Transitioning a Small Church

I’ve been called to pastor a small, declining and aging church. I’m excited about the opportunity but not sure what to do—or where to start. I desperately want to lead this church to become a healthy and growing spiritual community. I could use some encouragement and counsel.

I can definitely relate to your thinking, especially the part about desiring encouragement. Though I’ve been the senior pastor of NorthRidge Church for the past 25 years, it is the fourth church where I’ve held that responsibility. In each of those churches, I was inheriting a declining and aging church. The first two were small in attendance—18 and 60, respectively. The second two were a little larger—275 and 1000.

Here’s my encouragement: During my season of ministry in each church, we ultimately began reaching people and growing. As I’ve previously written in this column, my ministry at the first church didn’t end well. I made the mistake of doing leadership to the people rather than leading them. Though it worked for a short time, it ultimately blew up. It wasn’t a happy ending. The second two churches fared much better during the season of my pastoral ministry and the season that followed. As for NorthRidge, though we’re far from a perfect ministry, the health, growth and impact over the years has been staggering.

I have come to realize that in each ministry the same principles of leadership were necessary for transitioning to health, growth and effectiveness.

What a Successful Church Transition Requires

1. The Right LeaderLike it or not, much of what is or isn’t going to happen in the church in the future will stem from your leadership.

Calling—You must believe to the core of your being that God has brought you to this church for such a time as this—to lead. If God is the one calling, you will be driven from within to transition the church.

Character—People don’t follow someone they don’t respect, and respect requires character.

Competence—You need the right gifts, and you need to do everything in your power to develop those gifts. I found two indispensable ways to develop my gifts. The first was by simply using them. The second was by learning from others. As a young leader, I constantly read, listened to and watched other leaders.

Confidence—You must believe that you’re the right person, at the right time, doing the right thing. People don’t follow hesitant, insecure leaders into the unknown.

Courage—You must be willing and able to stand alone. Transition demands going against the prevailing current. It requires that you love people without needing them.

Commitment—If there is one thing a transition needs, it’s a leader who sticks with it through completion.

Continuous Growth—The church will never be able to go any further than the leader.

2. Exposing the Necessity for Change

The people in the church have to know why change is necessary or they will never change—nor should they. It’s your job as a leader to understand the issues and then communicate them.

Of course, the need for change must stem from a core issue. It can’t stem from a whim or a personal preference. You lead a church through transition in order to make it effective at fulfilling God’s Great Commission.

3. Investing in Leaders and Building Teams

This is based on two realities. First, everything rises and falls on leadership. Second, one person can’t transition anything, but one person can be a catalyst for getting a transition started. So the goal needs to be having all the best leaders and people on all of your teams.

4. Developing and Implementing a Clearly Defined Mission and Strategy

I believe NorthRidge Church is a good example. Our mission is to “wake the world up to Jesus.” Our strategy is to “show them his love; tell them his truth; involve them.” Our entire mission and strategy is defined in 16 words.

5. Communication, Communication, Communication

>You must share the burden, create “buy-in,” generate positive energy, identify and relate appropriately to every level within the church and inculcate the mission and strategy into the soul of the church.

6. Identifying the Essential Targets of Change

In order to lead a church through transition, you need to eliminate those things that are hindering effectiveness. This requires identifying them. In the end, you will need to become the resident church expert. This takes work, but it’s a must.

7. Creating New and Fresh Opportunities for Momentum

Sadly, churches are generally known for their predictability—as the most boring way to spend an hour. As a result, people think that God is boring. He’s not.

The truth is that God is always fresh and creative. Therefore, if his church is going to represent him, it must always be fresh and creative. It’s actually our assignment. Because we represent God, churches should be known as the creative centers of the world.

You won’t believe what happens when people start experiencing new things at church. It gets them believing that God really is alive and working today. It gets them excited. It gets them telling everyone they know about it. It gets new people attending.

8. Accepting Short-Term Losses for Long-Term Gains

If you live for the short-term, you’ll never be able to transition a church. You must accept some short-term losses if you’re ever going to experience long-term gains. You will lose some people, but the goal is to lose the right people, the people that are keeping the church from becoming the “light of the world.”

9. Hard Work and Huge Faith

Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.”

10. Staying the Course

Leading a church to become a healthy and growing spiritual community isn’t easy. But it is worth it. So I want to encourage you to hang in there. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor.15:58).

If you’d like to go deeper into any of these principles, I would encourage you to read my book Change Your Church for Good. It was published by Thomas Nelson and is available through Amazon and iTunes, in both traditional and electronic formats.
—Brad Powell

Brad Powell
Brad Powell

Brad Powell, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the senior pastor of NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Mich., a 2012 Outreach 100 church (No. 48 Largest). He is the author of "Change Your Church for Good" (Nelson) and consults with church leaders to help them lead their churches through transition.