5 Practical Points in Leading a Turnaround Church

A church split, a failed leader, changing economics or an aging congregation, there are many reasons for a church to be struggling and in decline. In fact, of the approximately 350,000 churches in the U.S., far more are in need of a major turnaround than are healthy and growing.

It’s true that both church planting and the multi-site model are highly productive strategies to advance the local church, but we can’t ignore or dismiss the tens of thousands of struggling churches. There is always hope!

My friend Brad Powell led his church to a great turnaround and found so much passion for helping struggling churches that he wrote a book titled: Change Your Church For Good, The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping. (Thomas Nelson) I highly recommend it.

There are layers of complexity involved in any turnaround church scenario, but the core principles are always similar. The following practical points will help you lead your church back to the place you dream it could be.

1.    Think leadership. 

Most struggling churches think problems. Leaders think solutions. John Maxwell says: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It’s true. A church can be friendly, debt-free, and teach the Bible and still be going nowhere.

A leader brings purpose to the party. It’s great that the church gathers, but after a few hundred Sundays of “church” without a clear purpose the people find other things to do. Busy is no longer a virtue. Reaching people for Jesus has always been the central theme and mission of the church, anything other than that is largely just being busy doing church. It takes leadership to drive mission because the church naturally drifts toward comfort in fellowship rather than risk in reaching people.

The pastor and leaders need to be willing to make tough decisions or a turnaround will never happen. Most churches are just one tough call away from a breakthrough, and the leader usually knows what it is. It’s the willingness and courage to actually do it that makes the difference.

2.    Tell the truth.

You can’t solve a problem if you won’t admit there is a problem. Churches and their leaders work so hard to keep everyone happy and everything nice. The problem with that is that it’s not real. Get comfortable with problems because you will always have them. Good leaders solve them and thereby move the ball down the field. Essentially a leader makes progress, (toward the vision), solves problems and helps people.

It’s healthy to talk about a ministry area that is weak and in need of improvement. Maybe it’s the children’s ministry, or perhaps the usher’s team or the worship team.

That’s okay, as long as you do something about it. Perfection isn’t the goal, the point is to make progress. The conversations should not be negative or discouraging, just honest. Never allow meetings to turn into complaint sessions. Gather small groups of leaders who will be candid, positive and produce solutions. It can be done!

3.    Establish trust and hope.

It is not uncommon for a struggling church to have experienced some form of hurt or discouragement. This usually involves broken trust and thereby erodes hope.

Healing is needed to reestablish trust and this takes time. There are several ways this can happen, and often requires multiple efforts. For example, the pastor can teach a “Shepherding” sermon series through the Psalms. The pastor or board members can lead small group discussions for honest conversation to take place. And an outside consultant can be brought in to help bring the congregation through a difficult season.

If broken trust is not the issue, but the congregation is tired and has little hope, hope can be restored by quick wins and vision. Remind the congregation that the Church is God’s idea and He owns it! He wants it to work and gives the power of the Holy Spirit for that very purpose!

4.    Realize the power of quick wins. 

Effective church ministry is more like a marathon than a sprint. It’s a long road full of hills and turns. Small victories along the way are vital to finishing the race, and essential to begin the turnaround process.

One small church was discouraged and didn’t think they could do anything. Every wall in their worship auditorium was covered in dark wood paneling and several light bulbs were burnt out. It was depressing. The pastor inspired the congregation to raise about $800 for paint, supplies and light bulbs. They tore down the paneling and painted a fresh coat of white paint and it was like they were in heaven. They were fired up again!

Another pastor raised about $600 and started a food co-op in their town. Their church became outward focused and in one weekend they felt renewed and recharged. Both congregations began to believe they could turn things around. The small wins gave them tangible and practical hope for success in the future!

5.    Create spiritual intensity within your vision. 

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of churches, many of whom craft an intelligent, biblical and creative mission/vision statement. But for some reason it doesn’t seem to work. In many cases, one of the primary missing ingredients is spiritual vitality. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of spiritual intensity that carries with it a passion to make things happen and go the extra mile to reach one more person.

Prayer is at the core of spiritual intensity and evangelism is a close second. Together they will keep a church white hot for the vision. Intensity does not suggest weirdness. It’s not an ascetic sense of guilt driven sacrifice. It’s actually the opposite. Its origin comes from people who genuinely love God and are fired up about Kingdom work, so much so that joy and service are a natural by-product.

Vision requires strategy. If you are not sure where to start, focus on improving three areas. 1. Your worship service. 2. Your children’s ministry. 3. Your small groups ministry. And always undergird the ministry processes with leadership development.

For ideas on leadership development, visit my blog at danreiland.com.

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Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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