I have been working in the field of church revitalization and renewal for almost twenty years now and I wanted to share in this edition of the Church Revitalizer blog about some of the nasty things which happen to the leader of a church’s renewal effort. Wise Church Revitalizers, while not liking some of the things which will come their way, should be ready for some of the big ones which often precede the turnaround of a plateaued church. It was John Maxwell, which taught me some thirty years ago a great principle of leadership and it is never more important to remember than as one who is working in the realm of church revitalization and renewal. John told many of us way back then:
“People will let you down, but Jesus Christ will never let you down!”
I have reflected upon this wise statement many times while in the midst of the challenge of the moment. The reality is that there are some nasty things that are thrown at leaders of renewal as they seek to turnaround a church. The Scriptures remind us:
“I appeal to you, brethren, take note of those who create dissentions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
“Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will eat its way like gangrene: such men are Hymenaeus and Philetus” (2 Tim 2:16-17).
It is interesting that in reflection the big issues I thought I would encounter have not been the ones actually encountered. For every Church Revitalizer which is part of our monthly Virtual Coaching Network, I spend time discussing the following challenges in revitalization and renewal in an attempt to assist them in a smoother transition when they encounter these trials.
1. Not everyone is excited that you have come to renew the church.
Young pastors leaving our academic institutions are usually surprised to discover upon graduation, that the church in which they have been called to might not desire to see it grow. There becomes a sense of comfort that takes place in long time plateaued churches and though most of them have told the new pastor coming to lead them there was a desire to grow, but once the transitions and changes began to take place it is anything but fun for the Church Revitalizer. I am sure most on the search committee, which called you, believed the church sought to become renewed, yet there is often a slight shift which begins to take place after a few months and you begin to diagnose, analyze, and evaluate past obstacles in light of future aspirations for church revitalization.
2. Far too many churches in need of revitalization seek to solve their problems by firing and hiring pastors.
Most of the church laity are just not very willing to take the credit for why the local church has declined. It is much easier to pass the blame on to a former pastor or staff minister than to admit that they were just not willing to do the things necessary to revitalize the church. Many local congregations operate on the three years and let’s begin looking for our next pastor. What was a once in a few transitions event have now become a major problem and perhaps even a long term one. Changing pastors over and over every few years will eventually cause the critical mass of your membership to wonder why things do not get better, but are actually getting worse.
3. You will encounter various confrontations, opposition, resistance, and attacks from nipping church stakeholders.
I wonder how many pastors are shocked when they get the first nasty unsigned note declaring all of their individual inadequacies for the work of the ministry. There are those who will even create fictitious email addresses so they can consistently evaluate you in your preaching, teaching, and leading of the church. Most ministers expect conflict from those without the Lord in their lives, but as I was many are naïve when it becomes the membership within the church body which slanders God’s under shepherd. There are some sheep who take pleasure in nipping at the new minister and if not confronted it could hurt the entire body. Even the great Apostle Paul had to experience supposed saints and the suffering they caused (2 Timothy 4:9-18). At the critical hour his follow believer’s deserted him in his darkest hour. No one came to his defense when accusations were made. Virtually every experienced pastor I know has seen this scenario repeated in his life. I often wonder how many church revitalizers actually recognize that some of the people they invite over for dinner, have coffee with regularly, and confide confidences in, will turn around and malign them, gossip about them, break confidences, and even rally support against them?
When an attack comes, the temptation is typically, to circle the wagons and play defense. Not only does this tactic quash opportunities to heal your assailant with a Christ like response, but in licking your wounds, you can also easily cut yourself off from the rest of your sheep. During this hardship, Church Revitalizers must pray for the ability to love people and to walk into God's courts with them with mutual affection, having forgiven them as the Lord forgave.
4. Many churches tend to self-destruct!
Most churches are in decline because they are simply no fun! People come and visit these types of churches and never return. People begin to notice that these visitors are not connecting with the congregation and begin to question why. Some will suggest it is the pastor while others will admit that they were not interested in what the church offered. Often the reality is that the church is a bed of conflict and the potential prospects sense the destructive nature of its factions and want to distant themselves from such a place. Jesus was fun or the children would not have hung around him and church ought to be a place of fun.
5. Nature of the work.
I worked my way through college working as the staff carpenter for my institution. One summer a few of us students actually hung about 500 fire rated doors in the various dorms throughout the campus. There were plenty of days that I hit the pillow at night physically spent, my limbs aching. What was done during the day was never taken home. When the workday was done there was nothing more to do until the next day. Church revitalization and renewal is not that way. Pastoring a congregation in the throws of renewal is an intense challenge and there is always more to be done and could be done. There are always visits to be made and more people to check in on. There are always people who expect more of me than I can give. While I was hanging those heavy doors we would often talk about the kind of ministries we would have and how much fun it would be to minister to the saints in God’s churches. But it is a lot more difficult than I assumed it would be. Ministry is sometimes like feeling you are an octopus and each individual leg is being pulled in so many directions you think a leg is going to tear off.
There are encouragements to write, sick to visit, leaders to equip, lessons to plan, staff to mentor, couples to counsel, prayer to offer, weddings and funerals to perform, your own heart to tend, it never ends. If pastors and their spouses will persevere in ministry, they need to accept the nature of the work. If you do not, you will whine, resent your calling, and probably burn out and get out. The sooner you accept the fact that there will always be more to do, the sooner you can develop healthy expectations for yourself as well as boundaries for you and your family. Strive to differentiate between a genuine crisis and a perceived crisis when your flock reaches out to you.
6. Most churches have within them a rising number of strained, stressed, struggling relationships that if left un-confronted will eventually become part of the decline in the church.
One of the first difficult things a revitalization leader will find him doing in church renewal is confronting some longtime members about their unacceptable behavior. Tip toeing around your church’s problems will only give you as the leader sore feet!
When you allow Mr. or Mrs. Cantankerous to thrive within your church, newer members will begin leaving your church. It was these new people who were offering new ideas for new ministries that might have been part of leading the church out of its present decline. But, if you are going to truly be the revitalization leader you must learn the art of positive healthy confrontation. Your willingness to confront negative unhealthy behavior in the church is a sign of leadership! It takes courage mixed with much prayer and a daily exercise of bold faith demonstrated in a deep love for the church, to actually confront people in the church who are damaging the church by their unhealthy hurtful behavior. Keep your confrontations in private meetings, but never conduct these meetings without a lay leader with you. This will keep you from being misunderstood, misquoted, and most importantly misrepresented! Always carry out confrontation with at least one witness who has credibility in the church.
Understand this important point, just as problem people get reputations in the church around their behavior, a church revitalization leader who is willing to confront problems and people also quickly gets a reputation. Once people begin to understand this type of behavior will not be tolerated, such behavior will quickly cease or these problem people will attach themselves on to another church! I feel bad for the other church, but it does happen. Trouble people look for other places they can cause trouble!
Do not miss this point: Plant Some Seeds of Change - Sadly some church revitalization leaders make the mistake of seeing these veterans as the enemy! While some individuals do become negative and troublesome, they are still God’s people who have given sacrificially to often launch, expand, build and grow the church. The goal is not to get rid of them, but to get them so committed to being like Jesus that they are willing to sacrifice what they love to reach those whom God loves. In one of my churches people often remarked how certain members who had been difficult in the past were now aligning and helping the church move forward. Remember even your biggest adversary wants his church to grow and he has an invested interest in you and your ability to lead the church into renewal! I realize that most members do not care for confrontation!
Do you have anyone within your fellowship that uses anger to get their way on things? That can be very dangerous. Have the rank and file stopped coming up with new ideas for ministry? This might be because they are afraid of setting this angry individual off again. Thus the church looses potential for community impact!
7. When money is used to get ones way or to run the minister away.
Often while making the necessary changes for renewal in an organization, those who are unhappy about the changes will systematically develop ways to send a message of their lack of support for your new goals for renewal. Usually, this begins by stakeholders designating their monies, which were formerly meant for a tithe, to a designated fund that the new leadership has no influence over. The goal of these dissidents is to make things bad enough that you will leave and they can return to the things they like and not worry about this need for revitalization and renewal.
Money struggles beset almost every discouraged pastor I know. Satan will use money to rob your joy and distract you from your calling.
8. Most churches needing revitalization seem to be just days or hours from being put on life support before they realize they are dying!
There is no such thing as holding your own and waiting to consider revitalization at a later time. Most churches like us as individuals, are aging and death is growing closer. Allowing the critical mass to leave ones church because you as the leader are either unwilling to make changes or unwilling to stand up to those who are happy with the current state of decline is a sure sign of death for the church. Many pastors who have not been trained in the field of church renewal are unable to pull the necessary triggers at the moment they need to be pulled. They wait too long to make key decisions and those newer members who could be a vital part of the renewal efforts have left the church because of the leaders inability to make the call and take the ball down the field. While revitalization takes time, ones inability as the leader to make the hard call might just send the newer members away because they doubt your ability to make the turn towards renewal and health. Consider for a moment that perhaps the people who are dropping out and leaving your church are not leaving it because they do not want community, but because they think they will have a better chance to find it somewhere else! What does that say to you and your church if that is so?
9. There is often a clear contrast between our conduct on Sunday and our activities Monday through Saturday.
The church today is overwhelmed with its own evangelical version of a split personality. This has contributed immensely to the high level of conflict within congregations. Brokenness before the Lord and one another is so lacking in our relationships with fellow believers. We have too many dead churches full of believers who are alive to the flesh. As the Lord is faithful to point out people have been offended through our carnal behaviors; we must make the necessary restitution. Often the Church Revitalizer will be stuck in the middle trying to bring about change and seeking to develop the unregenerate to faith in Christ.
10. Distraction from the Gospel.
It is easy to become unfocused and distracted from the Gospel in some churches! When the voice of the Savior becomes vague within the worship services and the tone of the message to the community is anything but clear, the Gospel is no longer the primary concentration. The message is then weak and unappealing. Churches that are ineffective in reaching the community around them have often done so because they have lost the centrality of the Word of God. A word of Salvation and its offering has been replaced by everything else except the grace of God. Anything else is counter productive to the will of God.
11. The injured party outlook.
Have you ever noticed that it is often someone else’s fault in many churches as to why they are stagnant or declining?
· “It’s the laity’s fault.”
· “This is a hard place.”
· “The economy has brought on hard times.”
· “That previous pastor just destroyed this church!”
· “We just cannot minister here anymore.”
The list could go on and on. Another popular phrase is “it won’t work here!” The injured party churches have an often rehearsed terminology towards the reasons why their church is just not growing. The injured party church usually calls upon some outside factor to declare why they are not growing. When a church allows itself to become dominated by negative circumstances, it is or has lost hope.
12. The first thing you must do is to get your congregation prepared emotionally before you begin to make changes (any change not just the big ones)!
All of us have a natural resistance towards change. Our reluctance to let others make changes in our lives is intensified by our human tendency to strive for security and comfort when we know things are not quite right! Here is a critical Church Revitalization Principle:
The more we need to change, the less we are willing to change! Folks are never more creative than when they are raining on someone else’s parade!
The important thing is to remember that such interference can and will occur and to decide that, when it does, you will not be deterred from pursuing your goal. The fact that there will be opposition to your ideas and that you will have critics and detractors, means that as you proceed, there will be winners and losers in your efforts to revitalize your church!
13. If they cannot defeat your efforts towards renewal they will load you down with the non-essential.
After much has been tried to keep you from the task of church revitalization and without any success to keep you from the goal, often the next strategy will be to begin to strategically load you down with non-essential tasks that will eat up your time and keep you from having the time for church renewal. Here are some of the tactics you will observe from the membership:
Resistance tactics – where anything you plan they stay away and not show up.
Delaying tactics – If there is a goal to do something this year a vote will be made to table the effort until next year and wait for a report from a committee which is not known for getting anything accomplished. The result is the effort is killed by no follow-up.
Load you down with other stuff tactics – Suddenly your committees and lay leadership have tasked you with the responsibility (if you let them) of restructuring the churches organizations or rewriting the constitution and bylaws. All of these are things which eat up ones time for church renewal.
Feeling of displacement tactics – Your idea of creating a new series of small groups or adding another worship service is placed on hold by church action until a particular trigger can be accomplished even though you know it will never be accomplished. A thing such as our main worship service grows to 250 and then you can launch a second service. That is extremely difficult when you are only running 35 at the present moment in time.
The leader who wants to bring about change in a congregation must have the ability to tell the difference between content and process. Content- is the stuff people argue about. This is the small talk, the debris that floats to the top of the raging river. Process- is the real reason people argue. It is the emotional reality, the real raging river.
14. Declining congregations lack this sense of the divine calling and leading from God.
Often laity creates an “it’s your fault pastor” because they are afraid of revealing that they are a large part of the challenge! It has been so long since they have seen the divine that they fear the presence of the Lord has left the church and they do not know what to do about it. They need a church revitalizer certainly, but there is an unwillingness to allow the revitalizer the freedom to seek God’s presence for renewal. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
15. The reason we have antagonists in the church is that they are in the world.
My dear friend, Rodney Harrison says, “The problems with antagonists within the church is that they leave in their wake broken lives, broken dreams, and discouraged, apathetic people. Such an environment does not promote church health nor vitality.”
Kenneth Haugk in his book on Antagonists in the Church defines them as follows: “Antagonists are individuals who on the basis on non-substantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, unusually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.”
Here are some signs of the antagonist behavior in a church:
· Has a previous track record of antagonistic behavior in the present church.
· The Parallel Track Record which is a track record of bad behavior outside of the church.
· The Nameless Other Flag “there are lots who feel like me”, “Everyone feels you should resign.”
· The Predecessor-downer is one who denounces your predecessor and builds you up syndrome.
· The Instant Buddy is one who first takes you to dinner and visits your office.
· The Gusher of Praise, is one that usually includes a phrase such as: “however, but, also…”
· Asking “I gotcha” questions: “Well then, what version of the Bible does the denomination use?”
· Overly smooth and charming- be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
· The Church Hopper: “Finally, I found a church (or pastor) I can believe in.”
· Lies often and known for little lies which are common with him or her.
· Utilizes aggressive methodologies which are extreme, unethical, and combative all as a means to get their voice heard.
· The Flashing $$$ sign- Is a rich antagonists love this one who wants his way through money for a cause.
· The Note Taker: is one who takes notes during visits, coffee-hour or inappropriate times.
· The Portfolio: These will come to you with “proof positive” of wrong-doings that shows evidence of a long-standing plan.
· Cutting Comments: Saying things at times or places to cause great pain.
· The Different Drummer: Always seeking to start new policies, change things or do it their own way.
· The Pest: Always calling. Take note: If they are always calling you, they are calling others!
· The Cause: Calvinism, Home Schooling, Food Pantry, KJV only…
· The School of Hard Knocks: Little formal education, but have gone through many struggles. Tend to brag about “the school”
· The Poor Loser: When the church votes differently, the antagonists will get mad and often get even.
16. It would seem that some people must either leave the church or die before true peace can be restored and growth can be revived.
A settled, serene, secure atmosphere may be the most attractive asset of a group that is poised for enlargement. Visitors, both churched and unchurched, will be drawn into the calm, controlled environment of the parish at peace. As the people of God resolve their disputes, we can then direct our energies toward the twin necessities of discipleship and evangelism. The number one reason for the deterioration in discipleship ministries just might be the intensification of conflict in the church. We have learned to avoid contention by limiting our contact with each other. A sarcastic, skeptical world is waiting for the true church to resolve its own battles before it is willing to hear the gospel.
17. Recapture the ground you’ve already traveled.
Remember, celebrate and own your defining moments. Always lead from your highest point. Use your greatest accomplishments as a catalyst to the next challenge. That said, it is now time to let go of the celebration and get busy with forging a new future. Often you will discover that it takes significant time to make changes. At times you must retake the ground you have already traveled and that always slows things down. You must do it anyway and many young leaders are just not that experienced in knowing when and how to retake the ground you have already traveled (and thought that you won). A primary reason for this is that resistance is always ready and willing to raise its ugly head. One thing I have learned as a church revitalizer, pastor, and missionary is that irrational resistance to change never fully dissipates. What those facing change for the first time misunderstand is that even if you are successful in the early days of transformation you often do not win over the self-focused individual that senses this might be assaulting their own turf. John Kotter reminds us well that, “whenever you let up before the job (of change) is done, critical momentum can be lost and regression may follow.”  Momentum is the revitalizer’s best friend in making change. Do everything you can to keep it from stalling.
18. Internal warfare has reduced many local congregations to a stagnant, status quo existence.
It is crucial to understand the background of our battles in an effort to later describe both results and resolution. A church, much like an individual, tends to take on certain personality and character traits with the passage of time. The mere thought that someone would dare tamper with comfortable customs is deemed heretical. Many worshipers today are feeling increasingly threatened by subtle and sometimes sudden changes that are taking place.
19. An authority vacuum will inevitably produce misunderstandings and confusion.
If there is no paid staff person, choir director, or clearly designated leader, various factions will form contentious coalitions. Not everyone who wants to have a public music ministry has a good heart and pure motives. Some are doubtless driven by carnal desires to be seen and heard. In church after church, I meet pastors who feel under attack by both Satan and the saints. Much of the persecution in the pulpit today is pitiful, petty, senseless and silly. Conflict can arise over personality characterizations. There is also much persecution in the pulpit concerning the preacher’s wife. Rarely does the pastor’s family measure up to the great expectation of the church. The average church member wants a pastor who can preach like their hero on TV and who will stay in his church of 150 people for 30 years while never expecting a raise!
20. Our reactions to the sins of Christian brothers and sisters can sometimes lead to blunders that are worse than the original failure.
Christians will fail. It is our reaction to failure that will determine the relative peace or pugnacity in the church. It is more than obvious that many congregations have decided to respond to the believer’s deficiency in an exaggerated, unscriptural manner. For sowing seeds of mishandled discipline, we have reaped congregations in conflict. Passion for power among preachers and laity has created an atmosphere for anarchy. Churches today are driven by dark, hidden, carnal forces into innumerable and unnecessary conflicts. The desire for domination in the congregation is often fueled by the failure to be in control at home or in the work place. Success can also lead to the abuse of power.
21. Many parishioners are simply at peace with the present.
The very notion of change is repulsive to them. Like so many other things, to nurture the flock or to evangelize, is not an either/or proposition. Both emphases are scriptural and indispensable in a healthy church. Our bend toward the “pendulum complex” tends to sway us from one extreme to the other. But we must have indoctrination along with increase. It is most definitely a both/and scenario. We are absolutely, undeniably called to love one another in the midst of our differences. Conflict, of whatever kind, must be conquered by the grace and power of God.
22. The combative church risks losing its plausibility among young people.
That which is plausible is “something that seems valid or likely reliable.” And young people are carefully looking for evidence to validate the reliability of the Christian faith. Most believers will not put up with petty church disputes for any length of time. If they sense that a pattern for aggression has been established, they will soon be on their way. The congregation that is continually in conflict implies that they have problems even the Lord Himself cannot solve.
Remember, as a church revitalizer, you are the guy in charge of staying cool when everybody else is freaking out! That is a big part of a church revitalization persona. Put on your emotional Teflon if you are the leader who wants to bring about change within a congregation. You must put it on daily if you desire to revitalize your church. Having the ability to cover you in emotional Teflon is a must. You must let the ugly stuff slide right off of you without changing your demeanor, the way you feel about yourself, or the way you respond to these anxious folks who are acting childishly. The church must know it is dying before it can be revived. Most churches in need of revitalization are in denial. Far too many wait too long to get moving! The only place to start is at the beginning. Ground work for revitalization is not much fun. Preparing the soil and pulling the weeds is the most difficult and demanding work for renewal. Do not allow yourself to take any short cuts because there aren’t any! Understanding your church is the beginning of the journey and not the end.
 John P. Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996. pg.133.