turnaround optimism

Turnaround church leadership casts gloomy pessimism over many a pundit’s outlook. Some focus, needlessly, on the risks, the grim statistics, and the likelihood of failure. Who wouldn’t think twice about tackling a church turnaround when someone asserts that 70% of turnaround efforts fail? (It’s almost enough to make one question the unspoken belief that Jesus wants, above all things, for his servants to be happy while they gambol along the path of ease!)

Perhaps this is why our optimism about church turnaround surprises others. We are convinced that pessimism – as a basic predisposition when considering turnaround church leadership – is unwarranted.

Yes, pastoral ministry is difficult. Everyone who enters the position will suffer by degrees. Most will be hurt – often deeply – by those we loved and trusted. We will encounter resistance, some may be principled and reasoned but most will be irrational or self-serving.

I don’t minimize that fact; rather, when I encounter a colleague moaning about the hardship, I ask, “This is what you signed up for. Didn’t you think to read the Bible’s warnings about ministry hardship before you answered the call? You’re making things harder on yourself by trying to avoid hardship rather than embracing it.”

Reasons for optimism about turnaround

Still, if we push through hardship, insult and injury there are many reasons why every pastor should be optimistic about church turnaround.

1: We find examples of successful turnaround leadership in the Bible

Many pastors who embark on turnaround leadership will find their right to lead under fire from their opponents. The apostle Paul found himself under fire by opponents in the Corinthian church that resisted his leadership. It was a church that held little regard for God’s appointed leader (2 Corinthians 10:10). But after Paul confronted the opposition, the church repented and once again embraced his leadership (2 Corinthians 7:10-16). This was a major reversal (a choice term for “turnaround”) that led to renewed fidelity and readiness to follow.

So there is good reason for optimism that even vocal opponents can be won over – it may require confrontation! – so you can continue to lead the congregation.

2: The Bible is filled with instructions for turnaround leadership

The letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation are filled with leadership instructions. The pastors (“messengers”) of these congregations were given specific instructions on how to handle the deficits that hampered the ministry. Jesus was not content to allow these pastors to simply “care” for these churches; he insisted that they regain control, remove the impediments, and set them back on the path to effective ministry.

Our upcoming book, Pastor Unique: Becoming a Turnaround Leader, delves deeply into the question of firm pastoral leadership and applies the biblical doctrine to two of the most nettlesome problems pastors face – change management and conflict resolution. We also offer additional guidelines on how various biblical texts should be applied to the challenge of turnaround church leadership

3: All pastors are turnaround leaders

Contrary to what I imagined when I graduated from seminary, sermon preparation and preaching are not a pastor’s first responsibilities. Every pastor is, by virtue of the call, a change agent.

Ephesians 4:11-6 illuminates a number of areas in which a pastor must precipitate change in the church and its members:

  • They are to change from being untrained to trained (12)
  • They are to change from watching ministry to doing ministry (12)
  • They are to change from focus on self-edification to congregational edification (12)
  • They are to change from lesser to greater degrees of unity (13)
  • They are to change from lesser to greater exercises of faith (13)
  • They are to change from lesser to greater mastery of knowledge (13)
  • They are to change from immaturity to maturity (13)
  • They are to change into greater stature in Christ (13)
  • They are to change from being naive children to anchored believers (14)
  • They are to change from being susceptible to unloving squabbles over doctrine to truthful and loving conversations (14, 15)
  • They are to change from seeing themselves as individuals to seeing themselves as a body (16)

I am convinced that you cannot occupy the office of “pastor” without at the same time seeing yourself as an agent of change. It is part and parcel of the office.

4: God’s grace is sufficient for every turnaround challenge

I’ve already embraced the fact that personal suffering is woven into the pastor’s office. Paul reflects the experience of all who engage in the service of spiritual leadership. Your experience may vary by degree but not in kind:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Corinthians‬ ‭4:7-12 (ESV)

And yet, what is Paul’s response to all of this? He leans into his own weakness, sorrow and source of suffering because it is there that he finds God’s provision. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9, cf. Philippians 4:13).”

Rather than bemoaning the hardship we encounter when we would lead an unwilling congregation, we turn to the Lord for his sufficiency. That is a fabulous reason for optimism!

5: We have a clearer understanding of effective turnaround leadership

An emerging body of research, which is largely confined doctoral studies at this point, is offering a more refined understanding of how pastors can effectively lead church turnarounds. This refreshing new perspective supplements the current work in church growth literature, which tends to focus on what effective turnaround leaders do.

It seems that the how is more important than the what! This emerging research, which will certainly be refined in the future, indicates the following leadership behaviors are required for effective turnaround leadership:

  • Understanding and managing one’s emotions
  • Discerning what others feel and managing them appropriately
  • Clear, direct and unmistakable verbal leadership
  • Slow, thoughtful and collaborative decision-making
  • Capitalize on unexpected opportunities by shifting focus, changing work habits and revising plans quickly, when it is appropriate (and the ability to recognize when that is!)
  • Independent thinking about new ways of solving old problems

This list is more of an appetizer, it’s not the full board of fare being offered by current research. But these provocative insights do indicate that how a pastor leads is at least as important as – if not more so – that where he leads!

Three more reasons for optimism

There are many more reasons why we should be optimistic about turnaround leadership. I will simply cite three more here.

  1. The causes of church failure (plateau, decline and closure) are well-known.
  2. We have innumerable examples of pastors and churches that succeeded in reversing decline or moving off the plateau.
  3. There are practical, proven guides to leading turnaround churches that have been developed at great personal sacrifice and hard work.


Yes, times are tough for the Church in America. Today we minister on a hostile cultural frontier but many a church wishes to operate as a museum to a way of life that is dead and gone. The task pastors face is daunting. It is hard. And leading turnaround is the hardest thing a pastor can do.

But these are not reasons for pessimism and despair. Jesus is still Head of the Church. The Holy Spirit and the Word of God are still readily available to God’s people. We continue to believe that Gary McIntosh’s book, There’s Hope For Your Church is aptly named.

Are stuck trying to turn your church around?

If you’ve tried everything you can think of (attending church conferences, working advanced degree programs, reading every self-help-church-leadership-church-growth book you can find) but nothing’s worked, you’ve come to the right place.

At Turnaround Pastors, Inc., we specialize in one thing: training pastors who are not naturally gifted with the right skills to become effective turnaround leaders. Our unique mash up of reading, immersion training, cluster groups and ministry mentors will set you on the path to becoming an effective turnaround leader.

Don’t wait any longer. CONTACT us today. Let us show you a better way.



  1. This link is to a review article. Page 2 of the review lists the most common factors for churches that fail. See also Thom Rainer, “Four Simple Reasons Most Churches Aren’t Breakout Churches. ↩︎