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Leading Turnaround Churches
Deep relationships are the glue that holds a church together through change.

Bringing non-destructive change to existing churches is one of the most pressing challenges facing churches today. While the majority of new growth and vitality seems to be coming from church plants, denominational leaders know that renewal, revitalization or turnaround in existing congregations is also needed in order to be healthy.

Jesus didn't pray for programs. He prayed for people.

God wants the Body of Christ in all its expressions to be healthy and fruitful. Acts 1:8 strikes me as being a verse about multiplication—of disciples, small groups, ministries and churches. That's the way it was in the first century with the spread of the Early Church. In the 21st century, it shouldn't be that much different wherever congregations are obedient to the Great Commission.

Recently a group of Salvation Army corps leaders, mostly officers, spent two days in conference with Gene Wood, author of Leading Turnaround Churches and senior pastor in a large church south of the border. In just over 20 years, Wood has led four congregations through major turnarounds. When he arrived at his first church, there were just 50 people to work with. In his present turnaround situation he started with 800. Gene considers himself an ordinary pastor (and he comes across as such), but God has honoured and blessed his ministry through each of his turnaround journeys. He quickly impressed upon us that, while this is necessary work, leading turnaround is treacherous territory for pastors and congregational leaders.

To boil his teaching down to its basic core, I heard him saying that the ultimate task of church leadership teams, especially pastors, is first to bring change to oneself, and then to influence the congregation, It's safe to say that the new vocational reality for pastors today is self-leadership, or what is sometimes called the business of Y-O-U Incorporated. Drawing from 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, Gene encouraged his listeners with the truth that "God often uses average people with an unusual determination in an extraordinary manner." And he offered the sobering truth that leading turnaround is "a distance run, not a sprint." Turning churches around from a declining or maintenance situation to a position of health and vitality involves cost, character and covenant relationships.

The cost of being a turnaround leader

Any leadership team that entertains the possibility of leading a church out of established patterns and into new territory had better sit down and consider some facts, then count the cost. In 1770, John Adams was called on to defend the British officer and soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. Adams believed in the power of facts. At the trial he said: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Here are three hurtful facts that provide a context for our thinking:

  1. The Church as a whole is not effectively reaching the broad community we call Canada. Outreach Canada reports: "Many areas of our cities have no evangelical churches and the programs that do exist have not kept pace with the modern world. As a result, a generation of young people has grown up largely without church ties. It is apparent that there is a lack of robust health among Canadian Evangelical churches." That's particularly sobering when we remember that the vast majority of those who come to faith in Christ do so before age 18. So if the Church is a greying institution, what of its future? What percentage of your congregation is below age 25, or 45 for that matter?

  2. Leadership is key. A congregation may be strong in many areas, but it is the leadership team that sets the vision, builds the ministry base ad shows strength of character during unstable times. They need to be spiritual, strong and supported. When there are few leaders, the challenge is even greater.

  3. The Church is losing far too many pastors. Stress, church-related and family-related issues, discouragement and burnout take their daily toll.

In light of this, we wonder: Do we as church leaders have what it takes to lead a healthy ministry? And if the ministry is unhealthy, do we have what it takes to turn things around? Before answering, here are further questions to consider.

  1. Do we as leaders avoid conflict at all cost? Does the biblical image of shepherd prevent us from engaging in any kind of conflict?

  2. Are we passionate about our ministry, or are we always fatigued?

  3. On a scale of one to ten, how do we rate our family life, and how is this seen in our use of time?

  4. Are we willing to grow in our understanding of church ministry in a changing world? Are we more competent as leaders than we were a year ago, or are we content with our present level? Are we aware of our capacity to grow to the next level? Is our character level such that neither apparent success nor failure will compromise our integrity?

  5. In this emotionally demanding leadership calling, are we strategic thinkers, weighing the issues with intentionality of thought?

Gene Wood states that 95 percent of all serious problems in the church are the result of power struggles that lead to the "losers" leaving or the pastor leaving. In the course of conflict everyone tends to forget what the original issues were, as the field narrows down to choosing sides. Let's accept the fact as leaders that people are not against us as much as they are for themselves.

Eight characteristics of turnaround leaders

The credentials of turnaround leaders are little different from those of Christian leaders in general. But there are certain principles and behaviours that are normally present in leaders who are competent to lead turnaround.

  1. They see themselves as servants of Christ and of His Church. They have a way of connecting with people and drawing them into the ministry of the church. They lead from considerate, compassionate hearts.

  2. They shoulder responsibility for the vision and mission of the church, they attract ownership of that vision and they demonstrate flexibility on the details. They keep the big picture in mind and focus church activities and procedures on fulfilling the mission to which God called them and the congregation. This calling becomes a source of ministry authority.

  3. They tend not to waste too much energy on a congregation that clearly does not desire health and turnaround. Focused leaders, whether pastors or lay leaders, grow weary of stagnation and eventually leave if mission and vision are constantly confined.

  4. They come to a meeting of hearts early in the process. In churches with a congregational form of government, many pastors and lay leaders insist on what Gene Wood calls "prenuptial agreements," an understanding of what to anticipate in this ministry union. In an Episcopal system there is eternal value to be gained by coming together as a leadership group within the first two months of the arrival of new leaders. Just to take a day or so to share from the heart the church's story and the mutual visions, hopes, fears and wishes of all the leaders can be a huge investment in church health, and a sort of relational flu shot to take the edge off future inevitable viruses.

  5. They have a fixed forward focus. Some form of change is always needed if the Body of Christ is to flourish. To grow is to change and, while it is natural, change is uncomfortable. It creates conflict, even chaos at times, but focused leaders refuse to panic, working together to ensure that the chaos leads to creative and beneficial ministry. Having a "together team" of leaders ensures that all their gifts are employed to keep the ship on course during the temporary storm.

  6. They control their temper through the Spirit's enabling and the mutual accountability they share with fellow leaders and mentors. They depersonalize attacks and understand the dynamics of opposition coalitions. They avoid standing alone but employ the wisdom of fellow leaders. They care for themselves by having time away from the stresses of interpersonal conflict, and they exercise care about the information they share and with whom they share it.

  7. They confront when necessary, drawing on the wisdom of others and giving everyone their rightful "say."

  8. They have a passion to see God's kingdom grow. Their motive may be questioned at times, but they fiercely believe God is building His Church through them. Therefore they engage all their powers to discern and nurture God's unique vision for the ministries to which God has called them. Leaders who spend time on their knees together in prayer, at a table together in fellowship and in the board room together planning for church health, develop tenacity to see the vision through.

The crux of turnaround leadership

Covenant relationships are crucial! In a culture driven by success, performance and the bottom line, it's easy to overlook what really matters. Once we recognize that relationships drive congregational and ministry life, we tend to deal with the issues of growth and decline in congregations from a totally different perspective. It is the perspective of trusting, covenantal relationships within the church. Deep relationships are the glue that holds a church together through change, while surface relationships cannot survive the inevitable conflicts that accompany real turnaround.

Consider George Barna's 23 Marks of a Church in Decline (see sidebar).

  • Which of these really indicates a failure in relationship?

  • In what ways do these marks work against healthy relationship building?

  • Which of these marks do nothing to foster the basis of healthy Christian intimacy?

The marks of decline and other such listings are but symptoms of certain congregational phenomena. This is not to deny that they may be helpful. They are! But that's not the whole story. They merely scratch the surface.

If, as Peter L. Steinke stated: "the congregation's health and the people in it are connected" (Healthy Congregations), then patterns of intimacy must become the essential focus of any intervention or strategy designed to promote congregational health. This in not easy because, as Rabbi Edwin Friedman noted, churches have a poor reputation for developing mature, healthy people (Generation to Generation).

If intimacy issues are fundamental to leadership and congregational ministry, then it follows that pastoral leadership must rethink the focus of its efforts and shift from program, to people, to healthy patterns of intimacy, That means making every effort to spend less time with "stuff" and more time with people.

God's people, from the most highly placed denominational leader to the average person in the pew, have needs. Their greatest need is for relationship, intimacy, connection. This occurs best when they have achieved intimacy, connection and relationship with God. When we achieve this with one another, there will be a diminished need for the unhealthy patterns that too often destroy our homes, reputations and ministries.

In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed: "My prayer … is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father" (John 17:21 NLT). Jesus didn't pray for programs. He prayed for people. He prayed that God would build on the grace-based intimate connection with His disciples and all believers. His prayer also was that His disciples would recognize, exhibit and nurture this intimate connection. Out of this accountability structure they proceed as turnaround leaders to turn their world right side up. The relational roots that were nurtured in house fellowships (small groups) extended outward to embrace a needy world.

Are we ready for turnaround? Maybe the prior question is, are we ready to lead our people to greater intimacy with God and with one another? Are we as leaders willing to learn how to grow in greater intimacy with God and fellow leaders? When we start coming nearer to God, He will come nearer both to us and to those entrusted to our intimate care.

End notes

  1. George Barna. Turnaround Churches: How to Overcome Barriers to Growth and Bring New Life to an Established Church. Gospel Light, 1993.

  2. Edwin H. Friedman. Generation To Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The Guildford Press, 1985.

  3. Peter L. Steinke. Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach. Alban Institute, 1996.

  4. Gene Wood. Leading Turnaround Churches. ChurchSmart, 2001.

Major Clarence Bradbury is corps ministries secretary for the Canada and Bermuda Territory. Commissioned in 1971, he has served for 17 years as a corps officer, and an additional 16 years in divisional and territorial appointments. His DMin dissertation at McMaster University (2001) focused on Leading Renewal in Salvation Army Congregations in Canada.

Originally published in Horizons, March/April 2004.




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