by Mary Louise Gifford

In 1953, with its membership over nine hundred people, no one could have predicted the cultural and personal changes that would lead the thriving congregation at Wollaston Congregational Church (WCCUCC) in Quincy, MA, to the gates of near death by 2003, when a stark twenty five members would be struggling to keep their church doors open. If their church was going to have a future at all, these 25 people knew they would have to change. It is estimated today that seventy percent of the churches across America are in some kind of crisis that will involve change. It behooves all of us to understand the process of change. As one member of WCCUCC, puts it, “Change is not killing us. It is bringing us back to life!”

In the past seven years, WCCUCC has turned around and its congregation has become widely known for its ability to thrive in the midst of constant change. In 2003, when I was called to serve this church, their treasury was very small. I was a brand new pastor, a “baby minister” who heard an internal mantra saying, “Never let money (or lack of it) stop you from one of God’s good ideas!” The turnaround was a good idea. Another good idea is the Pastoral Residency for Turnaround Ministry (PRTM). This new program was born out of the successful turnaround at WCCUCC. After becoming a field education site for Andover Newton Theological School and supervising seven students over five years, our church began to grow in its identity as a teaching parish and an incubator of new ministers. I learned about Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Transition to Ministry initiative, which offers new seminary graduates the opportunity to be ordained and to spend an additional two years in practical ministerial training under the leadership and guidance of seasoned, practicing pastors in vibrant congregational settings. Through this initiative, funds were granted to more than twenty congregations for the initiation of residency programs to “help a new generation of young people become excellent pastoral leaders who find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in their ministries.”1

I wondered aloud, “Hey, why can’t we train new ministers how to leaddeclining congregations to new life?” My proposal to the Lilly Endowment for funding of the Pastoral Residency for Turnaround was not successful. However their rejection letter was so complimentary that I included it in my proposal to the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation for funding of a pilot program in our church during 2009. This time we were successful and they granted us $54,200 to call our first resident, Leanne Walt, a twenty-seven year old recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, to launch this good idea!

In the interview process, Leanne stood out as a person with a heart for turnaround ministry. Having served as a field education student in another struggling congregation, she was familiar with many of the obstacles that accompany initiating change in an existing congregation.

The first goal: Calling and Training

The first goal was calling a recent seminary graduate to train as both teacher and learner alongside the senior pastor within the congregation. The position was thirty hours a week and included ordination. Upon completion of the program, the resident would be prepared to lead another struggling congregation in an intentional turnaround process. This goal would be accomplished by full immersion in the following five areas of ministry:

Worship, Sacraments, Music, and Multi-Media

  • Weekly leadership in worship
  • Preach at least once per month
  • Co-celebrate the sacraments
  • Work with the minister of music
  • Learn media art using visual display in worship

Intergenerational Christian Education, Diversity, and Inclusion

  • Work with the director of the Sunday school
  • Teach in Sunday school rotation once per month
  • Work with the congregation to create and lead adult education opportunities
  • Initiate conversations inside the church and the wider community regarding diversity and inclusion

Financial and Property Stewardship and Administration, grant writing, and Resource Development

  • Engage in all aspects of finance and administration in the church
  • Instill year round financial giving
  • Learn capital campaign practices
  • Learn how to become a congregation that gives to its denomination
  • Learn resource development, including grant writing and grant administration practices within the church context
  • Work with the building team and business administrator in identifying and working to resolve older building issues

Mission, Community Outreach, and Program and Leadership Development

  • Work with members of the church in evangelism
  • Work with the lay members of the church to encourage community programs
  • Develop mission opportunities with the members
  • Deal with conflict as it arises and develop resolution techniques

Pastoral Care, Counseling, and Planning

  • Take the initiative to visit members
  • Teach and develop spiritual disciplines
  • Deepen a personal prayer practice
  • Develop and lead special services around such topics as healing and reconciliation
  • Meet with head pastor for weekly supervision, instruction, and guidance.

Money was set aside from the PRTM budget for additional specialized training for the resident. For Leanne, it began with a weekend training called “New Church Planters Discernment Workshop,” led by Jim Griffith, one of the leading coaches to church planters and turnaround church pastors in America. Leanne immediately joined our conference’s Commission for Evangelism and Church Vitality. She has attended all of the Pastoral Excellence Programs, which are funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., offered by our conference in this first year. She attended a one-day conference in Philadelphia led by Joy Skjegstad, author of Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry.2 Leanne has quickly established herself as a leader among her peers, and has had many opportunities to speak about and promote the PRTM far beyond the local church.

The second goal: Finding Partners

Working together, we are making a difference.

Leading authors are telling us today that we must work together to effect the changes we are seeking in our churches. Leaders from the local church, seminaries, conferences, and denominations need to work together and with communities to discover this call to turn our dying churches into thriving, vibrant places to worship God. All voices need to be represented at the table to grow and sustain the turnaround church movement. Change happens slowly, but persistent attention and nurturing for PRTM can lead the way. As ministers we are called to be agents of change and leaders of transformation.

When the members of WCCUCC called me to be their pastor, they had enough money to last another three years. I am writing today in our eighth year together. We are a living testimony to God’s goodness and God’s good ideas. PRTM provides the setting for the training of new leaders of change. Working in partnership with Andover Newton Theological School has allowed us to take these leadership concepts to seminarians through a course I developed called, “The Turnaround Church.” I based this course on the turnaround concepts in my book, The Turnaround Church; Inspiration and Tools for Life Sustaining Change.3 In addition, the MA Conference of the United Church of Christ gave me the opportunity to lead a workshop on “The Turnaround Church” in October of 2009. Together, we are discovering the future benefits and long- range vision for the wider church that this program promises. The PRTM program can be duplicated, and I believe it must.

The third goal: Multiplication

The following trajectory is a work in progress as we seek to duplicate this program in other local churches. Upon completion of PRTM, Leanne will seek a call and become a field education supervisor using her turnaround church as a site for training. In her next year, she will be ready to lead PRTM in her setting. This is a new way to look at church multiplication, in that these turnaround methods can be duplicated in many churches simultaneously, creating healthy and vibrant congregations in churches that are currently distressed.

Through this residency, we have watched Leanne grow in her confidence, her practice, and her ministerial identity. Along with support staff from our conference, we are committed to helping her take the next steps in her call to turn the next church around. Leanne has received a year of training in a very specialized type of ministry. Therefore, it is important that she accepts a call to serve a church that has been assessed for its readiness to turn around. Our conference is providing assessment through Paul Nickerson, our Associate Conference Minister for Evangelism and Congregational Vitality. Our area ministers are recommending potential turnaround churches.

The PRTM offers a new idea in shaping ministerial leadership for the future. It offers a different transition into ministry in which we are creating new patterns that include a deep and profound understanding of how systems change. Turnaround pastors have an abundance of hope to offer the church in these times where so many are asking questions about the future, similar to those that the people at WCCUCC were asking in 2003. It is true that not every church can do turnaround work. But for the sake of those who can, we have to try.

Funding: an ongoing challenge.

Grant writing is not generally a skill a congregation would expect a new pastor to have. However, it is a necessity for a turnaround pastor to be familiar with alternative sources of funding. We are now preparing to “launch” our first resident, Leanne, to her own church at the conclusion of the first year of PRTM. We have been granted an additional $50,000 to fund our second resident, beginning in January of 2011. The number of declining churches indicates the need for trained turnaround pastors. The PRTM works, so let’s work it together! We are now looking for ways to sustain and multiply the program beyond 2011. How can you and your congregation be part of God’s good idea?


1. Wind, James P. and David J. Wood. Becoming a Pastor: Reflections on the Transitions into Ministry. An Alban Institute Special Report. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006. Available online at
2. Skjegstad, Joy. Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2007.
3. Gifford, Mary Louise. The Turnaround Church: Inspiration and Tools for Life-Sustaining Change. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2009.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you have a vision for helping struggling/dying congregations?
  2. How can you help your pastoral leadership learn to manage the transitions that accompany change?
  3. How does your local church interact with its partners in shaping the future of ministerial leaders?


Congregations, 2010-10-01
Fall 2010, Number 4


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