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! Sadly, most churches put off making the difficult yet necessary changes required to see renewal and revitalization until the danger of closing the doors seems obvious, even to those who have remained oblivious to the decline for years.

Even before the pandemic, veteran church consultant Thom Rainer noted, in his Autopsy of Deceased Church, that dying churches often become “pastor eaters.” Churches on a collision course with closure stubbornly refuse to change, and any pastor who attempts to lead such a congregation to make necessary adjustments either throws up their hands in exasperation or gets shown the door.

The pandemic seems to have increased the rate of pastoral turnover. It was undoubtedly an exhausting season of ministry for most who served in pastoral leadership, not the least for the conflict it produced within congregations. No matter the decision church leaders made—masks or no masks—it seemed half the congregation was unhappy and threatened to leave. So, since 2020, many churches have faced the need to replace their senior pastoral leader.

Declining Churches: Certain the Sure Fix is the Silver Bullet Pastor

Daniel Im has long said there are no silver bullets in ministry. Many declining churches believe that if they could just get the right pastor, that would be their silver bullet—the one thing that will fix everything. In an attempt to be deliberate about finding the right pastor, I believe declining churches often spend damagingly too long locating an idealized candidate—a “silver bullet.” In doing so, they neglect to seriously consider very qualified, capable, but less shiny candidates. Ultimately, the “silver bullet” lasts only a few years (often less than 18 months) as pastor before either resigning in exasperation or being run off by change-resistant church power brokers.

I personally know a few examples. I have heard of and read about many others.

Here’s how it typically goes:

When the pastor leaves a church—usually not too soon after—the church body appoints a pulpit search committee. Generally, I think churches make a good-faith effort to recruit godly committee members, often representing a cross-section of ages and occupations. I think churches tend to be too slow to appoint a pulpit search committee, and such indecisiveness can be exacerbated when the church has already failed to act without due urgency in finding an intentional interim pastor. But, after time—again, often too much time, I contend—the church appoints a pulpit search committee to go about its work.

Still, I believe that pulpit search committees—as individual members and as bodies—fully intend to serve their churches and honor God to the best of their abilities. However, few, if any, of the pulpit search committee members have experience in full-time ministry. Some will have served as deacons, lay elders, or in other leadership positions within the church. The interim pastor can and should serve in an advisory role to the pulpit search committee—although I contend that if the church needs revitalization, even interim pastors often lack the specific knowledge required for this role. A church revitalization consultant could greatly help such a search committee.

In short, pulpit search committees don’t understand church revitalization any better than the rest of the church. If they did—given that they’re probably leaders in the church—the church likely wouldn’t need revitalization.

So, as they go about their business, pulpit search committees will survey the church to develop the “profile” for the ideal pastor. The silver bullet pastor.

The committee’s thinking usually goes like this: The new pastor and his family will attract more people like themselves. And, we need more young people—more young families. So, the silver bullet will be young. With a young family. Somewhere in his mid-to-late thirties, maybe as old as 40—but definitely no older. He will be married with three children under ten (who will make up our children’s ministry, after all?). It would be nice if his wife sang and perhaps even played the piano. If the whole family were somewhat photogenic, that would be preferable. Of course, the pastoral candidate will be seminary-educated and an accomplished preacher with ten to fifteen years of experience.

The search committee doesn’t recognize it, but they are engaging in blatant age discrimination in hiring, and that’s illegal. Of course, anyone who ever sued would be hard-pressed to prove a church committed age discrimination in hiring, given the number of other constitutionally protected religious reasons for preferring a given candidate. But more than that, research—mine and many others—shows it often doesn’t work well for churches.

My friend Tanner (not his real name) was like many silver bullets I have read about. He was in his mid-thirties, married with three beautiful young children. He had several years of experience as a youth pastor. He was well on his way to completing a master of divinity degree. He accepted a position as the solo pastor of a church near the seminary he attended. Like most American churches served by a “solo” pastor, it needed revitalization. I admire Tanner for agreeing beforehand with the church that, at the six-month point, either he or the congregation could walk away from the relationship, kind of “no-fault,” if you will—something Tanner elected to do.

Because, just as in most cases, the church wasn’t willing to change. Not only was the church unwilling to make the changes needed to make new members feel welcome, but they expected, as do most churches who hire a “silver bullet” pastor, that Tanner and his family would attract more young families and that nothing would have to change. Churches don’t recognize that, like my former senior pastor used to say, “We’ve each only got so many nubs on our LEGO.” In other words, we can only manage a limited number of close relationships. That certainly goes discipleship and mentoring—even friendships.

Even an outgoing, relatively young pastor can only manage so many close personal relationships. The pastoral family will reach capacity before long if it is the only one bringing in and maintaining relationships with younger people. If church members do not take their “LEGOs” and come alongside that pastor’s “LEGO,” one of two things will happen. First, when the pastor and their spouse try to reach more young people, they will spend less time with the younger people they have already brought into the church. Without long-term members in the church standing in the gap, some of those younger, newer people may miss their connection with the pastor and drift away.

Alternatively, the pastor and their spouse—their LEGOs at capacity, absent church members who will connect with newer, younger members —sensing the previous scenario is indeed what will happen, may be hesitant to reach any additional people. With neither older nor newer church members discipled to the point of connecting with others outside the four walls of the church, stagnation—and frustration—returns.

So often, dying churches expect to make none of the needed changes while their pastor and his family make all of the required sacrifices. The silver bullet pastor’s spouse often says, “You can go back to that church, but the kids and I are done.” It isn’t long before that young, silver-bullet pastor follows. And who could blame him? Sorry, but your church isn’t worth his family. Too many pastors have been down that road for churches with far better prospects than yours.

And so, two or three years after last forming a pastoral search committee, the church is back there again, now with the reputation of a “pastor eater.” Do you think I’m making this up? Go ahead and do the research I’ve done. Revitalize a church. Write a doctoral dissertation on the subject sometime.

The Turnaround Pastor Profile (Hint: Not What You Thought a Silver Bullet Looked Like)

My dissertation involved interviewing solo or senior pastors who had turned around smaller, declining evangelical churches. Specifically, I looked at the discipleship and mentoring behaviors they used to develop “next-generation” (under 40) leaders within the congregation. However, as part of the study, I did a demographic analysis of the pastors themselves. I interviewed 11 pastors. I would have liked to have found more, but I think turning around a church is so challenging that, given my limited resources, I’m lucky I found the ones I did. How old were they? What were their life experiences? What was their educational level?

So, how many of my eleven “turnaround” pastors fit the “silver-bullet” profile?

One.

That’s right. One.

So what about the other ten? Well, they were all older than the “silver bullet” pastors when they began their tenure as pastors, and two were over 50 when they started as revitalization pastors. Yes, they were highly educated. Eight of them had graduate degrees—usually master of divinity degrees. Seven possessed or were working toward doctoral-level degrees (Ed.D., Ph.D., or D.Min.) when they led their congregations. All of the ten entered ministry as a second career. Seven of the ten were military veterans (One Air Force, two Marines, three Navy, and one Army).

These guys not only had tremendous life experience and deep theological knowledge, they all had the absolute ability to take a mental beating. Seven of them had, obviously, endured the intensity of the military basic training and the “failure is not an option” mentaility of military operations. All of them were bulldog tenacious and possessed thick skin. Few of them had little kids during their turnaround pastorates. Rather, their teen and young adult offspring often contributed significantly to the revitalization work. While none of them were Quasimodo, few of them seemed like the kind of "shiny" guy (I don't know, the hip, skinny-jeans wearing guy). No fitness nuts in the bunch, because most of them worked very hard to pastor and keep a side job to pay the bills. Super smart, all of them. But unassuming. Just "real" guys.

Yet, something tells me most pulpit search committees—looking for that “silver bullet” and entirely oblivious to their church’s dire condition—would have bypassed these ten guys. And if Sam Rainer is correct, many ministers in their mid-fifties and older—capable, godly, experienced leaders with a lot of gas left in the tank—find themselves swept aside and overlooked because churches think it takes one of those “silver bullets” to get younger people in the doors. It’s ageism—discrimination—of course. And that’s wrong.

I get it. There’s a point where some guys stay too long. But the idea that a guy in his late fifties can’t connect with someone in their twenties or thirties is silly. As a pastor in my fifties, I loved working with the 18-to-25 crowd to build a contemporary service. As a naval officer in my late thirties and early forties, I enjoyed leading servicemembers in the same age group. I still have the most fun relating with my college-aged coworkers at work. No, I don’t want to hang out with them wherever they hang out after work. But I still enjoy the relationship. I still get a kick from discussing the Bible, theology, and ministry with them. They enrich my life, and maybe they think I have something to add to theirs. I believe—just perhaps—that’s what multigenerational Christian life is supposed to look like.

And while churches pass over tremendous leadership talent—talent capable of developing next-generation leaders within the congregation and leaving behind a strong foundation that will far outlast their tenure—they continue for months “prayerfully” sifting through résumés trying to find that silver bullet while needlessly leaving their church without leadership.

Does that mean that the silver bullets never turn churches around? No. After all. One of the eleven pastors I interviewed for my dissertation fit the typical silver bullet profile. He’s a godly pastor—a guy I deeply respect and wouldn’t hesitate to go to for advice. The right pastor is the right pastor, even if he’s young. And that’s great. But don’t think that the young guy with the young family will attract young people, which will, in turn, revitalize your church. It won’t. There are no silver bullets. And it’s not a fair expectation to place on a pastor or his family.

My recommendations for pulpit search committees?

·       Realize your church is probably in a greater state of decline than you realize. Act with urgency. I know you love your church, but face it, you (as a church body) suck. That's okay. That's why God invented grace. But your church isn't the exception to the rule, so stop acting like any pastoral candidate would be lucky you called him. Declining churches generally don’t improve during times they are without a permanent pastor. Some interim pastors do a good job of intentionally laying the groundwork for the next permanent pastor. Most don’t.

·         Recognize that no pastor is going to be a silver bullet in the turnaround of your declining church. It takes the entire congregation to turn around a church. A congregation that has decided to die won’t be revitalized by the best leader and preacher there is.

·        Resolve not commit ageism. Mid-to-late fifties, even early sixties isn’t old. Pastors of that age have a lot of gas left in the tank. Best of all, they may be able to develop leaders within the congregation so, even if their tenure is only ten years or so, they will have built a foundation so that the congregation isn’t so dependent on the pastor to make every disciple. So what if your new 55-year-old pastor will only serve your church for 12 years? That young pastor with the young family who follows him will be much better set up for success than the young pastor you’re about to hire who you’ll lose in 18 months.

·        Look for a pastor who will preach, pray, love, and stay. Even with the best pastor, it takes five years or more to turn around a declining church. Some churches won’t make it that long, of course. But the ones that do, do so not because the pastor used “silver bullet” strategies, but because of a much simpler determination to be the best pastor he could be for that church. He wasn’t eyeing success at the small, rural church as the stepping stone to pastoring the larger, more prosperous church. He was committed to serving that church as if he would never be pastor of another.

·        I believe in younger pastoral leadership...when…your church has laid the right foundation for them to succeed. That is, when you have a truly multigenerational ministry. When you have a new senior/solo pastor who is 35 and you have a board or elders or deacons or committee or whatever you call the leaders in the congregation, and they are all several decades older—with many, many years longer as part of the congregation—you’ve set that pastor up to be a puppet, not a leader. Has your church empowered younger leaders to actually lead? If next-generation have a voice and a say-so in the congregation, jump at the chance to get that younger pastor who can serve the church for twenty or more years (but you’re probably not declining).

What is the median age of your congregation? Generally speaking…a pastor best connects with congregation members plus or minus 15 or 20 years their age. So, when your congregation’s median age is over 70, a 50-year-0ld pastor is young and has the best chance of connecting with those 30 to 70.

·       Learn something about church revitalization. Ninety percent of churches under 200 need some measure of revitalization. Face up to the reality that yours is one of them. Take the initiative and read Reclaiming Glory by Mark Clifton. An even shorter read, but one I think you should definitely take the time to look through, especially if you don’t think you’re declining is Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer. If you’re going to find a “church consultant,” find one in church revitalization. Few denominations seem to understand revitalization, from what I can tell. One that does take it seriously (the only one I’ve come across), and has resources to help churches, even if you’re not part of their “tribe” is the Southern Baptist Convention.

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