It’s a stark fact most pastors wish they could avoid.
The person most responsible for leading a dying church into life and growth sits in the chair behind the desk in the office that says “Pastor” on the door.
The problem is that most pastors have no idea how to do it. The problem is compounded by the fact that Bible college and seminary programs fail because they overlook one critical component: the pastor’s relationship skills.
Thankfully, a growing body of evidence indicates that training focused on relationship skills helps pastors become effective turnaround leaders.
Pastor John’s Story
Grace Fellowship Church had been in decline for years before pastor John (a client of ours; not his real name) arrived on the scene. This congregation of mostly senior adults received him with glad anticipation. They earnestly hoped that better days lay ahead for Grace with John as their pastor. Surely he would lead them out of the malaise.
But beneath this hope lurked the unspoken and probably unknown expectation that the growth would be “comfortable.” The members simply assumed that any new people who joined the church would fit right in with a minimum of fuss. It never occurred to them that people would be different, adjustments would have to be made, and some discomfort was likely.
In time this unspoken expectation became a problem. How John responded to the problem made it worse.
For his first seven years not much happened. John tried the standard remedies. He followed what passes for current wisdom about how to revitalize Grace. He read the books. He attended all the right conferences. He followed the manuals.
Over those seven years John tried everything he could think of to steer Grace away from the rocky shoals ahead.
Sad to say that John, like the vast majority of pastors who struggle heroically to turn churches around, failed. Nothing worked. This really shouldn’t be surprising, but it often is. The current wisdom about how to restore health and growth to a church rests on an unexamined assumption: if I do it the way that widely known and respected pastor did it in his church, surely I’ll see the same results here.
It rarely, if ever, works out that way. The reasons why this is so are well-known, but desperate pastors will try anything - especially when they don’t realize there’s a better alternative.
Things started to change when John attended a Turnaround Pastor Boot Camp and enrolled in a year of one-on-one mentorship. The Boot Camp introduced him to the basic leadership skills and strategy to revitalize Grace. The mentoring program helped him learn to use the skills he’d learned at the Boot Camp.
He went home confident because he now knew what to do, he had the right tools to work with, and he had a mentor to guide him through the turnaround while he mastered the leadership skills. His went away with the same excitement and confidence expressed by another Boot Camp participant:
I appreciated the knowledge I gained from the boot camp. Every pastor should go through this training! It truly is an investment in the future of their ministry. This was the greatest conference/training I have ever been through (and I attend at least 2–3 conferences each year).
John’s first steps toward becoming a turnaround leader were to gain greater self-understanding. He gained a fuller understanding of the personality God had given him. He evaluated how he related to people in groups and one-on-one situations.
He dug deep into his usual ways of leading teams. He came to grips with the ways he responded to change. He was laying a firm foundation of personal insight that would help him to lead more effectively. John would revisit these issues frequently.
After a few months of reflecting, reading, and planning, John was ready to embark on a course of action that will eventually lead to church renewal. During that time he educated the church’s leaders about his need to reallocate his schedule. They understood, perhaps a bit reluctantly, that John would be laying some of his duties aside to create the time he needed to become a better leader and to lead purposefully.
John did the hard work on himself. He recognized which relationship skills were effective and which needed a bit of work. He understood why he reacted as he did to some people, and saw himself often reacting out of deep-seated personal needs that had been overlooked.
This greater insight would become crucial in helping him deal with problems that started to crop up when he began to lead Grace in a new direction.
Mission and Vision
The first major initiative John launched was an effort to develop a consensus about Grace’s mission and vision. He gathered a team of church offers, ministry leaders, and other influencers. They soon got to work discerning God’s mission for Grace and formulating a vision that would move them toward that mission’s active fulfillment. He started well with several promising moves:
- He took control of his work schedule to insure he had adequate time to plan for personal and church development.
- He held a “turnaround kick-off Sunday” event to share the process Grace would follow to become, once again, a life-giving church.
- He gathered a vision team that would formulate vision and build consensus among the church members.
At the Boot Camp John had learned that one critical component of vision is to identify gospel receptive people groups in the community. Finding them requires a firm grasp on and a deep understanding of what’s happening in the community.
Following the model he learned at Boot Camp, John gave his team an assignment: find out what’s going on out there. He knew that the only way to discern who and where the gospel receptive people groups are is to look for them.
John was pleased that his ideas were met with widespread approval. Approximately 50% of the people affirmed his new direction. Another 20% promised to give it their best effort, but they admitted it would be hard for them. The non-committal 30% didn’t trouble John; none of them were influencers in the church.
You can imagine John’s surprise and dismay when he discovered that the vision team balked. No one fulfilled the assignment. When they met to share what they’d discovered about the community, team members complained that the work was too hard or that it took too much of their time.
John was miffed.
A learning opportunity
The problem came up the next time John met with his mentor.
HIs mentor said, “John, tell me exactly what you told them when you gave the assignment.”
“I told them to go out there in the community to see what’s going on. I suggested that some of them might hit the websites of a few community organizations and perhaps the local newspaper,” John replied.
“Okay. Let’s take a minute to review your goals for professional development. Do you recall that you said, and I quote, ‘I need to learn how to articulate my ideas and passions better. Sometimes my words don’t express what I’m thinking.’ Do you remember that goal?” his mentor asked.
Ideas, Plans, and Processes
John’s communication style was the source of the problem.
Before attending the Boot Camp John had completed the Birkman Method™ survey. It revealed that he prefers activities that include planning, visualizing possibilities, generating new ideas, and innovation. However, he “shows up” as orderly, concentrating, cautions and insistent.
In addition, John has a relatively low Structure Need score. In keeping with his preference for working with ideas rather than systems, he doesn’t need a detailed plan to follow; he only needs a broad outline and minimal routine.
His preference for working with ideas and for indirect involvement in projects, when coupled his modest need for structure coalesced into vague instructions to his team. When he told them to “go see what’s happening out there,” he thought he was being clear. From their perspective it was a vague wave of the hand and a “go see if there’s anything out there.”
With his mentor’s help John was able to zero in on his contributions to the problem:
- He failed to give a clear explanation of what the team members had to do.
- He assumed that everyone thought like he did - about the big ideas - and moved forward like he did - with minimal detail on how to proceed.
As a result, John started to encounter resistance from the team about four months into the turnaround initiative. Several stress behaviors began to emerge which, if unchecked, may have derailed his plans for church revitalization.
- He felt pessimistic
- He was too sensitive to criticism
- His follow-through was weak and unfocused
- When he did speak to the problem, he was insistent
John and his mentor reviewed the Turnaround Pastors Boot Camp Manual, focusing on the section about leading change and dealing with resistance. John noticed that in the early stages of church turnaround the people must deal with loss. What appears to be resistance is often an expression of grief, a desire to hang on to something that has been meaningful to them in the past.
The pastor’s job in this situation is to provide pastoral care that helps them cope with the grief. John’s mentor told him, “You’ve got to sit down with the people who are grumbling, one-on-one, and just listen. Don’t try to convince them, don’t try to argue your case. Empathize. Ask them to tell you their fears. Affirm their feelings and reflect back so they know you’ve heard. Gently let them know that they’re valuable to the process and that the Lord will see them through this.”
He pushed back.
He did not want to deal with those who expressed their displeasure one-on-one. He was more comfortable addressing them as a group.
“Tell me, John, why do you feel reluctant to speak with these people in private? What feels uncomfortable about that?” This question led to a deep-dive into several Component scores in his Birkman profile. John then pinpointed the sources of his discomfort.
- His very low Esteem Usual score (which evaluates his preferred level of sensitivity when dealing with individuals) points to the fact that he is frank and direct when dealing with people. He’s a “just the facts Ma’am” kind of guy.
- His very high Esteem Need tells us that despite his usual frank and direct manner, he has a significant underlying need for the respect of others. Under stress he will be tempted to justify is point of view when pressed.
Think about the implications for a moment. What will John feel when he sits down for what might be an uncomfortable tete-a-tete? If the other person is upset because the pastor is asking for the sacrifice of something that’s hear and dear, what do you suppose that conversation will look like?
John knew what to expect.
That’s why he was uncomfortable when his mentor told him he needed to listen to the complaints, empathize with the pain, and affirm their feelings rather than defend his actions or his point of view. This did not come naturally to John. He, like they, would have to let go of something - the right to be right.
His tendency to deal with facts rather than feelings (all the while seeking affirmation!) was compounded by two other Birkman Component scores:
- John’s high Advantage Need and Stress scores (which indicate how he evaluates his performance) reflect the fact that it is very important for him that his achievements be recognized. When others don’t affirm that he’s doing a good job, he becomes discouraged, distrustful and self-promoting.
- His extremely low Challenge score (which evaluates the degree to which self-image is based on achieving high expectations) points to the fact that John is pre-occupied with image maintenance; he is overly concerned with success and tends to ignore criticism, even when it is valid and helpful.
When John evaluated these Components in conference with his mentor, he saw just that his natural tendencies are counterproductive to the kind of pastoral care he would have to provide. His natural tendencies are:
- Always look good.
- Seek approval.
- Avoid sensitive discussions.
- Justify his point of view when challenged.
John needed a course of immediate action (to care for the resisters) and a long term personal development plan (to learn new relationship skills) were both in order.
During their consultation John outlined the steps he would take before he and his mentor met next.
- He would review the Boot Camp training on leading change and dealing resistance.
- He would commit the recommended pastoral interventions for dealing with people who are going through he first stage of the turnaround process.
- He would schedule one-on-one meetings with each of the resisters.
- He would jot down a few notes about what he would say and how he would respond to expressions of dissatisfaction in each of these meetings.
In addition to these steps, John decided that he would:
- Take a softer tone when pushing the turnaround process.
- Lead a church-wide prayer initiative for several months to focus on the evangelistically oriented prayers in the Bible.
- He would continue planning but he would temper his focus on process with a grater consideration of people.
John agreed that he would have these one-on-one visits completed by the next meeting with his mentor. If schedules were such that he couldn’t complete all of the visits, he would have completed a majority of this visits.
Two weeks into this plan John sent an email notifying his mentor that he had scheduled the launch of the prayer initiative. He also reported that he had already finished several of the one-on-one visits. Much to his surprise they went well!
Only time will tell whether John’s greater self-understanding and the improved relationship skills will be enough to guide Grace through revitalization.
Although we segment the church turnaround path so we can understand each step and how they work together, the reality is that leading a church turnaround is like pushing spaghetti. Lots of moving parts that all want to go their own direction!
Broadly speaking, church turnaround requires three things:
- Jesus’ blessing
- A willing congregation
- A skilled pastor
We have no control over the first component. But we’re on safe ground when we assume that Jesus intends to keep his promise (“I will build my Church”) by revitalizing any given church. I have yet to see a church that couldn’t be revitalized, but i have churches that wouldn’t because they were unwilling.
Where those first two components are in place, furnishing the pastor with the right knowledge (what to do) and skills (how to do it) is often all that’s needed. Even a mildly resistant church will move from the “unwilling” to the “willing” category when a trained pastor uses his skills wisely and patiently.
But there are no guarantees!
Well, there is one, I suppose: We can pretty much guarantee that (1) if a pastor does not know what to do or how to do it, then the church won’t be going anywhere.
Pastor John has made great strides in competence. He acquired the knowledge of what to do at the Boot Camp. He is learning how to do it in the mentorship program. If he is patient, humble, and continues to hone his skills it is very likely that Grace Fellowship will turnaround and become a vital, robust, life-giving church where people from the community come to faith in Jesus.
Time will tell.
In this post I’ve illustrated one vital aspect of competent pastoral leadership: self-understanding is crucial to mastering the relationship skills needed to lead a turnaround church. John wisely used the opportunity presented by people who were resisting his lead to refine his relationship skills. He has made significant progress toward becoming an effective revitalization leader capable of leading his church off the plateau.
The Church in North America desperately needs tens of thousands pastors capable of leading churches off the plateau.
If you’d like to learn how Turnaround Pastors can help you develop your own turnaround leadership skills, email us for more information.
- Please don’t misunderstand us as devaluing seminary education. The principals at Turnaround Pastors all have earned master’s and doctoral degrees from accredited seminaries. Seminaries are uniquely qualified the body of knowledge that pastors in contemporary American churches need. Our point here is simply that these institutions are structurally incapable of providing the leadership skills that pastors need these days. ↩
- Although we are still early into our longitudinal study of the effectiveness of our training regimen, the results are very encouraging. We have accumulated a large and growing number of anecdotes to the effect that the Turnaround Pastors Boot Camp training and the follow-on mentorship makes a significant difference. One denominational executive in the Midwest indicates that half of the churches that participated in a training are experiencing growth, approximately half of those are seeing significant growth. Another denominational leader in the West reports that numerous churches are seeing progress. A number of pastors we have trained are seeing significant growth, some of them are seeing explosive growth on the order of 50% per year. ↩
- If you’re familiar with the Birkman Leadership Style Grid, John’s “asterisk” (as well as the circle and the square for needs and stress behavior) is left of center in the blue quadrant. He’s people oriented but he prefers indirect involvement. ↩
- The diamond is low in the yellow quadrant, indicating a distinct preference for “hands off.” ↩
- There is a bit of irony in that his Structure Usual score is very high, in the 85th percentile. ↩