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.

BIO

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.

What to Do When Your Hands are Tied?

Recently, I wrote a post about the need to fire staff and volunteers who may be hurting your church. This seems to be a big issue in many small town churches, but as one pastor reminded me, it’s often out of their control. In many churches, the pastor has very little power to do anything more than teach and preach God’s word. Everything else is handled either by a congregational vote or by a committee who may have a vision for the church that’s very different from the pastor’s.

So, what do you do?

A couple of ideas come to mind.

  1. Find another church to pastor that will allow you to lead.
  2. Plant your own church. Remember, it’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

But, what if you don’t want to leave? You may really love the church and community you’re serving, you may feel God has called you there for a reason, or you may just need the salary they’re paying you.

What do you do then? Here are some thoughts.

Learn to be patient. A church that has been doing things the same way for years won’t suddenly decide to change just because you showed up. Realize this is going to take some time. Sometimes the best strategy may be to try to outlive those who are currently there.

Build relationships. Even with the people who oppose you. This is difficult, and sometimes not beneficial, but occasionally, you will win someone over if you take the time to care about him or her. Before you try to get a church to change, prove to them that they can trust you and you’re in it long-term.

Change what you can. It’s easy to get caught up in what you don’t have the power to change. Instead, focus on the things you can change. These may be very small things like church décor or even landscaping. It could be what curriculum you use for children’s ministry or Sunday school. Get out the church’s constitution and bylaws and figure out what you can change.

Focus on your family. The most important ministry you have is in your home. Spend time loving your spouse and kids. They should never feel like the church comes before them. Sometimes we think being a pastor means we’re always on the clock. That doesn’t need to be the case. The church can easily replace you. Your family cannot.

Pray. I still believe in the power of prayer. Prayer can sometimes move someone out of a position that doesn’t need to be there, and prayer sometimes moves you out of a church that’s unhealthy for you. Either way, prayer keeps your eyes focused on Jesus.

Having trouble transitioning a church and need someone to talk to? Visit my contact page and send me an email. I’d love to help or just be there as someone you can vent to. I’ve been in that position before, and sometimes it helps just to talk to someone who’s been through it.