say, the consultant can save the church hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars down the road. It’s usually misplaced pride that keeps a pastor … and a church … from consulting with a seasoned consultant.
Second, the pastor of a steadily declining church may need to consider leaving voluntarily.
Another expert wrote, “If a pastor comes to the point where he doesn’t know what else he can try that he hasn’t tried already, he should start working his networks for a move – thus giving someone else the chance at guiding the church forward.”
Someone else suggested, “I’ve known about several pastors who voluntarily left a church after an assessment. At that point, they knew they could not lead the church through the needed steps to produce a turnaround.”
Third, two factors are essential for a church to turn around.
Another expert observed, “Two things are necessary for a turnaround: a willing congregation and a skilled pastor (in most cases I’ve seen both elements lacking).”
The same expert than offered this crucial point: “If the assessment reveals that the congregation shares responsibility for the problem, then it is pointless to think about the pastor’s resignation. They’ll simply bring in another pastor who will eventually fail.”
Fourth, it takes enormous time and energy for a pastor to turn around a church.
One leader wrote, “If the pastor cannot provide the physical and emotional energy that will be needed to execute a turnaround plan, he should resign. This inability may be due to health challenges, family problems, or an unwillingness to make the 5 to 7 year commitment required to turn the church around.”
Let me add that by God’s grace, the Lord used me to turn around two churches, but I spent so much energy turning around the first church that I have no idea how I was able to turn around the second one. Years ago, I read where George Barna said that a pastor can realistically only turn around one church in his lifetime. I would agree with his assessment.
Fifth, many pastors lack the ability to turn around a church and might need to leave.
Someone noted, “If the pastor is ‘uncoachable’ (many of them are!), incapable of mastering the skills required to lead a successful turnaround, or unwilling to do his job then he should resign or be terminated…. If the pastor is hanging on because this is his last church and he’s padding his retirement, he should be cut loose sooner rather than later.”
Sixth, the pastor of a church that’s been in decline for years probably isn’t the person to turn the church around.
One expert commented, “My predecessor … says that if change hasn’t taken place in five years, change won’t happen.”
Another leader wrote, “The pastor who has been part of a declining church for an extended period, say more than five years, is not the one to lead it out of the death spiral. And the longer the stay, the less likelihood of success.”
Still another expert observed, “One of the problems is what’s called a coefficient of familiarity, i.e., the longer a leader leads any organization the less impactful his voice is.”
Echoing that last statement, someone else wrote, “In one church I pastored for 14 years, they no longer heard what I had to say. The church did turn around, but I could lead it no further.”
Finally, the pastor of church that’s been in decline a short while needs to have a clear vision for the church to turn around.
One commentator … a professor and author of a truckload of books on church matters … said, “One of the big questions is does the pastor have hope (vision) for the church’s future. After 10-12 years of unsuccessful effort, most pastors have lost hope and usually find they can’t restore hope even if they stay longer.”
I trust that these comments from noted church experts have provided insight to you.
What are your thoughts on the future of a pastor whose church is in steady decline?