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

Some Thoughts on Empowering Emerging Leaders in Church Revitalization

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

You may have read that church revitalization pastors must focus on developing and empowering next-generation leaders if their churches are to see successful revitalization. My doctoral dissertation research bore that out—not that I was at all surprised. I had already heard successful church revitalization pastors talk about it. But more than that, long before I became a “doctor,” years of experience in the military and ministry had already proven to me the necessity of developing leaders. I write here specifically to church revitalization pastors. However, given that, to the best of my knowledge, all good leadership is biblical—regardless of who is doing it—this advice could fit most leadership contexts.

The best leadership development advice ever: “Train your replacement.”

In the Navy—at least in the units where I most enjoyed serving—the motto was “train your replacement.” It made sense. If something happened to you in a battle (or even an accident, given the inherent hazard involved in operating warships), the next Sailor down from you needed to be able to pick up the mantle and carry on.

The motto “train your replacement” does not get much traction in church leadership circles—at least from all I’ve seen, heard, and read. That mentality seems strange to me—because we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and even spiritual warfare has its casualties. And, realistically, unforeseen—sometimes terrible— things happen; people fall ill or get into accidents. I wish I’d never seen it. Pastor, you could be gone tomorrow. What’s going to happen to your church?

But I get it. It’s one thing for the volunteer head usher to train a volunteer who can take up his duties so he can rest or pursue another ministry opportunity within the church. It’s quite another thing if we talk about the senior (or solo) pastor or other vocational church leader teaching another person to capably handle their responsibilities. We’re talking now about more complicated dynamics—like a person’s livelihood. But I believe the average church revitalizer is more secure than worrying about being replaced by someone they trained.

Pastor, if you successfully develop and empower emerging leaders, they will undoubtedly serve to lessen your heavy load. But more than that, their roles in your church will motivate and encourage them. They’ll find satisfaction. (I know the old cliché that serving the Lord should be satisfying enough. But platitudes eventually run thin after a while, and even the most devout saint will have difficulty finding joy in the drudgery.) Satisfied church leaders will stick around. And if you do send them out from your church, they’ll remember the lessons you taught them and, in turn, empower yet another generation of leaders. And if they work you out of a job, you can go on to lead the next church in need of revitalization, secure in knowing God can use you mightily, as He already has.

Yes, I understand that it may sometimes feel like emerging leaders want to help everywhere but where you need the help. That’s part of the leadership give and take. No, I’m not telling you to run the leaf blower on a Sunday morning while a wet-behind-the-ears, long-term leadership prospect lacking a tenth of your experience and formal training—who maybe just got saved six months ago—preaches the sermon. (But admit it, church revitalizing pastor, you were probably already running that leaf blower when you first got to the church—and you preached the sermon.)

What I am saying is that there may be some things you think you (and only you) need to do that, in fact, you don’t need to do. Work diligently, even if the hardest laboring you do is your own head, to figure out those things you could pass on without adverse effects to the ministry.

Preparing leaders for their roles.

To be sure, some people aren’t yet ready for the roles they feel called to serve. That’s also on you, pastor, as the leader. You can help that potential leader see what sort of preparation comes with the roles to which they feel called. And rather than leaving them unable to see a viable path to fulfilling their calling (at least in your church), you can help them chart a realistic plan for reaching their ministry goals. That’s discipleship. That’s mentorship. That’s leadership development. Keep the long view in mind—but never let not having a destination pass for the “long view.”

I sense, however, that more often than having to restrain those unprepared leaders who are chomping at the bit, the church revitalization pastor will need to fight the urge to entrust roles to people who may not be as fully prepared as they should be. Granted, people will probably learn the most about a given role when serving in it. Sometimes it’s tough to gauge exactly how much preparation is enough. But don’t set someone up for failure by grossly under-preparing them.

And that leads me to my next thought.

This isn’t Apollo 13. Failure is (sometimes) an option.

Shame on you, pastor, if you ever set up an emerging for failure by not adequately preparing them. But I certainly believe in allowing people to gracefully fail. People learn by doing, and some people catch on faster than others. Failure is a great teacher, one I embraced as a ship’s commanding officer and church revitalization pastor.

On a ship, there were plenty of situations where we gave a novice a chance to “drive” during complex and potentially hazardous evolutions, such as mooring to a pier, navigating a narrow channel, or maneuvering alongside a refueling ship. People are inexperienced until they’re not, so we had several precautions to allow the person to gracefully fail without endangering the ship. The person had first cut their teeth on more straightforward ship-handling tasks. The commanding officer always supervised and coached during those kinds of operations. Moreover, as commanding officer, I kept an officer on hand who was highly experienced in such complex maneuvers—he could take over if the trainee became too frustrated to continue.

Often, the trainee successfully completed the ship-handling task, even if his technique lacked finesse. I was okay with that—ultimately, if no one got hurt and nothing was damaged (at least too badly), that was a good training experience. In church revitalization, I saw more than a few examples, especially during a worship service, where I felt like my ship captain days were coming back to me. The best thing we could do was—just like on the ship—debrief the event, and talk through how we would do it better the next time. People are inexperienced until they aren’t. And nobody got hurt, and nothing got too severely damaged. As a church revitalization pastor, you must be okay with graceful failures. If you aren’t, you need to find another ministry.

It’s not about perfection; it’s about direction (and it’s really not about perfection).

I worked on a church staff where the senior pastor often said, “It’s not about perfection; it’s about direction.” And he usually re-iterated, “But it is about direction.” He had never served as the solo pastor of a church attempting revitalization. If he had, he might have realized just how right he was.

No church will ever be perfect. But I always thought, perhaps with a tinge of envy, that if the church where I served on staff couldn’t reach perfection, at least they could see it from where they were. From a struggling church’s standpoint, perfection is on the other side of the globe—maybe even somewhere on Mars.

Larger-sized, healthy, well-resourced churches do ministry—worship, music, children, and more—with excellence. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. As your struggling church progresses toward revitalization, higher-quality programs will be a significant marker of its improved health. But, as a church revitalization pastor, you must recognize that what amounts to considerable improvement in your church’s capacity to do quality ministry will still be a dumpster fire compared to larger churches.

If you can’t tell yourself, “At least we’re not as bad as we were six months ago,” and find joy in it, the revitalizing ministry probably isn’t for you. 

This also includes the ability of your leaders. On paper, few of your leaders’ qualifications will match those of the big church down the road. But you get who God sends. And one of the remarkable things about church revitalization is that when you see God do a mighty work with leaders who wouldn’t be first-draft picks for a megachurch, you know it was God working and not fallen humans.

That’s pretty neat if you ask me.

In fact, it reminds me a lot of Jesus and the twelve rough-hewn men he called as his apostles. Consider it: Jesus picked four rugged fishermen, a crooked tax collector, a political reactionary, and six other seeming nobodies to build his church. Not a seminary graduate, a gifted visionary communicator, or a trained musician in the lot, from all accounts. Not anyone you’d expect to see in Outreach Magazine as the founding pastor of one of the Top 100 largest or fastest growing churches. Yet they would carry the Gospel message to the known world—within a lifetime.

I know that some seminaries have church revitalization programs. But, the truth is, I have yet to meet a Bible college or seminary student who told me they wanted to work in church revitalization. At least not any students in their twenties and early thirties with a young family. They might be out there. I just haven’t met them.

But you might get that experienced industrial painter, delivery driver, car mechanic, electrician, police officer, school teacher, or construction worker looking to deepen their faith, grow in the knowledge of God’s word, and use hard-earned leadership skills for the Kingdom. And that’s a boon to the church revitalization pastor and congregation alike. But don’t expect them to know how to “do church” like a seminary graduate who has completed a residency with a large, healthy, prosperous church.

Empower, really empower those leaders, and then trust them to act.

When I was a ship’s commanding officer, I slept with the knowledge that a 24-year-old Officer of the Deck (OOD) was leading a team of even younger Sailors who were tasked with safely sailing and, if necessary, defending the ship from attack until I could get to the bridge to take charge. That’s life on most Navy ships, in fact (I was 21 when I first operated a nuclear reactor on my own). Whatever their age, Sailors who serve in almost any position of responsibility have the authority to make decisions and act in a split second—asking permission, in some cases, only if there is time to do so.

I always figured that if I could trust someone 18 to 25 with guns or navigating a ship—essentially, putting my life and naval career in their hands when I slept—I ought to be able to trust someone that age with leading a worship team. Church revitalization pastor, if you have an inner control freak (as many do), I urge you to put it to rest—kill it if you must. This is for your sanity’s sake as much as your leadership team’s. Spend the time you need mentoring them and getting them to understand what you would do in a given situation. And then resign yourself to the fact that they’re never going to do it exactly as you would have—and if you’ve indeed done your job developing them, that’s okay. It might even be that they came up with a better way.

If your tendency is to micromanage, break that toxic habit. Micromanage your leaders consistently, and they will quickly conclude that you don’t really need them. Before long, their hearts will leave the church, and probably not long after that, they will, too. Leaders will lead. Or they will go somewhere they can.

Few life-or-death situations are unique to a church. In fact, I can’t think of any that you wouldn’t face in any other public place. For the most part, you have time to look back on things that didn’t go well and discuss with your team how they might improve next time. I get it; there are some things you can’t, nor should you, live with. There are probably things that, out of your entire team, you only know how to do correctly. Do your best to patiently pass on that knowledge. Still, I challenge you to really learn what things you can live with not being done your way. And the wonderful thing, in my mind, is that you don’t have a deep bench. You’ll have to rely on God to show up and make it work with the people you’ve got. And that’s an absolute joy.

Learn patience in developing leaders—or find another ministry.

In Reclaiming Glory, Mark Clifton, an experienced church revitalization pastor and recognized expert in the field, lists “tactical patience” as one of the church revitalization pastor’s most necessary traits. Indeed, I believe the role demands extraordinary patience. Patience with church members. Patience with the situation. And most important, patience with your leaders. As patient as you may be, I suspect you will learn to be even more patient. 

If you are not patient, you need to grow patience or find another ministry—any other ministry. Church revitalization is not for you. It just isn’t.

Nothing will happen as fast as you think it should. And despite how much time and effort you believe you have put into discipleship and mentoring your leaders, many will not seem to catch on as quickly as you desire. Rest assured, God is using this role to grow you every bit as much—probably more—than your team.

Learn to glory in God’s desire to use brokenness to further His Kingdom.

We’re all broken—every human being is fallen, sinful, and frail. You’re broken. Your leaders are broken. And truth be told, people in a struggling church might be a little bit more broken than in other churches. But my sense is that, in a small, struggling church, it’s just harder to hide the brokenness. Like the Apostle’s thorn in the flesh, God uses that brokenness. God works through brokenness, not despite it. Embrace it. Eagerly anticipate how He will use your brokenness—and that of your church leaders and congregants—to advance the Gospel and further His Kingdom in your neighborhood. If you do that, you will learn to recognize it when God eventually does a miracle in and through your church.

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