The SBC has a problem.

They’re lacking turnaround pastors who can lead churches in the right direction.

Training Leaders?

A recent article, “Southern Baptist Pastors Hope to Revitalize Hundreds of Churches in Decline“, lays it out.

About 800 to 1,000 Southern Baptist congregations cease to exist annually, largely due to a stagnant vision among the leadership and lack of impact within their communities, says a church planting director.

I hope they can solve this problem. The SBC has been a major player in God’s mission in America and abroad. Their problems are our problems, so I hope they get this figured out. Soon.

My fear is that the solution will be a conundrum for this great association. A conundrum because the solution is fairly easy to state but it’ll be a real bear for them to execute.

All they need to do is raise up turnaround pastors.

Like I said, easier said than done.

Churches Rise and Fall With Turnaround Pastors

If the SBC would focus on developing turnaround pastors they could probably reverse this trend within a decade. And there is reason for hope. The article hints that they may see the source of the problem and its solution.

The church revitalization process usually involves new leadership taking over a declining church, who then implements a strategy on how to grow the congregation again.

SBC churches are failing (like most of non-SBC churches that are failing) because they’re managed by ministry technicians rather than led by turnaround pastors with the relational skills and personal qualifications necessary for the job at hand.

Gordon Penfold[1] and Jared Roth[2] have given us the research to prove one simple point: effective turnaround pastors have unique personal qualities and refined relational skills that distinguish them from their ministry colleagues.

Is the SBC Currently Producing Turnaround Pastors?

If the SBC is going to fulfill the goal of reversing the trend and stemming the tide of church closures, they’ve got to ask some hard questions (questions every denomination should ask).

  • How well do they equip their pastors with the needed relational skills?
  • How do they provide testing and skill development in seminary education?
  • Is there an ongoing program of professional development to help pastors acquire the leadership behaviors of turnaround pastors?
  • How do they train pastor search committees to look for these qualities and skills?
  • How much time and effort do they invest in character formation that produces the necessary personal qualities?

We can probably gauge whether or not the SBC training and development systems are congruent with their avowed intention to turn this thing around by looking at their seminaries. The SBC has a great network of seminaries that produce the majority of their pastors. It is here, at these graduate training institutions, that a solution needs to begin.

So how well are the SBC seminaries doing?

(Note: in what follows please don’t read me as singling SBC seminaries out for criticism per se. In my survey of theological education in America I am finding that almost every evangelical seminary suffers from the same defects)

Southern Seminary

Southern Seminary has been one of the flagships for theological education within the Southern Baptist Convention. This excellent seminary was the first, founded in 1859. Its legacy of theological education and academic excellence places it among the premier evangelical seminaries in the world.

Is Southern up to the task of assisting the SBC in its wish to bring about the revitalization of thousands of SBC churches? Are its degree programs and core curricula congruent with the need to develop turnaround pastors possessing the necessary relational skills and personal qualities required to be effective turnaround pastors?

Consider their core program, the Master of Divinity. In their student handbook Southern Baptist Theological Seminary describes the purpose of its Master of Divinity degree as a foundation for ministry preparation.

The Master of Divinity is the foundational graduate degree program for ministry preparation The program of study is designed to give the student comprehensive knowledge in biblical and theological studies and to help the student develop the specific skills needed for effective ministry.

The need of today’s student for specialized preparation in specific forms of ministry is met through curricular options. The School of Theology offers the following concentrations: Christian ministry, Pastoral Studies, Biblical and Theological Studies, Biblical Counseling, and Worldview and Apologetics.

Listed first in their laudable “Learning Outcomes” one finds that upon completion of this degree program “students will be able to demonstrate a growing, Christlike character and a sense of God’s calling to ministry.”

Growing, Christlike character is certainly, one would think, a major instructional component in the core curriculum for the M. Div. degree. Thus it is rather surprising that the program has one two-credit class, “Personal Spiritual Disciplines” in its list of requirements. Sadly, there are no additional electives offered in either in either Pastoral Studies or the Christian Ministry concentrations.

The question begs to be asked. “Is Southern’s M. Div. course, “Personal Spiritual Disciplines” up to the task of forming the relationship skills and personal qualities that are proven “missional critical” components of a pastor capable of revitalizing a church? In other words, is the seminary’s offering congruent with the denomination’s stated desire to bring about widespread revitalization of its churches?

Here’s the course description from page 140 of the Southern Seminary Catalog for 2013-2014:

40150 Personal Spiritual Disciplines 2 hours

An integrative approach to Christian spirituality emphasizing biblical, classical, and contemporary materials. This course will assist the student in personal discipleship through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study, fasting, journaling, and personal evangelism.

What do you think? Is this sufficient?

I’d say not.

But in fairness to Southern, the “Pastoral Ministry” course, a 3 credit offering for those in the Pastoral Studies concentration does mention “Congregational leadership issues are emphasized, including relational skills, administration, financial stewardship, staff management, worship planning, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper.”[3]

I’m glad to read that this course touches on relational skills! But given the gravity and importance of these skills, especially in light of the need to revitalize thousands of Southern Baptist Churches, a few days with some reading and a short writing assignment is hardly sufficient. It is highly doubtful that the needed skills can be developed in a course like this.

Southeastern Seminary

In their online Academic Catalog, Southeastern Seminary’s M. Div. program is described in similar terms.

The Master of Divinity is a Seminary program designed to prepare pastors, missionaries, and other Christian workers for a life of effective kingdom service. Within three academic years of full-time study, the M.Div. program prepares Christian ministers by enabling them to gain a basic understanding of Scripture, Christian history, theology, and ministry skills within the Christian worldview.

Within the core curriculum, unlike that at Southern Seminary, Southeastern does not include any courses on personal spiritual growth or leadership development. SEBTS offers many additional study tracks that stem from the core M. Div. curriculum.

Although the Pastoral Ministries track has some promising titles, the course descriptions are not available online. So I’m comfortable supposing that SEBTS’ courses are on par with Southern, and that developing relational skills and personal qualities for turnaround pastors is largely non-existent.

If someone would like to research this further and finds out my supposition is wrong, I’d welcome that information.

Southwestern Seminary

SWBTS in Fort Worth, Texas is one of the largest seminaries in the world. It has trained and deployed more than 40,000 graduates who serve in local churches and mission fields around the world. Like Southern and SEBTS, the M. Div. is the core of Southwestern’s academic programming.

The Southwestern M.Div. prepares students for the broadest range of Christian ministries, especially in local churches. Students receive training in classical theological disciplines such as Old Testament, New Testament, church history and historical theology, systematic theology, ethics, and philosophy, as well as applied disciplines such as pastoral ministry, preaching, evangelism, and missions. In addition, students may use elective hours to pursue concentrations in any school at Southwestern in accordance with their ministry goals and academic interests. The M.Div. is the only approved first master’s degree for a student preparing for a pastoral or preaching ministry, as well as any other ministry largely comprised of biblical teaching.[4]

The SWBTS catalog has several promising titles among its course offerings. With titles like “Development of Christian Character and Decision Making”, “Foundations for Christian Ministry” and “Spiritual Formation I” and “Spiritual Formation II”, this seems like a seminary that has its eye on the ball. They appear intent on developing turnaround pastors who can lead the charge in revitalizing those thousands of SBC churches!

But it looks like some of their courses need to be reworked to focus more intently on developing turnaround leaders. For example, “Foundations for Christian Ministry” covers too much ground in too short a time for effective spiritual development among its students.

An introduction to Christian Ministry. Topics include: call, the pastoral office, philosophy of ministry, relationships, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and practice of ministry. [5]

At best this introductory course will provide a cursory examination of “relationships”, a subject far more important than most anything else a pastor will learn in seminary! And the actual content of the “Spiritual Formation I” and “Spiritual Formation II” offer little promise of opportunities for pastors-in-training to develop the relationship skills and personal qualities needed by the turnaround pastor.[6]

SPFTH 3101 Spiritual Formation I 

The study and practice of corporate worship, involving participation in chapel, plenary lectures on corporate worship, and small group interaction and accountability.

SPFTH 3111 Spiritual Formation II

The study and practice of personal worship, involving participation in chapel, plenary lectures on personal worship, and small group interaction and accountability.

It seems that SWBTS, in spite of its excellent M. Div. program, does not include the development of turnaround pastors in its core curriculum. Neither is much time devoted to developing the appropriate relationship skills and personal qualities in the various elective courses at the Master’s degree level.

In sum I think it’s fair to say that this cursory examination of the SBC’s pastoral training, as exemplified in three of their leading seminaries, indicates that a lot remains to be done if they are going to produce turnaround pastors in sufficient quantities to achieve their goal of reversing the tide of church closures.

A Modest Proposal for Producing Turnaround Pastors in the SBC

Word on the street is that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The SBC won’t solve a problem that has been decades, if not centuries, in the making.

But they can begin moving in the right direction. Here are a few suggested steps that will start the ball rolling.

  1. Build on Penfold’s and Roth’s work by studying the distinctive qualities of turnaround pastors in the SBC. Identify those pastors whose churches grow by several percentage points – focus specifically on conversion growth and see if Penfold and Roth are confirmed.
  2. Revise the M. Div. program in one of the SBC seminaries so that ample time is provided for pastors in training to develop the relationship skills and leadership behaviors identified in the study.
  3. Conduct a 10 year longitudinal study to compare how the graduates from this modified M. Div. perform as turnaround agents. Measure whether or not proper training can have a measurable and significant effect on reducing the rate of church closures.
  4. While the longitudinal study is being conducted, offer turnaround pastor training camps for currently employed pastors. Provide them with the personal and professional development tools that will help them acquire the skills and leadership behaviors that have been proven effective in turning churches around.
  5. Share the results with the rest of the evangelical world.

The SBC, because of its size, its resources and its excellent network of seminaries, is uniquely situated to raise up a generation of turnaround pastors who will stem the tide of church closures in America.

I pray that they will rise to the task.


  1. Gordon E. Penfold, “Turnaround Pastors: Characteristics of Those Who Lead Churches From Life Support to New Life”. A paper presented to the Great Commission Research Network, November 11, 2011.  â†©
  2. Jared Roth, “The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Leadership in Turnaround Churches” (Ed. D. Diss, Pepperdine, 2011)  â†©
  3. Ibid.  â†©
  4. Southwestern Seminary Catalog.  â†©
  5. Soutwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Catalog: School of Theology: Division of Biblical Studies.  â†©
  6. Ibid.  â†©

Image credit: basketman23 / 123RF Stock Photo