Mergers and Turnarounds Pt. 2

Which is the better strategy: attempting deep change within a struggling church or investing in a church plant endeavor? Many conversations have taken place over this question. Many cups at Starbucks have been consumed over deliberations regarding the scenarios that describe most churches that are in great need of a turnaround. The answer is usually "Let's just start fresh." "We'll never turn this baby around; there is just too much baggage." "You wouldn't believe the people at this church." "It's too much work and there's too little hope."

I'm a church planting enthusiast, but I believe we often quit too soon in our attempts to revive and turn around a church in decline. When I listen to church planter after church planter talk about how desperate they are for property and facilities, my heart is fired up to help churches turn things around and become who and what they want to be.

I understand how difficult it is to accomplish a turnaround. There are some churches that are so far gone they should be "put down." They need to close the doors, sell the property and quit giving The Church a bad name. But I strongly believe that God's heart is in the revival of many, perhaps thousands, of His churches across the country. I'm an optimist for the church and full of hope. I believe far more can successfully turn the ship around than those who cannot.

This article is written with the goal of helping churches accomplish a turnaround. While the outline is simple, I acknowledge that actually doing it is not. This is not a sure formula. It's a solid guideline. If you add large amounts of prayer and passion to this plan, your potential to turn your church around is high.

1. Convince the core leaders of the crisis.

It all begins here. If your leaders don't believe that the church will die without change, you will not turn it around. This assumes of course that they care if it dies, but given the benefit of the doubt, the leaders generally really do care about their church.

This is a tough task. It's like sitting in a doctor's office hearing that you have a serious heart disease. You just don't believe it. When the doctor tells you that if you don't change your diet and exercise that you'll die, you think he's crazy. After all, you feel fine. Most churchgoers "feel" fine. They have their friends, good sermons, and a spot in the pews. So, what's the problem?

I consulted with a church in North Carolina with this exact profile. It was a tall-steeple, downtown, mainline church. It had about 70-80 people, mostly seniors, in a large building that was paid for, a good pastor and sufficient monies. When I stood before them and told them their church doors would be closed in less than ten years if they didn't change, you would have thought I just told them that the Detroit Tigers were going to win the World Series. They just didn't believe it.

They must believe the church will die if changes are not made. This is extremely difficult for larger churches. They just can't hear the death cry. There is truth to the belief that the larger churches can last a long time, even decades, but there are two kinds of death. One is formal, with a burial; the doors are closed and it's over. But the other kind is more dangerous. It's when a church is dead in spirit, though they continue to "do church" every Sunday. What's that look like? Few visitors and those who do attend don't stay. Few to no new converts. Little emphasis on prayer. Lack of relevance to the community and people who are lukewarm about their own faith. You get the idea. This kind of church is dangerous because of the inaccurate message it communicates about Christianity.

2. Identify the reason(s) for the crisis.

The second step is to clearly identify the specific reason or reasons for the crisis. In all likelihood, you have touched on this already in the presentation of the crisis. But that wasn't the time to focus on the depth of the specific issues and most importantly, why it's a problem. Now it's time.

I've listed several of the more common reasons, but this certainly is not a comprehensive set. These seven common reasons will help you get started. Like Jim Collins says in Good to Great, you must face the brutal facts. What are yours?

* The church is not accepting of new people.
* The church does not demonstrate a dependency upon God.
* The church is not committed to discipling people for true spiritual transformation.
* The church is stuck in tradition, bureaucracy, committees, and red tape.
* The church doesn't demonstrate a heart for lost people.
* The church does not confront sin by speaking the truth in love.
* The church does not have a pastor who is willing and able to lead.

I want to take a moment on the last one. The issue of leadership is huge because whatever the reason for the problem in the church, the pastor is always part. He or she is always part of the problem and part of the solution. What we hope for is that the pastor is more connected to the solution!

If you are the pastor and you know that you are part of the problem, that is you know that you are not a great leader, stand up and say so. Tell your core people that you aren't a great leader. (They already know anyway, so why not acknowledge it?) They will trust and respect you more. Tell them it's a new day and you are digging in to become a better leader. Tell them that you love them and believe in them, and let them know that together you can turn the ship around.

3. Communicate the new dream and vision.

This part is exciting. You now begin to breathe hope and life into the church. Do the following things with your leaders first and then the larger body of members: share your dream; paint a picture of your vision; be clear and crisp; and describe what the church will look like as it is reshaped. You must first be clear and passionate within yourself before you can share it in a compelling way.

4. Gather a core of leaders who are committed to the turnaround process.

Now that the broader scope of leaders in the church has bought into the problem and the solution, it's now time to select a team to lead the process. Choose the best and strongest spiritual leaders you have to lead the charge. This includes any paid staff that you have. If the paid staff isn't committed to the turnaround, get new staff. I know that is neither easy nor fast, but you can't pull this off with lukewarm, let alone problematic staff.

5. Think through what must change.

Don't get lost in the details. Stay focused on the big picture. In step two, you identify the reasons for crisis. But you haven't led deeply enough into the emotional part of the process yet. What I mean is that it's one thing for the people to acknowledge the problem, it's quite another for them to agree to a specific change. Keep the list short. Be tough in the decision-making process, but focus your effort and energy on the few things that must change. You don't have the time or resources to chase things that don't matter. Too many churches get lost in surface issues rather than those that will make a difference. One church got lost on a rabbit trail about the sign out in front of the church, saying: "If we'll just build a proper sign, people will come in." The leaders got lost in the "new sign committee" and the church never got beyond that meaningless issue.

6. Honor the history and lift up what is not going to be changed.

Don't miss this. Celebrate the heritage of the church. Lift up past leaders and honor all that was and is good. Highlight the things (ministries, values, traditions, etc.) of substance that will not be changed. It's important not to allow the people to think or believe that everything is changing. That is never the truth, and if you hear that, it's a sure sign that the turnaround is not being led well and the people are not buying into the process.

7. Help them separate the difference between core values and current methodologies.

Far too often, churches combine core values and current ministry methods/practices to the point where it all becomes one blurred idea. For example, worship is a core value and the selection of hymnal (or choruses) is current methodology. But a church may associate a certain hymnal and type of worship within the core value, thinking that if you change your style of worship, you have violated a biblical value. Help people to understand this difference so that while never violating the core biblical values you have the freedom to do different and relevant kinds of ministry.

8. Offer hope and encouragement.

You can't overdose on this last point. A leader delivers generous amounts of hope and encouragement. This is not likely to be a fast or easy process. Dig in for a long-term effort. While there is no formula, the initial phases can easily take 18 months, with the first signs of success not becoming obvious for 36 months. Take heart. It has been done. Why not add your church to the list of successful turnarounds? This article carries personal heart and passion. It's my prayer that God will use it to encourage and guide struggling churches to a new day of fruitful New Testament Great Commission ministry. I'm asking God to bless thousands of churches in turnaround efforts. Perhaps yours will be one of them.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.