Become a No-Turning-Back Leader

There comes a time when the local church has to say there is no turning back—no turning back and reviewing the glory days. No turning back in celebrating a pastor who has long since stood in the pulpit. No turning back to programs that would not work in today’s context or neighborhood culture. 

It takes a no-turning-back leader to lead a church in the death throes of decline to bring it back to spiritual and numerical growth. The style of leadership is not foolhardy or for the faint of heart. This leader is a leader who is after God’s own heart. Churches want to change, or at least they say as much when a pastor interviews. But there seems to be pushback when change comes to the person in power or position to help make change happen. Why? Because change is hard. 

Change is creating a new story. Change is challenging how things have always been done within the power structure established over time within the inner workings of the church. The changing dynamic drastically redesigns the church from an inward focus to an outward posture. With change comes new ideas, programs and people that only reinforce the change message on those who do not want to change.

The Clock Is Ticking.

At the University of Chicago sits The Doomsday Clock. The clock is to remind humanity that we are closer and closer to extinction due to global crises. Inside the local church, there are ever-looming crises. Many churches are aging, and the lack of community engagement is slowly killing the church’s gospel effectiveness. Once the church was planted in the community as a beachhead against the world’s sins, it became a gathering place for selected members to worship God and go directly home, ignoring the plight right outside the doors.

An established church is struggling to keep its doors open in the Midwest. The hour of the church’s door closing is ticking closer and closer to the established church unless the church chooses to fight for its life. The church has only nine remaining members, including the pastor and his spouse. When I reviewed his situation with him, I gave him the grim news that the church had less than six months to live unless significant but small changes were made to keep it open. With what could have been the church’s last gasp of breath to stay alive, the pastor chose to begin implementing some of the changes as I agreed to work with him and the church for the next several months. 

This scene is played out in silence regardless of denomination or location within North America. The church blames the pastor, the pastor blames the church, and the community is left to fend for itself with no gospel witness. If the church is going to move away from two minutes to midnight and not close its doors, then the leadership must be willing to take the steps not to turn back the clock but to move forward into the God future before it.

Retool and Retrain 

Churches who struggle often say, “If we can just get a few young families, everything will be fine.” While that might be a quick fix, it will not fix the long-term institutional change that must take place to reclaim God’s mantle from the lay leaders. Evaluate what works and is not working throughout the church. If that seems too large of a task, limit it to the children’s church or a defined program. Or the fellowship hall meals. Or whatever pressing area appears to be taking the church back into the past with little to no results. 

As you examine the program, begin to remove the good parts of the program or ministry and then retire the features that do not work. Why hang on to something that is broken or does not work in the current circumstances of the church? Retooling honors the past commitment and idea behind the ministry but prepares at the same time for the future and needs the church faces today.

As you retool the programs, you will need to retrain staff or volunteers on the new way or how somebody should do it in the future. (Warning! Prepare for the pushback; it will come.) Ignore the negative hold-on-to-the-past comments and focus on the actions of a person saying that it’s uncomfortable. Be cognizant that they still want to help but will need retraining in their area to carry out the new mission you have set. If a person does not support the need for retooling and retraining, then a hard conversation should be had by both parties. The struggle is because the heart is willing, but the mind wants to hold to the traditions that challenge the changing season upon the local church community.  

Wherever you find yourself as a leader in an established church, know this truth: You will not rebound overnight, as the church did not get into this situation overnight, but you can begin to use the clock to your advantage. Be a bold witness for Jesus that without real substantive change, the church will slowly die, and I do not think anyone wants that to be the church’s legacy.

Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett is the lead pastor at Winter Haven First Church of the Nazarene in Winter Haven, Florida. He is the author of several books, most recently, Helping the Small Church Win Guests: Preparing To Increase Attendance (Wipf & Stock Publications) and has done extensive research in the area of church revitalization and serves as church revitalizer, consultant, coach, podcast host and mentor to revitalizing pastors and churches.