Leading a church that needs a turnaround is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding callings a pastor can receive.
I’ve pastored three churches, all of which needed a turnaround, with varying degrees of success (more on that, below). From both my failures and successes, I’ve discovered some universal principals that every pastor would do well to consider before deciding to pastor a church that needs a turnaround.
These can also be helpful points to consider if you’re currently pastoring a church that is in a rut and needs a turnaround.
1. Is The Current Leadership Able To Change And/Or Step Down?
Sometimes the current church leaders are able to make the needed changes with a new pastor by doing what I call a Transition Without Relocation. But in many situations, current leaders need to leave. Often, it’s a little bit of both. Some stay, some leave.
How do we know if it’s time for some or all of the church leadership team to go or stay? Here’s the biggest indicator:
If leaders are talking about going back to the way they used to do things, or investing more heavily in current methods, that’s not change. If stubborn lay leaders aren’t willing to step down, the likelihood of the church turning around under a new pastor remains slim at best.
But if the current leaders are willing to put everything on the table (everything but the essentials, like the authority of scripture, and the divinity of Jesus, that is) the turnaround might be able to happen with current leadership under a new pastor.
2. Is The Congregation Open To Change?
You’ll never get everyone in total agreement, but if a large majority of congregation members aren’t willing to consider new ideas and methods, a turnaround won’t happen.
A stubborn membership is harder to overcome than a stubborn leadership team. Especially for a new pastor in a smaller church. After all, as hard as it is to replace the leadership, it’s harder – if not impossible – to change the congregation members.
If the church members who are open to change don’t overwhelmingly outnumber those who are change-resistant by at least two-to-one, a true turnaround will be virtually impossible.
3. Are You Willing And Able to Commit For The Long Haul?
Turnarounds always take longer than our projected timelines. And they almost never happen the way we expect. Here’s how they played out in the three churches I’ve pastored.
In my first pastorate, I was willing, but wasn’t able to stay for the long haul. After being there almost four years I was able to accurately assess the actual cost of committing myself to the turnaround. While the church leaders and members wanted to make needed changes, the task was so enormous that it was going to cost me more time, energy and emotion than my young, growing family could afford to lose from me.
In my second pastorate, I wasn’t willing or able to stay. In a very short period of time (less than 20 months) so many promises had been broken that my trust in the church and the leaders was irreparably shattered. And there weren’t enough willing change agents in the church to overcome those obstacles.
When I came to my current pastorate at Cornerstone, I was very willing and barely able. Plus, virtually every leader and congregation member was on board for the needed changes. Thankfully, that’s been more than enough. This month we will celebrate 25 years and counting at what has become an amazing, innovative, missional church.
4. Ask Hard Questions Up Front
Whenever a pastor asks my advice about how to go through the process of being interviewed at a prospective church, I always tell them the same thing.
You, as the prospective pastor, need to interview the church as much as they need to interview you.
It’s not a first date. You’re not there to put your best foot forward. You’re there to get an accurate, nuts-and-bolts, warts-and-all picture of the actual situation that the church is in.
The first task of leadership, after all, is to define reality.
When I interviewed at my current church I asked them what they had done to cause them to go through 5 pastors in 10 years. They were honest, open and took full responsibility for the part they played in it.
I knew I could work with people who offered real answers with no excuses.
5. Don't Be Naive About Too-Easy Agreement
So the church leaders, the church members, and the prospective pastor are willing to work towards a necessary turnaround.
Everyone is demonstrating an openness and enthusiasm for new ideas. They want to grow, they want to reach the community, they want to bring in more young people, and they’re willing to put in the prayer, money, passion and hard work that’s needed.
Or so they say.
How do you know if the cries of “yes, we want to change” are real or just lip-service? We all know about churches that say they’re in favor of a turnaround, then dig their heels in when change actually starts to take place.
Here’s my take. Be careful of people who agree too easily. It’s better if they have questions about how your ideas might play out than if they just keep nodding “yes” to everything.
If they match your hard questions with straightforward answers, then respond with smart, thoughtful questions of their own, and you still come to a basic agreement, that’s a mature, thoughtful church that you can probably work with.
6. Don’t Forget To Pray (For, About, And With Them)
Every idea in this post is subject to God’s call.
All the interviews, ideas, agreements, and promises in the world will mean nothing if God hasn’t called you to go there.
I know every church tradition has a different way of determining the call of God. But, however you determine it, never let the church’s enthusiasm, my ideas, or your desire to be a pastor take the place of God’s will.
Pray about this. A lot. Not just on your own, or with your spouse. Pray with the church. Especially as you get closer to decision time.
Not only does prayer connect us with the heart of God, but praying together connects us with each other, as well.
Whether you stay or move on, connecting with God and other believers through prayer for the church is always time well spent.
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