Church turnarounds are hard, but so rewarding.
When a church that was sick and dying goes through a revitalization that puts them back on the path of effective mission, it’s something we ought to celebrate and learn from.
And it can act as a huge encouragement to other churches that are struggling, because it’s evidence that they can turn around, too.
Because we love stories told in big, broad strokes, the turnarounds we usually hear about are the ones that went “from 30 to 3,000 in three years!” But it’s important to guard ourselves against the expectation that such spectacular stories are the usual way church turnarounds happen.
It Took You How Many Years To Get This Far?
When we normalize exceptional turnaround stories, we can unintentionally belittle and discourage those making consistent, steady progress. Most pastors will be at a church for 3, 4, 5 years or longer with few visible results to show for it, even though a healthy turnaround is actually happening.
That’s my story. Almost 25 years ago, I was called to help a church turn around from a decade of numerical, emotional, spiritual and missional decline.
There were about 30 very discouraged people when I arrived and, while I wasn’t expecting to go “from 30 to 3,000 in three years!” I did expect a lot more than we got. The church is situated on a busy street in a very populated area, after all. Onward and upward, right?
If you had told me that the church would still be under 100 and worshiping in the same small building after ten years of pastoring, I probably would not have taken the assignment.
And if you’d told me that we’d be under 200 and in the same building 25 years later (as in, today) I’d have been out the door so fast there’d be a Roadrunner cartoon trail of smoke behind me.
But here I am. In exactly that spot. And I’m so profoundly grateful to be here.
Fast Is Not Typical
We always hear about the fast, big turnarounds. Those are great, but they're not normal.
If your turnaround pace sounds more like my pace, that’s normal.
Keep at it.
Church turnarounds are called turnarounds for a reason. They’re more about the direction you’re heading than the speed you’re going.
Since slow and steady is normal, those who are doing it consistently should be recognized, resourced, encouraged, normalized and celebrated.
Slow and Steady Isn’t Just a Fable, It’s Real Life
There’s a meme making the rounds lately in which two people are digging in separate holes. The first digger finds a diamond about the size of his hand and walks off triumphantly. The second digger switches to the first digger’s hole, but when the picture backs out we see that the second digger, if he’d gone just a little further, would have uncovered a diamond that’s three times bigger than his entire body.
I get what the cartoonist is going for, but that’s not how life usually happens. If you’re digging for years and not finding anything … well ... some holes are empty and need to be abandoned.
A more accurate way of depicting real life might be something like this:
Two people are digging, finding occasional small diamonds, each dropping them in a bag as they go. One of them comes across a diamond the size of his hand, so he takes it, along with his bag of smaller diamonds, and walks off triumphantly to retirement. The other digger looks at the first digger’s hole, then at the bag of diamonds he’s uncovered so far. Knowing he’ll have to give that bag up if he goes to another dig, he stays and keeps faithfully digging.
That’s what happens when you stay in one church consistently. As long as forward progress is being made, keep at it. Those small diamonds add up over time. And you don’t get to take those gains with you when you leave.
The Rewards Of Longevity
It can be tempting to see the apparent sudden success of others and want to make a jump. And sometimes God does call us to move elsewhere. But if we’re leaving out of frustration for a slower-than-expected pace, or envy of someone else’s success, it’s not worth it.
When we leave, we have to start over again. Sure, it’s a clean slate. But we also lose the chance to build on the gains we made where we are.
As a pastor who’s about to celebrate 25 years at this church, I can tell you that staying is worth it. Not every time – we left our previous church after 20 hard months of digging with no progress. But if you’re heading in the right direction, even slowly, keep at it until you get a clear call to go elsewhere.
The diamonds you collect along the way really do add up. Our church is so exciting, so missional, so worshipful and loving, it’s a joy to behold – and a privilege to pastor. And we’ve got even greater plans for the future. Not just about numbers, but about impact.
When we are where we’re supposed to be, and we’re making progress, no matter how slowly, the rewards of longevity far outweigh the thrill of newness.
Copyright © 2017 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.