Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

A Rust-Bucket Ship and a Struggling Church: The Leadership Development Imperative in Two "Turn-around" Stories

 The Ugly Baby made pretty: a sea story.

by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.

As I stared into an aft storage locker crammed full of apparently useless detritus and surveyed a ship’s fantail cluttered with more junk—a rusted-out barbeque grill, alleged spare parts that didn’t seem to belong to any of the ship’s installed equipment, and big sealed metal cans of who-knows-what. Rust covered the deck and all the deck fittings and equipment I surveyed. In the background, I could hear Miguel Rivera, our crew’s boatswain’s mate first class petty officer, whistling the theme song of “Sanford and Son,” a 1970s television show where Red Fox played the owner of a junkyard. Pretty appropriate. How could a commissioned U.S. Navy ship have gotten like this?

Just two days before, Petty Officer Rivera and I, along with the rest of our California-based crew, had been assigned to a slick, fast, and well-maintained coastal patrol ship. For the past year, I had been proud to be the captain of that ship—the finest in the Navy, as far as my crew and I had been concerned. Now we were in Bahrain, assigned for the next six months to—so it appeared to me—our previous ship’s evil twin. 

I had become the captain of a floating junkyard.

The Bahrain-based ship was also a coastal patrol ship, identical to our California beauty—except that everything was broken or rusted. Technically, it was half a year newer than our previous ship. But hard use and poor maintenance—and not a little of what I saw as not giving a darn on the part of prior skippers and crews—had taken its toll on this poor hunk of salt-covered steel.

A few days after we first took custody of the ship, we headed out of Bahrain for a first “shakedown” and familiarization voyage in the Persian Gulf. Powered by four massive diesel engines, our little ship was supposed to be able to travel at speeds greater than 35 knots[1]—and I had seen our California-based ship do a little better, even than that. Our “new” ship hit 19.5 knots before numerous alarms and equivalents to a “check engine” light came on—on all four engines. The vessel was bristling with .50-caliber machine guns. Now, guns are supposed to go “click” and, almost instantly afterward, “boom!” But, as we went to test them, these guns went “click”—and then promptly jammed. Same for the big 25-millimeter guns. Both of the surface search radars promptly failed during that short trip. We struggled to communicate with our radios, which all seemed to operate poorly. Further, my chief gunner discovered hundreds of rounds of unusable ammunition that did not appear on the ship’s inventory.

A strange one-off modification to this particular ship allowed us to launch a standard U.S. Navy rigid-hull inflatable boat (or RHIB), which was larger—and more capable—than the boats with which the coastal patrol ship class had originally been fitted. Small boats are critical to Navy operations, such as smuggler interdiction, personnel transfers, and other useful functions, and, theoretically, having the larger RHIB was a boon to our operational flexibility.

The contraption that allowed our ship to operate a standard Navy RHIB was a real Rube Goldberg-looking device. It reminded me of one of those flat-bed trucks that wrecker companies use to haul disabled cars. The whole truck bed tilts up and onto the ground. Then the operator hooks a cable to the vehicle and winches it onto the truck bed, lowering it back down to haul the car away. It was the same principle for this device, which tilted into the water and hauled up the RHIB similarly.

The trouble was this device was notoriously unreliable. More than once—starting with that first daylong voyage out of Bahrain—the thing would just stop, failing to raise the RHIB back onto the ship. This left the clunky rig trailing behind us, hindering our ability to maneuver—with the Sailors manning the RHIB stuck there, unable to get back aboard the ship until our mechanics could coax the device into working.

Worse still, the ship’s potable water tanks were clearly rusted, and our drinking water was orange with rust. Talk about unappetizing. The occupational health laboratories said it was safe (I even got a second opinion from the U.S. Army). Still, I refused to let the crew drink or cook with it, so we went to sea with pallets of bottled water strapped to the ship’s weather decks and adding further to the ship's ugly-baby look.

Two further days after this trip out of Bahrain, we were to head to the coastal waters of Iraq where—blind, deaf, dumb, limping, and even looking pathetic, what with all our rust—we were expected to work with U.S. and allied coalition warships to protect Iraqi oil platforms from terror attack, keep an eye out for pirates, and be on the ready for aggression by the ever-present Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy. To say I did not feel confident sailing into a warzone is an understatement.

This ship was an ugly baby—and if it had been a person, only its mother (maybe) would have loved it.

This story has a happy ending. Even with a few incidents that got me into some hot water—one regarding a gun that finally went “bang,” but when it wasn’t supposed to, and another (self-inflicted) precipitated by my hitting “send” on an angry email to the boss—we executed our mission and, praise the Lord, no one was injured. The ship did suffer further equipment breakdowns, but overall, its appearance and mechanical condition improved vastly during our six-month stay. The water tanks got fixed. Guns went boom when they were supposed to. Engines operated at full speed. Junk and clutter disappeared, as did the rust.

When we turned the ship over to the next rotational crew and returned to California, it was in the shape I wish it had been when we got it. Certainly, our spare parts supply situation improved drastically during the six months we were in the Middle East. I’m thankful to the senior officers and their staff members who supported us by making that happen. But even then, the ship’s condition would not have drastically improved without one essential ingredient.

The key component in this turnaround was my highly-motivated young crew, most of whom were leaders in their own right.[2] I believe that, for all our faults, my officers, chief petty officers, and I had provided our crew with opportunities to learn, lead, and grow—and the team took advantage of those. We gave them responsible jobs—usually beyond what was expected of their rank and experience—and empowered them to act.

Given the opportunities to use their talents, skills, and abilities, motivated, take-charge people can take the worst situations and turn them around. I believe this holds true for every organizational context. Great people can turn an ugly baby into a pretty one. I saw more than a few ugly babies in the Navy and learned to love them—because I know what they can become.

An "ugly baby" church turned pretty

At this point, you are not wrong to wonder where I’m going with this. What does a rust-bucket, ugly baby ship have to do with a dying church? Well, that ship helped me mentally frame the task of revitalizing an ugly baby of a church.

At its heart, revitalizing a declining church is an organizational turnaround. It involves fixing broken systems and damaged relationships. Organizational revitalization means returning an organization to doing what it was created for in the first place. At the same time, the one leading the organizational turnaround must focus on developing leaders who can help share the load, making the comeback more manageable. These emerging leaders will also be the ones to prevent the organization from backsliding into the old bad habits in the future. Moreover, church revitalization—and the attendant leadership development—includes spiritual dimensions that are absent (or at least unacknowledged) in the turnaround of a secular organization.

Every organization represents a unique context. The Church—indeed every individual congregation—represents a distinctive set of circumstances, a problem set peculiar to itself.

So, when I first assumed the pastorate of a struggling church in suburban Tampa, I saw parallels with my ugly baby ship. The most direct comparison was probably the amount of deferred facility maintenance in the church—the air conditioning units kept me up at night, as they were on their last legs, and, let me tell you, Florida summers are hot and humid! You name it, it needed work. Overgrown landscaping, painting, dated décor, worn pews, smelly old carpet, rough parking lot, bugs and rats, junk and clutter. The church facilities needed a tremendous amount of past-due maintenance.

Church systems and ministries had also fallen into disrepair. From bookkeeping to guest follow-up—even keeping an updated list of active members—no administrative system in the church was in order. Evangelism was non-existent—except for my predecessor working in another ministry’s booth at a flea market and handing visitors a card for the church. To my knowledge, only the pastor engaged in anything like outreach. Simple things were neglected, like someone deliberately welcoming newcomers on a Sunday morning and maybe even handing them a church bulletin. It seemed to me that my exhausted predecessor and his wife had, to the best of their abilities, picked up every baton that someone else had dropped. But after picking up a few of someone else’s batons, your hands get pretty full.

More than that, in my view—not unlike my ship when I first got it—the church was also not really mission-capable. It pretended to be a church but was not engaged in the spiritual battlefield in its surrounding community. It did not engage wholeheartedly in what I would say is the church’s most concise biblical mission statement: Love God, love others, and make disciples.

Yes, some individual church members still showed remarkable love and generosity for their neighbor—but as a church body? I’ve since seen worse, but yeah, not so much. And I guess, at this point in my life, I’m unclear as to how one genuinely demonstrates a love for God without loving their neighbor. Making disciples? Not by any standard that I’ve typically seen. No new converts, no baptisms, no evangelistic outreach, no small groups—and even the children’s ministry, with what few children were there, wasn’t very successful in instilling biblical principles.

Like my ugly baby ship, the church was in rough shape and wasn’t performing its mission. The similarities started to fall apart from there. It would have been much more analogous to the church if I had received my poorly maintained ship with an understaffed, largely untrained, unmotivated crew not interested in going into a war zone. The analogy would have been even more complete had the leaders under me been unwilling to follow their captain’s direction.

Not all ugly babies are the same kind of ugly.

The most essential difference between my ugly baby church and my ship was this: While the Navy hadn’t allowed me to pick my crew—I had no hiring authority—they did send me motivated and trained young people to work with—and paid them! At least for the time the Navy said those Sailors had to be there, they were compelled to be there. Moreover, my crew—especially the leaders under me—required no convincing that things needed to change on that ship. What’s more, had they disagreed, they had no choice in the matter—I was the captain, and while I had no desire to be a tyrant, what I said, went. The phrase “all-volunteer” means something completely different in the armed forces than in the church!

The church revitalizing pastor has to find, recruit, train, develop, and motivate the leaders and usually can reward them with little more than a kind word and undying gratitude. Moreover, the pastor must achieve buy-in from leaders who aren’t convinced that the church needs to change.

No leaders were left in the church when I began my tenure as pastor. We had one deacon left—and under 40, too—but the truth was, he was my predecessor’s son. He, his wife, and children no longer lived within a reasonable commute of the church, and they had stayed on out of that good old familial loyalty. I hated to see them go, but I completely understood their reasons for doing so.

A gentleman in his sixties came over with us from the church where I had been on staff. For years, he had been my Sunday adult Bible fellowship class leader and volunteered to help lead Sunday morning singing. While he was not a young leader, I thought he could help develop them. You think you know someone. After less than a year at the church, he left his wife for another woman and moved to another state. So much for the idea of him helping develop leaders.

None of the older men in the church were concerned about leading or developing leaders. I caught a “been there, done that” vibe from a few of them. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the case of one or two of them, if they hadn’t stayed to watch me fail. Some of these men exercised leadership by their influence—and not necessarily in an entirely positive way.

Thank goodness, at least, for the senior adult women in the church. Their prayers and encouragement were a lifeline. And thank goodness for the blind, autistic-savant young man who played piano and sang throughout my tenure, even as the church moved to a more contemporary worship style—his talent, prayers, and friendship were a tremendous blessing. Through their influence, these dear people also exercised a more informal type of leadership, but in a positive fashion. Whether it’s good or bad, never ignore the influence wielded by informal leaders that no one ever formally installed in the church.

Like the ugly ship, this church turnaround story also had a happy ending—or rather than ending, the story is still being happily written. Eventually, younger leaders took charge of the worship, technology, children’s ministry, a men’s group, holding neighborhood block parties, and welcoming guests. Hand-in-hand with older adults who worked alongside them, handing down their skills and wisdom at the same time, these young leaders took part in major facility renovations. The church came alive again. Yes, a larger more prosperous church stepped in to help, adopting the church as a satellite campus. But that would never have happened if these next-generation leaders hadn’t first stepped up to the challenge.

Thanks for the stories, but…?

I told you a sea story and then a church revitalization story for several reasons. First, I want you to understand that organizational turnaround is possible in any context. Second, turnaround—in a military unit, a stagnant corporation, and even in a struggling church—requires developing next-generation leaders who will own the revitalization and ensure that the momentum continues long into the future.

Third, I want you to understand some vital differences between the dying church and other organizations—especially those in secular government or for-profit contexts. No leader is likely as under-resourced in any respect as the church revitalization pastor. Finances and volunteers—especially willing and equipped next-generation leaders—are scarce.

If you get nothing else from this chapter, understand, pastor, that you’re going to be the one to find, recruit, disciple, develop, and empower these next-generation leaders.

[1] A knot is one nautical mile per hour. In your car, that equates to 1.15 miles per hour. So our ship was supposed to have a top speed of about forty miles an hour.

[2] At 40, Chief Jerry Ferguson was the “old man” of the crew, and at 37, I was the second oldest. Most of the crew were in their 20s, and one was 18. While I made such calls daily as commanding officer, every member of this young crew faced at least occasional moments where their actions or decisions meant life or death—for themselves or others, or potentially, for all of us.


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