Years ago, I served a short stint as a church planting professor and ended up being a church revitalization pastor.
I was young, but still had a few years of church planting experience and was ready to dedicate my time to teaching others how to do the same. During my time there, however, I got a call from an established church, asking me to be their interim pastor. Not ready or able to dedicate myself to serving as their full pastor, and learning that their church was looking for someone to revitalize what had become a dying congregation, I stepped into a role as a transitional teaching pastor.
Essentially, I was walking alongside 35 (mainly senior adult) people helping them consider how to bring their church back to life. Their church used to have over 200 members, but it had dwindled down and they were open (and even ready) for change.
The bigger issue, however, was that their church had been declining for a long period of time, which meant that it could take an even longer period of time to bring it back to life. We had to really analyze what had been going on in the church, identify areas of potential change, and find ways to actively change the habits and routines of the church.
It quickly became the hardest job I’d ever had— harder than church planting, I think. In a humorous way, this made sense, of course: It’s always easier to birth something than to bring it back from the dead.
The reason that it was such a challenging job was because it required consistent and effective leadership. We had a good portion of the church people committed to being leaders, and we quickly formed smaller leadership groups that were assigned different tasks, all with the goal of revitalizing the church. The process of determining what we wanted the church to look like and how we would get there, of course, first required that we define leadership.
Leadership is a dynamic process
Robert Clinton wrote in a book on leadership saying that it is a constantly-changing, ever-evolving process. He says that leadership requires a man or woman to use their God-given capacities to influence a specific group of God’s people towards God’s purpose for the group.
Clinton’s definition is abundantly clear.
In the case of my church revitalization opportunity, our leadership experience constantly evolved based on the focus of the group on any given week. One week we may have focused on revamping our services, another week may have been dedicated to analyzing our mission work outside of the church.
Because the work we were doing was constantly evolving, our leadership evolved as well. Different people used different skills. All of this was done, of course, with the intention of revitalizing the church according to God’s will.
God’s will was the most important part of revitalization.
In Bible times, when people needed guidance from God, an apostle or prophet would be the one to deliver it. People heard from the Holy Spirit and came back, eagerly telling their people, “I’ve heard from him. This is what we’re going to do.” But, although we may not function and receive direction in the same way, I believe that receiving direction from the Holy Spirit still happens and should still be valued, but the act of receiving that word is often more collaborative today.
Today, it feels more like a process. It is not a one-and-done incident. Instead, understanding God’s will for a group is a more drawn-out experience, filled with active prayer and reflection that eventually leads towards discernment. And this is okay; this is all simply a part of the dynamic process of leadership.
Direction from the Lord
Once we decided which direction to take the church, we were able to revitalize it over the span of many months. We took steps together because we took the time to hear from the Lord together. One of the biggest keys to making sure the church was able to become strong again was the importance we placed on leadership within the church.
Leadership is about empowering people to take action together. 2 Timothy 2:2 comes to mind here: “These things you’ve heard from me in the presence of faithful men, teach others also to be able to teach others also.” It’s about empowering other.
So many leadership principles have remained the same for years, but whether planting a church, revitalizing a church, or simply serving those in your church community, I believe that empowering others in Christ will always be the biggest aspect of effective leadership within the church.
Ed Stetzerholds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.