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

Leadership Development in Local Church Revitalization: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Further Research

by Bart L. Denny

This article identifies a gap in the existing literature concerning leadership development in the context of local church revitalization. The article further suggests how existing leadership and leadership development theories could be applied to church revitalization and proposes further investigation and research areas. Observers and practitioners in the field of church revitalization unequivocally make the case that for a local church to reverse its decline, the pastor must develop a new generation of leaders (Clifton, 2016; Davis, 2017; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2020; Stetzer & Dodson, 2021). The extant literature links the decline of churches to a lack of leadership and identifies renewed leadership as a vital component of church revitalization. However, little has been written, theoretically or practically, about the process of leadership development as it applies to local church revitalization. Moreover, little empirical verification supports church revitalization leadership development best practices.

the American church: in a tailspin

American churches are dying, with smaller neighborhood churches leading the way. At the same time, the U.S. is becoming an increasingly unchurched and unreached nation. If the Church is to fulfill its Great Commission responsibilities, it must do more than plant new churches. Denominations and prosperous churches in America must prevent existing but struggling churches from closing their doors. 

Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, the stunning decline of churches in North America was a source of grave concern among pastors, congregants, and denominational leaders across the Protestant spectrum. According to a 2019 study by Lifeway Research, conducted about a year before the pandemic severely curtailed public gatherings, 61 percent of Protestant pastors reported declining or plateaued worship attendance in the preceding three years (Earls, 2019). Declining worship attendance was more pronounced among mainline Protestants than among evangelicals and in churches of less than 50 in attendance than in churches of 250 or more attendees (Earls, 2019). 

In the same vein, Gallup research—conducted about the same time as the Lifeway survey—found a sharp drop in church membership between 2000 and 2018. While Gallup’s research found a decrease in church attendance across generations, the lowest attendance was for adults born between 1980 and 2000—the “Millennial Generation”—of whom only 42 percent were members of any religious tradition (Jones, 2019). Pew Research found that, in 2019, church attendance notwithstanding, 65 percent of U.S. adults identified as Christian—down twelve percent from a decade before. Over the same decade, those identifying as atheist, agnostic, or otherwise religiously unaffiliated had risen from 17 percent to 27 percent of the U.S. adult population. 

Likewise, U.S. Protestantism’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, saw the total membership of its churches decrease from 16.3 million in 2006 to 14 million in 2020. In the nation’s leading evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), leaders in the denomination’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) expected around 900 SBC churches in the U.S. to permanently close their doors annually (Clifton, 2016). Moreover, the SBC reported that, in 2018, it planted 642 churches in the U.S. (SBC, 2019), for a potential net loss of over 250 churches this year (254 existing churches joined the SBC in 2018; however, this still represents a net loss of churches in the Baptist tradition, if not for the SBC itself). Reliable numbers are hard to come by, especially given the number of denominationally unaffiliated churches, but if the SBC’s projections stand true for all of evangelicalism, then between 6,000 and 10,000 churches may be shuttering their doors annually (Rainer, 2018), with no reliable numbers available on how many new churches will replace them. Further, as the U.S. economy has rebounded in the past several years, with wages and employment increasing, over one-third of evangelical churches report their giving remains below budget. “Just getting by” is the new normal for many evangelical churches (Smietana, 2016).

Churches in America are declining, with smaller churches dying off at an increasingly accelerated pace. By any accounting, the small neighborhood church is fast losing its influence. While larger regional churches seem less affected by the overall decline in the American church, these churches are often outside of neighborhoods, with attendance dependent upon motor vehicle transportation. For those living in neighborhoods where residents rely upon foot, bicycle, or public transportation—the same neighborhoods where churches are dying—a substantial portion of the population will become increasingly disenfranchised from the Church. 

Cheyney and Rials (2015, p. 17) refer to the days of Nehemiah when they say, “We need to look around at our crumbling walls and discover that we are a reproach to the name of our Lord…Every Sunday with an empty parking lot, an empty building, and an empty altar is a reproach to His name.”  As Clifton (2016) laments, “Ultimately, Clifton (2016) poses the most poignant question, “What about a dying church brings glory to God?” His straightforward answer is, “Nothing.” For Clifton (p. 6), the dying church robs God of His glory because it fails to exhibit the life-transforming power of the Gospel and brings to mind the fruitless fig tree of Jesus’ parable in Luke 13:6-9. Instead, a dying church reinforces beliefs that the Church is irrelevant in people’s daily lives.

Factors Contributing to Church Decline

Several factors contribute to the decline of churches and, to lead their congregations in a turnaround, church revitalization leaders must understand these considerations. This article has already demonstrated that Americans are less religious and less likely to attend church services. While two-thirds of Americans self-identify as Christian, that majority has eroded. In fact, according to Rainer (2018), cultural Christianity is dead. American culture once viewed church attendance as something that respectable people do. There remains no such societal expectation in the postmodern culture of 2020s America.

Further, in isolated cases, a local church may decline because its community’s population suddenly and drastically drops (such as when a major employer closes or relocates). While such occurrences do happen, they hardly contribute to the overall picture of decay in Protestant America (Henard, 2021). Moreover, if 61 percent of Protestant churches are plateaued or declining, as LifeWay (Earls, 2019) reported, 39 percent are growing.

As Christ promised, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against” His Church (Matt. 16:18). The universal Church will never die, but the apathy, if not outright apostasy, exhibited towards Christianity in America is a problem for the present day. While the decline of cultural Christianity has undoubtedly made church growth more challenging, it does not explain the differences between thriving and declining churches. Studies of church decline, dysfunction, and death find several factors to be overcome in church revitalization (Brunson & Caner, 2005; Clifton, 2016; Rainer, 2014). While this article describes many factors contributing to church decline, the overarching problem is a deep spiritual sickness and a failure of discipleship (Clifton, 2016; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2014).

A Slow Erosion

The decline of a local church starts imperceptibly and does nothing to cause a sense of urgency (Henard, 2021). As Rainer (2005) states, “One of the key reasons many churches today are in a slow but deadly path of erosion is the failure of the people to accept that the church is in trouble and that immediate changes are needed.” According to the “autopsies” of fourteen churches that closed their doors (Rainer, 2014), the earliest signs of degeneration are not in the church’s facilities (though that indeed happens eventually). Instead, the deterioration first appears in the cessation of vibrant ministries, the loss of connection to the surrounding community, and the decline of the church’s prayer life. The church may even be a flurry of activity—activities that do little to build the church’s spiritual life—and this activity further dulls the senses of the congregation to the church’s increasing unhealthiness (Clifton, 2016). Because the decay is gradual, many congregations fail to notice the decline until the church is already in existential crisis.

Loss of Purpose


In his fourteen “autopsies,” Rainer (2014) also found that churches had lost a sense of purpose. Warren (1995) famously describes the church’s purpose as five-fold: worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, and evangelism. Undoubtedly, most dying churches would protest that their congregation engages in every single purpose of the church. Nevertheless, further examination shows that is just not the case. Dying churches do meet for what are, ostensibly, worship services. However, the services are ritualistic, permanently welded to the church’s traditions, and with no discernable vibrancy. At the same time, the prayers in such a worship service are rote, expressing concern for sick, saved people but never for the lost (Rainer, 2014). 

In the realm of fellowship, most dying congregations would describe themselves as “a friendly church.” Indeed, the members are friendly—to their longtime friends in the congregation—but outsiders would describe the church as cold, if not outright unfriendly (Rainer, 2014). While “Bible studies” occur, dying churches engage in no meaningful discipleship, especially discipleship intended to bring younger Christians into leadership roles (Clifton, 2016). This article will later discuss neglected discipleship in greater detail. Dying churches also neglect service, do not provide meaningful service opportunities within the church, and do not undertake any meaningful service to the surrounding community (Rainer, 2014). While dying churches may give lip service to reaching the lost (and even give money to foreign missions), in reality, they have abandoned evangelism, and the lack of baptisms in the church demonstrates that re As Rainer (2014, p. 26) laments, “The Great Commission has become the Great Omission.” The church possesses no compelling vision (Henard, 2021).

 Inward Focus

Dying churches have, in essence, adopted a “country club mentality.” Many congregants view their church as a place where (by tithing) they pay their “dues.” In return, these church members expect a certain level of personal service, even viewing the church staff as existing entirely to serve their needs (Rainer, 2014). Most dying churches never give serious thought to ways to serve their church or community or exercise Great Commission obedience in reaching the lost. In their attitudes, worship, preaching, and every other aspect of how their church operates, dying congregations are singularly focused inside the four walls of the church building. As Henard (2021) says, people in the community may be completely unaware that the church exists.

Declining Churches No Longer Look Like the Neighborhood (and Refuse to Try)

Perhaps nowhere is a church’s severe decline more in evidence than in its failure to look like the community (Rainer, 2014). The demographics of a dying congregation almost always present a stark mismatch with the community’s (Henard, 2021). The disparity in demographics is often in several categories, including age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Dying churches are substantially older than the surrounding community and, especially in areas of ethnic shift, significantly whiter than the neighborhood. Often, these congregations consist of elderly white people who commute from outside the Instead of self-sacrificially pivoting with the culture in line with the Apostle Paul’s missional strategy to reach people where they are (1 Cor. 9), the church blames the community for changing and no longer responding to church growth methods that worked in decades past (Clifton, 2016; Henard, 2021). Efforts to reach the community are sporadic, at best. The church makes community members feel unwelcome when they visit and anathematizes any thought of passing leadership to neighborhood residents (Clifton, 2016; Rainer, 2014).

The Preference-Driven Church: Idols Galore

Preferences drive the dying church. The church’s statement of faith declares a belief system within the realm of Christian orthodoxy. However, the congregation elevates to the level of biblical doctrine such preferences as types of worship music (usually, but not always, traditional hymns played on a piano or organ), pews (rather than chairs), pulpits, and other pieces of furniture, special-purpose rooms, preaching styles, order of services, Bible versions, and any number of other traditions or long-held ways of “doing church.” Despite professions to the contrary, dying churches care little about reaching the neighborhood. The comfort of the existing members has primacy in the dying church, and budgets reflect this reality (Rainer, 2014). Unhealthy congregations will strongly resist any changes, even when the changes intend to reach the lost better and serve the neighborhood, wrapping their idolatrous protests in a sanctified veneer (Clifton, 2016; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2014).

An Obsession With the Past

Closely related to the preference-driven factor is an obsession with the past. The past is the hero in most dying churches (Brunson & Caner, 2005; Rainer, 2014). Congregants look back to memories of the church’s heyday and the programs and personalities that supposedly brought success. They imagine that if only the church could replicate the effective programs of forty years ago or find a preacher just like the one they had fifty years ago, the church would return to health. The problems with such thinking are many-fold. First, people often idealize their memories. Usually, the church’s golden years were not as lustrous as congregants remember. Often, the programs were not as effective as remembered, and the old pastor did not preach as well as congregants remember. More than that, the programs that were effective in the past—such as bus ministry or door-to-door evangelism—are significantly less effective today than forty or fifty years ago (Rainer, 2014).

Broken Windows, Broken Church

As Levine (2006) shows, businesses presenting poor first impressions, run-down or dirty facilities, or poor service will lose customers and cannot stay in business indefinitely. Newcomers to a restaurant with filthy restrooms, unappetizing food, or surly waitstaff will not return. More than that, they will warn their friends away from repeating their bad experiences with the church. Church guests are no different. When a family visits a church, receives a lukewarm or cold welcome, and finds drab, dated, dirty, or even dangerous facilities, experience a lifeless worship service will not return to that church. Furthermore, they will warn friends that the church is not a place for newcomers. 

Poor condition, location, or use of facilities can be highly detrimental to church revitalization efforts and contribute heavily to accelerated decline (Henard, 2021). As Clifton (2016) notes, declining churches often have a host of deferred maintenance items. Parents of young children are incredibly attentive to facilities’ condition, safety, and cleanliness, especially the nursery and children’s areas. Nurseries that feature old toys, drab décor, peeling paint, and unsanitary smells or appearances will run off families with babies and toddlers.

Sometimes, people and governance structures can function as a “broken window.” Door greeters who do not break from “holy huddles”—conversations with fellow congregants—long enough even to acknowledge a guest. Signs of “saved seats” may be abundant in the worship area (Rainer, 2014). Long-term pastors are often “broken windows,” either numbering among those most vehemently fighting change or too afraid of losing their jobs to enact any meaningful change (Croft, 2016). Henard (2021) observes that some pastors are poor fits for a given church. Likewise, governance structures may be dated, bureaucratic (thwarting the ability to be nimble when attempting change), or better suited to times when the church was larger (Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2014). 

Many declining churches have bi-vocational pastors leading them. These pastors often have a short tenure (Henard, 2021). Tasked with a full-time secular job and all of the church’s preaching, hospital visits, counseling, and administrative tasks leave these hard-working pastors burned out and feeling that their ministry will have no impact. Alternatively, the church may have become a “pastor eater,” marked by a succession of frustrated pastors who came in with high hopes of leading meaningful, healthy change but gave up after a few years on the job and headed for greener pastures (Davis, 2017; Rainer, 2014). Short-tenured pastors (under five years) will have difficulty gaining any momentum in church revitalization (Croft, 2016; Davis, 2017; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2014). Further, dying churches are often fraught with interpersonal conflict, causing a loss of members and driving off guests and even pastors (Clifton, 2016).

The Ultimate Factor in Church Decline and Death: A Failure of Discipleship


According to Clifton (2016, p. 7), “In reality, dying churches don’t primarily have an attendance problem, a giving problem, or a baptism problem. They have a discipleship problem. Churches in North America are dying from a lack of disciple-making.” Davis (2017, p. 199) agrees, observing “churches in need of revitalization almost inevitably have turned away from this commission (to make disciples) to follow worldly pursuits.”

As a result of this neglect of discipleship, all of the problems already described above occur in the church. The church does not pray together. It is a carnal, conflicted church. It demonstrates un-Christlike self-centeredness and Great Commission disobedience. Among the most significant losses in this failure to engage in discipleship is the church’s inability to transfer power to younger leaders. Flouting the Great Commission and its entailed discipleship practices ensures that the church will die out when its leaders age out or leave.

Clifton (2016) notes that declining churches have no strategic plan to place younger leaders in leadership positions. Worse, declining churches often fight any effort to entrust leadership to younger people and, if they put a younger person in charge of a significant ministry, the congregation will criticize or micromanage that person until, in utter frustration, he or she or leaves the church entirely. While dying churches talk about the need to attract young people, as Clifton (2016) observes, it is challenging to draw young people to a church, let alone retain them if the church affords them no opportunity to lead.

A church that cannot reverse this failure to disciple its people to be spiritually mature church members and empowered leaders will surely die.

Leadership development: The Top Need in Church Revitalization

In their study of “turnaround” churches, Stetzer and Dodson (2007, p. 34) found that “Leadership was rated as the number one factor by the churches that experienced revitalization. Leadership and vision are major keys to any type of turnaround in churches.” Unquestionably, reversing a years-long decline in an unhealthy church and instituting new behaviors requires skilled, caring, tenacious, and mature leaders empowered by the Holy Spirit. Because of this need to build leaders, Clifton (2016) calls reaching young men one of the church revitalization pastor’s six imperatives (the other five are unceasing and passionate prayer, loving remaining members, exegeting the community, simplifying the church’s strategy, and making disciples who make disciples). In their study of 300 turnaround churches, Stetzer and Dodson (2007) found that pastors who succeed in leading church revitalization spent significant time and effort multiplying themselves by mentoring and leadership development. Likewise, Davis (2017) believes in establishing an ongoing leadership development pipeline for biblically qualified (according to 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1) men, especially younger men, to serve as elders in the church.

In the church context, Malphurs and Mancini (2004, p. 5) “define leadership development as the intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills… This definition is based on a major assumption, that people in general and leaders, in particular, can be developed.” According to research by Sosik and Jung (2018), outstanding leaders “are committed to growing and developing their followers and making positive impacts for their organization and world.”


Despite over a thousand studies in the past half-century, no one has definitively established the ideal leader’s style, characteristics, or personality traits (George, Sims, McLean, Mayer, 2019, p. 9). In truth, successful leaders run the gamut of style and occupy the entire personality spectrum—from extroversion to introversion. Numerous theorists reject the notion of “born leaders,” believing instead that leadership consists of skills and behaviors that can be taught, learned, and further refined (Bennis, 2009; Bolea & Atwater, 2016; Boyer, 2019; Fusco, 2018; Malphurs & Mancini, 2004; McLaughlin & Cox, 2016; Sosik & Jung, 2018). 

Given the consensus that potential leaders can be identified, taught, and coached to apply leadership behaviors, it seems prudent for church-revitalizing pastors, elders, and other church leaders to first ask what kind of leaders they wish to develop. While no single leadership model is all-encompassing (and several leadership theories have much to commend to them), three theories seem particularly suited to the church revitalization context. They are transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and servant leadership. Though secular in origin, these three theories emphasize traits, skills, and behaviors highly valued in the Christian community. Successful church revitalization leaders will also understand and apply change leadership principles, such as those famously advocated by Kotter (2012).

The overriding concern of church revitalization leaders—or any church leaders, for that matter—should be to lead as Jesus led. Indeed, “Christians have more in Jesus than just a great spiritual leader; we have a practical and effective leadership model for all organizations, for all people, for all situations” (Blanchard & Hodges, 2003, p. 17). This author argues that all good leadership is biblical, regardless of where leadership behaviors are learned or practiced. Thus, this assumes that prevailing leadership theories from secular sources apply in leading churches. Theories of transformational leadership (Bass & Riggio, 2006), servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977), authentic leadership (George, 2003) will provide a theoretical framework for the type of leadership this study assumes is most needed. Because church revitalization usually entails stark, controversial, and unsettling changes, Kotter (2012) provides a change leadership model that helpfully describes the skills emerging leaders must develop. Bolea and Atwater (2016), Geiger and Peck (2016), and Malphurs and Mancini (2004) provide theoretical frameworks for developing leaders.

Transformational Leadership

It seems probable that pastors engaged in successful church revitalization will also have engaged in transformational leadership. While transactional leaders lead through social exchange—and transformational leaders may, at times, borrow from the transactional—transformational leaders stimulate and inspire followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, help those followers to leadership capacity in their own right. Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers’ needs by empowering them. Transformational leaders align the individual followers’ objectives and goals, the group, and the broader organization (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 3). Further, Bass and Riggio (2006) show strong evidence that transformational leadership produces high-performing teams whose members demonstrate great satisfaction and dedication to the organization. 

Transformational leadership includes several components. The first component of transformational leadership is Idealized Influence (II)—the ability to serve as role models for followers. Second, transformational leaders practice Inspirational Motivation (IM), an ability to motivate others and create enthusiasm. The third component of transformational leadership is Intellectual Stimulation (IS), which questions assumptions and fosters creativity. Fourth is Individualized Consideration (IC), whereby the leader pays attention to the need for personal development and achievement in followers. (Bass & Riggio, 2006, pp. 5-7). While the idea of Contingent Reward (CR) is generally associated with transactional leadership, Bass and Riggio (2008, p. 8) insist that CR becomes transactional when it is psychological, such as when the leader praises a follower. 

Jesus’ leadership repertoire certainly included elements that might today fall under the rubric of transformational leadership. Indeed, Christ could be considered the ultimate in transformational leaders. As Bass and Riggio (2006, p. 3) observe, “Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than they originally intended and often even more than they thought possible.”  Examining the earthly ministry of Jesus and his followers in their lifetimes, Christ meets these criteria. Further, Bass and Riggio (2006, p. 32) also find, “the strongest effects of transformational leadership seem to be on followers’ attitudes and their commitment to the leader and the organization.”  Jesus of Nazareth has engendered a strong commitment in the centuries since His incarnation. This commitment extends to both His person and His church.   Consistent with the Father’s mission for Him, Jesus taught and practiced all transformational leadership principles, including idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.

Idealized influence speaks to the leader to the leader’s charisma and influence upon followers. In this sense, followers see the leader as a role model. The four gospels each portray His teaching as both authoritative and influential. In Mark 1:16-20, for instance, Jesus unmistakably displays individualized influence in the calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus exercised an incomparable influence, such that many people during his lifetime would follow. Indeed, His original apostles remained so committed that almost all of them would go to a martyr’s death proclaiming His message.  

Transformational leaders stimulate through inspirational motivation by providing purpose, meaning, and challenge. The transformational leader can cast a compelling vision (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 5). Again, Jesus’ leadership style fits the transformational mold—indeed, it casts the mold. While Jesus preached that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, He did not lay out a grand, overarching vision so much as He gave followers the ability to see their place in His mission. For instance, in Mark 1, Jesus did not come to Simon, Andrew, James, and John explaining that He would go on to sacrifice Himself on a cross for the sins of the world. Instead, He says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mk. 1:17, ESV). Jesus’ vision-casting is much more about showing His disciples how they can impact the world around them.

Jesus was the ultimate practitioner of intellectual stimulation. In utilizing intellectual stimulation, transformational leaders spur their followers on to creativity and innovation. Transformational leaders reframe problems, challenge assumptions, and solicit ideas from others (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 6). Jesus told numerous parables, each of which contested, to some extent, contemporary ways of thinking about issues of life and spirituality. For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan questioned how people ought to obey the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Questioning the conventional wisdom, Jesus remarked, “You have heard that it was said (an eye for an eye, do not commit adultery, love your neighbor and hate your enemy)… But I say to you….”  People remarked that Jesus’ teaching was different from the other rabbis. The disciples were Jewish, and though Jews possessed the law and belief in the one true God, first-century Judaism was hardly missional or evangelistic. No doubt, as Jesus’ challenged their assumptions, He helped the disciples develop into the kind of innovators who would take the Gospel to most of the known world within a single lifetime.

Again, another habit of transformational leaders is individualized consideration. This component of transformational leadership recognizes the individual follower’s needs for growth, development, and achievement (Bass & Riggio, 2006, pg. 6). The leader acts as a coach or mentor and knows and empathizes with followers. Unquestionably, Jesus also practiced individualized consideration to the utmost. As for His twelve disciples, Jesus spent around three years speaking daily into their lives. Three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, seem to have been at the heart of Jesus’ innermost circle and received extensive mentorship.  

Jesus knew his followers intimately and dealt with them as unique individuals. Rather than using lofty theological terms, Jesus spoke in a language that ordinary people understood; to the fishermen, He said, “I will make you fishers of men.” He wept with those who grieved (John 11:35). He empathized, observing, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk. 10:41, ESV). Given the unique attention He gave to all those with whom He interacted, Jesus’ leadership style comports well with the concept of individualized consideration.

Church revitalization leaders will do best if they lead as Jesus led. It seems clear that transformational leadership describes Jesus’ leadership style, but only partly. Thus, those who wish to lead like Jesus should consider other models.

Servant Leadership

Greenleaf (1977), Blanchard and Hodges (2003), and many others in popular literature have written about the need for servant leaders in the church. Jesus Christ modeled servant leadership not only in his miracles—which all accrued to the benefits of human beings, mainly his followers—but also in His washing of the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper (John 13:1-17). Jesus displayed the ultimate servant leadership in his willingness to go to the cross. He endured the cross not only for His followers but for all who would, in turn, follow Christ because of them.

Greenleaf (1977, p. 23) observed, “A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.” Greenleaf seems to have been prescient when he opined that trust in institutional authority would continue to wane. Instead, Greenleaf (p. 24) said, people “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants.” Greenleaf warned that institutions would only remain viable if people viewed those institutions as servant-led. The statistics shared earlier in this article, and the stinging headlines of church leader malfeasance over the last several decades, certainly bear out the increasing lack of trust in the church as an institution. Indeed, Clifton (2016) speaks extensively about the lack of trust within the pews of dying churches. Servant leadership seems like at least part of the solution.

Presciently, Greenleaf (1977, p. 24) opined that people would become increasingly unwilling to submit to institutional authority and instead, “they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants.” Only servant leaders will retain any moral authority. Likewise, institutions would remain viable only to the extent they are servant-led. The church, as an institution, has undoubtedly been on the decline, as the statistics cited earlier have shown. To Greenleaf (p. 241), servant leadership is the antidote to an anti-leader era and the rigidity, retrogression, and bald individualism so common in the church today.

Servant leadership is much more an attitude or mindset than a formulaic prescription for leadership easily depicted on a chart or graph. While anyone in the position will probably always struggle to be the perfect servant leader (this author argues that Christ was the only such exemplar), the principles of servant leadership are strikingly uncomplicated. At the outset, Greenleaf (p. 27) emphatically states that the servant-leader is servant first, then leader. The servant-first leader always ensures the meeting of people’s highest priority needs (even if they face a challenge in determining what, precisely, are those needs are).

“Servant leaders,” Blanchard and Hodges (2003, p. 29) state, “look at leadership as an act of service. They embrace and welcome feedback as a source of useful information on how they can provide better service.” More than that, servant leaders spend time and effort training their replacements. Succession planning, the mark of a true servant leader, ensures other leaders are ready to carry out the organization’s mission after the current leadership has departed. Servant leaders adeptly cast (as Jesus did) a clear and compelling vision, are clear about what they value, and live within those values. Additionally, servant leaders display genuine empathy and acceptance (Greeleaf, 1977).

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leaders “know who they are” (George, 2003, p. 10). Authentic leaders are self-aware and true to themselves and their values. Authentic leaders do not try to imitate someone else but, rather, to “be themselves” (Bolea & Atwater, 2016). “Authentic leaders…know who they are, and this self-knowledge empowers them to transform their lives and the lives of those they lead. Their authenticity builds loyalty, trust, collaboration, engagement, and commitment. It forges positive change in their teams, their company, their community, and their industry (Hollis, 2018, p. 1).

Authentic leadership does not mean doing or saying anything that comes to mind, all in the name of authenticity (Bolea & Atwater, 2016, p. 7). Instead, authentic leaders are passionate about their purpose, understand themselves, and have defined and consistently live by their personal values. The authentic leader leads with head and heart, cultivates meaningful relationships, and practices self-discipline (George et al., 2018). To George (2003), values may be the most missing of these qualities. He laments that academic institutions may offer courses in ethics, but these classes are often theoretical without directly connecting to values.

As Son of God, Jesus Christ knew who He was and was true to his values, purpose, and mission, even when these collided with the religious authorities of His day. Such authenticity, especially with fidelity to values formed by God’s Word, will serve the church replanter well.

Change Leadership

Change leadership is a necessary part of church revitalization. After all, if the falloff in attendance and giving cannot be arrested and reversed, the declining church will eventually become unable to sustain itself, ultimately closing its doors. Changes necessary to turn the church around are likely to upset long-term congregants who have grown comfortable with the church’s present state. Church revitalizing pastors will need to develop other leaders who can help lead through these changes.

Kotter (2012) provides a roadmap for eight principles for leading change that are just as relevant in a declining church as any other organization that must change or die. Moreover, the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus exercised these eight principles. The first of Kotter’s principles is to establish a sense of urgency. Jesus’ sense of urgency came in His message to repent, “for the Kingdom of God (Kingdom of Heaven) is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; Mk. 1:5). Jesus’ The second of Kotter’s principles is to create a guiding coalition. In the most immediate sense, Jesus created a guiding coalition when He appointed the twelve. Kotter’s third principle, seen in many leadership models, is to develop a vision and strategy. Jesus cast a vision of the Gospel preached to all creation and disciples made throughout the nations (Matt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15). Jesus also provided the broad outline of a strategy for spreading the Gospel that started locally, extended regionally, and then ultimately to the world (Acts 1:8).

Kotter’s fourth principle is to communicate the change vision. Perhaps one of the most vivid pictures in Jesus’ vision-casting is His looking upon the multitude and calling them a plentiful harvest, but with few laborers (Matt. 9:37-38). While Jesus preached a vision of the Kingdom to all His listeners, he mainly poured into the Twelve. He ensured they understood the vision of the Kingdom and empowered them (with the Holy Spirit) to share that vision as part of the Gospel spread. Fifth, Kotter says to empower employees for broad-based action. Specifically, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower His disciples, but it is also notable that He sent the Twelve (Matt. 10, Lk. 9) and the Seventy-Two (Lk. 10) off on their own before the Holy Spirit arrived in Acts 2.

Six, Kotter says to generate short-term wins. Here again, the Seventy-Two serve as an example, most notably in Jesus celebrating with them upon their return (Lk. 10). Seventh, Kotter says to consolidate gains and produce more change. Jesus did not sit back satisfied with the return of the Seventy-Two. Instead, he continued to cast vision, do miracles, and become even bolder in his warnings—especially His admonitions to the religious elite. Finally, Kotter’s eighth principle is to anchor new approaches in the organizational culture. Especially after His resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples how to carry on without Him. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is His delivering the Great Commission (Matt. 20:19-28; Mk. 16:15-18; Acts 1:8).

Characteristics of Successful Church Revitalization Leaders

The literature sounds many recurring themes regarding the characteristics of leaders who successfully undertake church revitalization. Indeed, many of these attributes must sound familiar to transformational, servant, authentic, and change leadership students. Still, some qualities are unique to the church leadership context.

Like many prevailing leadership models, the church revitalization literature sees the revitalizing pastor as responsible for organizational vision—albeit a vision that the pastor seeks from God (Cheney & Rials, 2015; Clifton, 2016; Davis, 2017). Moreover, the church revitalization pastor must have an active, consistent, and passionate prayer life (Cheney & Rials, 2015; Clifton, 2016; Croft; 2016; Davis, 2017). Almost unanimously, observers and practitioners say that patience is key to successful church revitalization (Cheney & Rials, 2015; Clifton, 2016; Croft, 2016; Davis, 2017). Cheney and Rials (2015, p. 79) call for a revitalizing pastor to feel a sense of brokenness over the state of the church. Davis (2017) and Cheney and Rials (2015) call church revitalization leaders to exercise courage and risk-taking. Clifton (2016) warns the church revitalization leader to be emotionally aware and ready for inevitable discouragement and depression, congregational opposition, and spiritual attack. The church revitalization leader must possess tremendous resilience.



Having seen the type of leadership that a revitalization pastor should hope to develop in the church, this article now turns to leadership development models, focusing on how the models might apply to church revitalization. According to Bolea and Atwater (2016, p. 9), “Being a leader is about behaviors and skills that are acquired and demonstrated. It is not about personality, traits, or genetics.”  Bolea and Atwater believe that people can learn or improve leadership skills and see leadership as a lifelong developmental journey. They recognize that emerging leaders may start at differing levels of leadership competence but firmly believe that anyone willing to learn and practice can become a capable leader.

The J-Curve Leadership Development Model 

Bolea and Atwater (2016) propose a “J-Curve” Leadership Development Model. The model has nine elements for accumulating the skills and behaviors that create a mastery of leadership capability in a person. They refer to these as “the nine elements of leadership mastery.” The J-Curve Model categorizes the first five elements as “What leaders do,” while the elements six through nine comprise “How leaders lead.” Through the first five elements, as skills acquisition increases, skill mastery decreases before increasing from elements six through eight as the emerging leader has had time to practice and apply the first five elements. The J-Curve appears on an X-Y graph, where the horizontal (X) axis—the independent variable—represents skills acquisition. The vertical (Y) axis—the dependent variable—represents skills mastery or competence. 

In the arena of “What Leaders Do,” Bolea and Atwater (2016) describe five elements for emerging leaders to learn:

Element 1: Set the Direction. Leaders learn the intricacies of both their internal and external environments. They learn to prioritize effort and direct the unity of that effort.

Element 2: Build a Team of People. Leaders develop relational capacity, including conflict resolution. They learn to build cohesion among a group with diverse skillsets.

Element 3: Create Key Processes. Leaders learn how to manage performance, including a structure for rewarding desired behaviors and creating metrics for evaluating performance. Bolea and Atwater (2016, p. 30) point to the difficulty of mastering this element, noting that while many organizations recognize the importance of performance management, few do it well.

Element 4: Steward Structure. Leaders learn to structure the organization appropriately to the mission at hand. They learn to use the structure as an effective mechanism for change.

Element 5: Nurture Behavior. Leaders develop the capacity for self-awareness. Developmental emphases in this phase include integrity, courage, and intolerance (setting boundaries ethical and correct behaviors in the organization).

In the arena of “How Leaders Lead,” Bolea and Atwater (2016) describe the following four elements of which leaders progressively gain mastery:

Element 6: Conversations. Leaders can extend the focus of conversations from the current environment to the future, gaining buy-in from the organization. Leaders should practice conversations at all levels, turning the organization into a network.

Element 7: Provide Support. Providing team members with a sense of support serves as a powerful motivator. Leaders learn to provide mental and emotional proximity and demonstrate their desire for their team members’ success.

Element 8: Set Boundaries. Setting boundaries prevent crisis and damage control and provide for the team’s welfare. Leaders learn to set the bounds of right and wrong in the organization.

Element 9: Space to Deliver. Giving space to team members allows the leader to focus on conversations, monitoring performance, and providing support to the organization’s people. Leaders learn not to micromanage but rather to step back (not away) and give team members room to perform.

Bolea and Atwater propose a superb technical outline for leadership development. However, like much of the contemporary discussion on leadership and leadership development, it is incomplete because it fails to account for spiritual dimensions. Still, if viewed through a biblical lens and subordinated to a spiritual, disciple-making leadership development model, the J-Curve model could help develop church revitalization leaders.


The Leadership Development Methods of Jesus

Jesus provides the church revitalization pastor with a model for leadership development. Christ modeled godly leadership and for around three years poured into His apostles who, following His example, would lead the early church. As the Gospels plainly show, Jesus exercised tremendous intentionality in the leadership development of the Twelve. According to Malphurs and Mancini (2004), the Savior’s leadership development process included three phases: 1. Seekers to Believers; 2. Believers to Followers; and 3. Followers to leaders. In these phases are three leadership development steps: 1. Recruitment; 2. Selection; 3. Training; and 4. Deployment.

To a great extent, leadership development encompasses the leader modeling appropriate leadership behaviors and then providing others with opportunities to do the same. Broadly viewed, the process outlined fits the overarching rubric of discipleship. Certainly, Geiger and Peck (2016) view leadership development as inseparable from discipleship.

The Development Convergence Framework

To Geiger and Peck (2016), leadership development is an inseparable part of discipleship. As disciples themselves, leaders have the vital task of making more disciples. Leadership development is neither separate from discipleship, a subset of discipleship, nor a form of advanced discipleship (p. 198). Instead, leadership development is, like discipleship, a holistic process. With the Twelve, Jesus simultaneously discipled and developed leaders. 

To view leadership development apart from discipleship is to produce leaders who have skills at the expense of character and performance apart from spiritual transformation (Geiger & Peck, 2016). Discipleship aims to produce the Fruit of the Spirit in believers: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Therefore, when leadership theorists and observers talk about empathy, emotional intelligence, or the leader’s ability to inspire followers, they are talking, without even realizing it, about the fruit of the spirit. Nevertheless, for all their emphasis on character development and integrity, nothing in secular literature will transform a leader’s heart; that is the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of discipleship. “Leaders must be constantly led and fed by the Lord before they can try to lead and feed others.” (Geiger & Peck, 2016, pp. 208-209). For leadership development to succeed, a leader must (1) take direct responsibility for the development of other leaders and (2) have teachable points they can articulate to others (Geiger & Peck, 2016, p. 213).

The Development Convergence Framework pictures a Venn diagram with three converging development circles. These circles are knowledge, experiences, and coaching. Knowledge is what leaders must learn and know. Experiences encompass the ongoing opportunities to serve and put knowledge into practice. Coaching occurs when a shepherding leader applies the knowledge and experience with a new leader. All three circles are required, and it is at their convergence where leadership development occurs. (Geiger & Peck, 2016).

Geiger and Peck (2016) convincingly argue that their Development Convergence Framework accurately describes Jesus’ leadership development practice. The Savior not only conveyed knowledge to the crowd, but He also consistently taught the Twelve outside of public settings, such as when He explained parables to them (Matt. 13:10-17; Mk 4:10-12; Lk 8:9). In allowing the disciples to minister with Him along the way, including performing baptisms, distributing food to feed the five thousand, and sending disciples out (Matt. 10; Mk. 6:7-13), Jesus provided them with experience in ministry. In his conversations with the disciples, Jesus provided coaching and feedback after the ministry experience. He asked penetrating questions, prompting them to think. When challenges occurred, such as when the disciples could not cast out demons, or when they feared for their lives during the storm on the sea of Galilee, or when the disciples forbade children from coming to Him, Jesus corrected them.


Both Scripture and the secular literature provide models for leadership and leadership development in the church. Moreover, experienced church revitalization pastors have written extensively about the need to develop leaders in the congregation. However, the literature reveals no case studies of church revitalization using a prevailing leadership or leadership development model. Further, no studies exist that empirically validate the best practices in leadership development exercised by church revitalization pastors. The available literature, while helpful, largely remains either overly theoretical or anecdotal.

A survey of successful church revitalization experiences in various contexts (e.g., rural, suburban, urban) would provide practical insights valuable to the church revitalization community. Further, given the unique circumstances of every congregation, no formulaic approach to church revitalization leadership development is likely to emerge. However, empirical data may eliminate some guesswork in leadership development, potentially improving the success rate in turning around declining churches.


A widespread recognition exists among denominational and local church leaders that, along with church planting, there is an urgent need to renew local congregations as a Gospel force in America. The accelerating closure of neighborhood churches threatens to extinguish the Gospel light in many American communities. Indeed, the decline of thousands of neighborhood churches that remain open but ineffective and inwardly focused has, from a practical perspective, removed those congregations as a local lighthouse for Christ.

Leadership is the pivotal element in church revitalization. The Bible describes God’s ideal for leaders in the Church, with Jesus Christ serving as the ultimate example of leadership and leadership development. Successful church revitalization pastors have written extensively about the need to develop leaders within local congregations. Indeed, most authors identify leadership development as a top priority in revitalization. Numerous secular leadership development theories, viewed through the lens of Scripture, describe the types of leadership needed in the church—leadership usually lacking in declining churches. These include transformational leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, and change leadership. Moreover, numerous leadership development theories can aid the church revitalization cause—if pastors and other church leaders view leadership development as inseparable from, or even synonymous with, discipleship.

The cause of church revitalization deserves every resource available. Along with the hard-earned experience of church revitalization pastors, leadership theory provides tools to develop leaders in the local church context. However, empirical research might provide church revitalization pastors with actionable information to effectively and efficiently develop leaders. More quickly developing and empowering congregational leaders for action could free church revitalization pastors to tackle their congregations’ many other pressing needs. Further, in the wake of revitalization in their home congregations, these internally grown leaders could be deployed to revitalize more churches.


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