Identifying Leaders to Help Turnaround Your Church

Guest Post: Danny Davis

A few days ago, I read a Facebook post from a rural pastor who braggadociously reported he had worked 90-hour weeks for more than twenty years of pastoral ministry. His reason for this pace was simple, “There are just no leaders or people in the church I trust to do what I do.” The pastor’s statement is a sad state of affairs and a portrayal of pastoral arrogance. Nevertheless, it does lead to an important question. Is the rural church devoid of quality and trustworthy leaders?

I am a bi-vocational rural pastor leading a once struggling church to turnaround.  Like many of you, my time is stretched between two jobs, family responsibilities, and a host of other obligations. I am not complaining – I love what I do! This time crunch, however, demands I steward the human resources God has given me by identifying and equipping volunteer or lay-leaders. I have come to recognize the valuable role lay-leaders fill in bringing a church from death to life. I have discovered developing effective lay-leaders is a critical indicator in a churches ability to move from stagnation to growth.

Terry Hunt declares the most significant challenge facing churches today is a lack of trained lay-leaders. Gordon Penfold insists that even the most capable pastor cannot produce church growth alone. He or she must have the help of capable and willing laity. Turning around a church is impossible without mobilizing the people in the pew for God’s mission. Pastorally, that means, the role of the lay-leader must be raised to one of co-laborer who takes on significant ministry responsibility and authority.

Bi-vocational pastors must be laser-focused on identifying potential leaders in whom they will invest their limited time. Matthew Costner’s 2017 study entitled, Defining Characteristics of Laity among Turnaround Churches in the Carolinas, discovered four qualities of what he calls “high capacity” lay-leaders. I will draw on Bradley’s work and outline three key traits to look for in those with whom to share ministry?

  1. They Possess a Heart Level Understanding of God’s Mission.

Jesus delineates the mission of God in Matthew 28:19-20. His mission for us is to go, make disciples, baptize, teach, and trust in His abiding presence. All church vision begins with this mission – there is not another mission to accomplish. Churches that drift from the mission of God are now or will soon experience stagnation, decline, and eventual death. If lay-leaders do not possess a heart level understanding of the mission of God, they will substitute the mission with something else – usually, a personal non-Kingdom agenda disguised in religious vernacular

I use the phrase “heart-level” intentionally. Ask almost any church member, “What is the Great Commission,” and they will point to or quote Matthew 28:19-20. That is a “head-level” understanding of God’s mission. That’s not bad, but it is only the beginning. The Great Commission is not a passive statement to be codified, celebrated with plaques and banners, and then largely ignored.

By saying “heart-level” understanding, I mean that the potential lay-leader is participating in the Great Commission in some tangible way. Potential lay-leaders share their faith freely and find ways to disciple believers through teaching and encouragement. How this occurs may take on many different forms. If you want to change the culture of your congregation from insider to outsider focus – then put your attention on those who are actively participating in the Great Commission and let them lead.

  1. They Possess an Understanding of the Nature of Change

Effective lay-leaders understand that growth requires change. I know, nobody likes change, right? Well, I am not sure that age-old philosophy, used to describe and defend every church problem, holds water. There are those in your congregation who are willing to come alongside you and support sensible and incremental change. Unfortunately, pastors get sidetracked by the loudest voices and mistakenly believe they are the majority. They are not! They’re just loud!

In a plateauing or declining church, there is an inclination to circle the wagons and retreat into survival mode. Pastors must look for those uncomfortable with mere survival. They are there, I promise. So, what traits are you looking for?

Look for those individuals that Bradley describes as all in! They have championed changed by showing up and lending a hand. They have supported change by their financial generosity. They have disengaged from those who are apparently trying to push personal agenda’s on the church. They do what it takes to build unity.

  1. They Possess the Heart of a Servant

This trait is the foundation upon which the other two lie. In my doctoral research, I tried to discover a single definition of “servant leadership.” Guess what! I couldn’t find one. Instead, I found a few hundred. I did, however, settle on the definition offered by Woody Rimes (2011: 20):

“[…] servant leadership [is] an understanding and practice of leadership that placed the good of those led over the interest of the leader. Servant leadership promoted the valuing and development of people, the building of community, the practice of authenticity, the providing of leadership for those being led, and the sharing of power and status for the good of everyone.”

Potential lay-leaders who help pastors lead the church from plateau or decline possess an attitude described as “it’s not about me!” They understand serving is not a religious duty but a vehicle for improving the lives of others around them. More importantly, they act upon their understanding. Their actions, for various reasons of dysfunction in the declining church, may not be happening in the walls of the church. Their servant’s heart looks for places to express itself when it cannot do so in the church. Pastor, look for those who are serving outside the walls. Who is taking advantage of opportunities in your community? Equip them to do it better and then point to them as examples for others to follow.

Final Thoughts

OK, I can hear some of the objections going through your minds. I will address one that seems to keep coming across my mind.

The traits outlined above effectively reduce the pool of potential leaders.

I know that in the small rural church leadership requirements often begin with “are they breathing.” I get that – I am guilty of that same mistake. I think we can do better.

To cause our stagnating churches to flourish, we must first pray and then change our leadership culture. The pastor alone cannot bring about cultural change. He or she must identify and develop lay-leaders who can come alongside. More importantly, pastors must be willing to give-away significant ministry and authority to these leaders.

Here it is in a nutshell. I heard someone say, “Whatever is permitted, is promoted.” Every leadership role filled sets the standard and expectations for future leaders. If you and I permit those who have little care for the well-being of others, the kingdom, or the cause of Christ, then we promote that type of leader as the standard for our church.

So, unless you want to continue working 90-hour weeks for the rest of your life – take the necessary time to identify the kinds of leaders described above. Ask the Lord to give you the courage to honestly assess your current leadership culture and make changes that will have lasting Kingdom impact.


Danny Davis has served the Lord in a variety of ministerial roles over the past two decades. Davis currently serves as Lead Pastor of Life Point Church, a rural church located in Odessa, MO. He also serves as Professor of Applied Theology at SUM Bible College and Theological Seminary.

3 Facts About Small Town Churches

If there’s one thing that frustrates me the most about small town pastors, it’s the assumptions they make about the churches they serve. They assume their church won’t change, so they never challenge them. They assume their church won’t grow, so they never inspire them. They assume their church’s best days are behind them, so they resign themselves to a slow and painful death. Be careful about the assumptions you make because your assumptions may be the biggest problem in your church.

The church I serve has defied every assumption. There’s absolutely no reason we should be where we are today. Churches in towns of 2,000 people shouldn’t average 600-700 people in weekend attendance. That’s unheard of.

They shouldn’t be able to start a new campus, buy a new building, and grow to 350-400 people in weekend attendance at that campus within the first two years.

Our staff is not that smart, we’re not even that talented, and we certainly don’t have a lot of money.

So, what’s our secret? I’m honestly not sure, but I can tell you what I believe is a huge part of it.

There are people in the communities we serve that are looking for an uplifting church that presents the message of the Bible in a way they can understand and apply to their life.

And the more I speak with other small town pastors who are seeing success, the more I realize this is true for rural communities across the United States.

Now, does that mean every church should modernize? No. There’s still a percentage of people who love the type of church they grew up in and don’t want a change. If your church is healthy and is serving them well, then continue what you’re doing. Just know that the people who enjoy that style of church are becoming less and less, which means it’s going to be really difficult to ever grow.

The fact is the churches that are going to see growth in the future are the churches that are going to be willing to change.

If that’s the type of church you want to lead, let me give you three other facts I believe about most small town churches.

  1. Your church has more potential than problems. I love talking about problems. I love thinking up excuses about why something won’t work. If I’m not careful, I can be the negative person in the room. So, I know what it’s like to be frustrated with a church, but I honestly believe that your church has more potential than problems. It’s a lot easier to see the problems, but the potential is there. You may just have to look a little harder.
  1. You’re probably doing way too much of the wrong things. I know the church I serve was for a long time. You have to scale back and focus on what’s most important and what is going to have the most impact. This probably means you’re going to have to cut some programs that people love. You may need to cut a service that no one’s showing up to. You’re going to have to say no to some things, so that you can give your best to the most important things.
  1. Your church won’t grow until your leadership grows. You may have to humble yourself and ask for help. You may have seminary degree. You may have a doctorate in theology, but sometimes those aren’t much help when it comes to leading a church. I would encourage you to read books, listen to podcasts, and get coaching in the areas that you need help.

If I can be of help to you, I’d love to talk with you. Visit my contact page and send me a message, or look me up on Facebook. I love helping small town pastors discover their potential. As always, don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered to your inbox each week.

The Art of Leading Change in the Rural Church

Guest Post: Dr. Kiley Callaway

As a rural church pastor, it is top priority to develop a system to chart the church’s course to a dynamic, kingdom-advancing future. The direction from the Holy Spirit for the future is powerful, but you need a tool you can use to help your church grow and to help you develop your church into a high impact ministry accomplishing its life changing mission. I call this tool The Art of Leading Change.

The value of understanding The Art of Leading Change can’t be overstated; yet, most pastors have little training in the skills required to bring about effective change. Leading the change process is especially important to you as a pastor because any changes in the church environment can have a significant impact on the lives of many people, both inside and outside your church. Churches that make a difference don’t just happen. It takes more than a strategic plan to make a difference. It requires leaders who possess an ability to bring about the necessary changes that will empower their people to overcome barriers and seize opportunities.

Leading the change process is especially important to you as a pastor because any changes in the church environment can have a significant impact on the lives of many people, both inside and outside your church. The Art of Leading Change allows you to accomplish the future God has for you.

Leading Change includes: determining where you are now, determining where God wants you to go and determining how you’re going lead people to get them there. Let’s address one of the five main areas of The Art of Leading Change.

Implementing Change in the Church:

Most churches do not seek so much to create a preferred future as they do to perpetuate a manageable past.

The emotional, spiritual and mental effort that goes into pursuing an intentional game plan is significant. Of course, no matter how well you plan, it does little good until it is implemented. If your plan requires change to the ministries and ministry systems within your church, then putting the plan into action will require effective leading.

The following are some basic points for implementing your strategic change plan from a leadership perspective.

  1. Identify Influencers

You do not lead in a vacuum. Regardless of the size of your church, a small percentage of people affect the overall major decisions. The best place to start is to see who needs to be included. Making a list of the most influential people within your church is critical for successful change. Influencers are people who establish presence, who have a network of friends and family, people who are missed when they are absent and looked to in meetings for advice.

Do not assume that if people are in a certain position that they have influence, and do not assume that they do not have influence if they are not in an official role.

If you do not have a natural feel for who the influencers are, then ask your elder board or key leaders to brainstorm on some of the people who have influence in your congregation. Certain names will rise to the list quickly. Occasionally a person is listed who is not so much influential, but is well-liked, is outgoing and/or active in ministry. It is better to be more inclusive than exclusive. The purpose in determining this list is not to develop a caste system, but to identify individuals with natural and spiritual gifts for leading.

  1. Gather a Change Team

To gather a team, you will need to know about four groups of people: innovators, progressives, adopters, and late adopters. You will want to know how to identify innovators and progressives so they can serve on the Change Team or you might refer to as the Dream Team. This group will be very helpful in brainstorming with you about what the plan will be for the church, and how it will be implemented with the fewest barriers.

By working through the plan with the team, they will get an idea of your vision and passions which should influence the direction of the brainstorming sessions. By gathering the team to brainstorm, you broaden the likelihood of the plan being implemented.

  1. Prepare the Church for Change

Jesus told the parable of the soils. The soil which was watered and weed-free provided a welcome, fertile base, resulting in fruitfulness. The Change Team is to help prepare the spiritual soil of the church to receive the seed for change.

Many pastors and leaders walk away frustrated from limited fruit-bearing. They overlook their need to prepare the church to receive the vision. The more significant the change, the more time and the greater teaching is needed to nurture the dream.

  1. Change Celebration

When changes have been employed and result in fruitfulness—even in small quantities—celebration is in order. By reinforcing what you want to see happen, the “weeds” will die from passive neglect.

Change does not come easy for many churches, but the more you talk it up and affirm the plan, the more trust you will build among those who are less comfortable with change.

For more information and steps on The Art of Change email Dr. Kiley Callaway at


Kiley Callaway is the Lead Pastor of Northfield Church in Gering, Nebraska.  The church has seen over 250 people give their lives to Christ since 2013 and people are being transformed by the power of His presence.

Kiley is a gifted preacher, convicted about speaking the truth as passionately and plainly as possible.  God has given him a vision and a passion for helping people love God, love people and love the world.  Pastor Kiley is also working on a membership website to help rural church pastors. Rural Church Academy should be up and running by the end of the year.

Kiley, his wife Kerry and their children, Kayden, Keyan live in Gering, Nebraska while their oldest daughter lives in Georgia with her grandmother.  Kiley holds the Master of Theology and Doctoral Degree in Christian Counseling.  He is also the author of the book “Who Am I“.