Decreasing numbers in worship, smaller numbers of volunteers to do the work of the church, and old buildings in need of costly repairs are prompting many congregations to ask questions about their future. Quiet conversations are taking place everywhere about the relevance of a church in its neighborhood and whether even to try to reach out to the new neighbors. Options for these churches include, but are not limited to, turnarounds, merging or yoking with another church, adoption by larger churches, or closing down and using the existing buildings as sites for new church starts. Another option is to sell the buildings and use the money to help other churches continue their ministry. These were some of the decisions the folks at the church I pastor had to wrestle with as they called me and we moved forward into an uncertain future of our own. When we began our work together, we had never even heard the term turnaround church.
Not every declining or dying church is meant to live. Not all churches can or should turn around. But there are some, like ours, that have a will to live and a strong sense of God’s call to at least try. Our work together has defined us as “a new church start in an old church building.”
My heart ached with compassion for the members of the church and I began to fall in love with them right from the start. I had been called to discover and to change some of the patterns and practices that were killing their church. I likened their church to a boat. They had called me to sail the boat by granting me the authority to lead them. They wanted me to bail the boat because it was literally taking on water. They wanted me to steer the boat and lead them in a new direction. But they also wanted me to rock the boat, because some of those in the boat had to be shaken up and out. And they wanted me to help them build a new boat in which they all felt spiritually fed and empowered to do the mission and ministry of the church. Simultaneously, they wanted me to keep their boat afloat by staying true to the traditional Christian roots of the faith. Could I deliver all that? Could anyone?
Worship, stewardship, and leadership seemed to be the aspects of their congregational life that cried out for change. It became clear that I had to lead first by example and then by developing leaders. With my road map in hand, I knew that I would have to combine all my skills with those of the congregants and be very creative in approaching these congregational changes. Relying on God’s Spirit in each of us, I had to jar the stagnant energy and negative patterns in the church. I had to help the members get themselves unstuck from each other and from the past. The members had given me a real gift, in that they had called me to help them change. Not all pastors are given such clear permission to lead their congregations in ways that will change the church’s direction. Due to the situation’s urgency and magnitude, my congregation vested me with pastoral authority right from the start. What skills would I need to lead the congregation into and through the changes they so desperately wanted and needed?
Turning a church around involves a number of years dedicated to dismantling old systems and initiating and implementing newer, more effective systems. This is one of the major obstacles that points out the difference between a new church plant and a turnaround church. Although a new church plant does have its own set of challenges, it does not carry the same baggage as a turnaround church. At our church, that baggage sometimes seemed overwhelming. As I walked around the church buildings, I saw physical plant issues everywhere: holes in the walls, paint peeling, walls caving in, closets stuffed with papers and other remnants of the past. Water came into the building every time it rained. Members of the congregation had learned to close their eyes to all of this decay, a form of visual denial. The work seemed overwhelming and eventually they just ignored it. They had not put serious effort into repair of the church building. It seemed as if they had simply lost heart because of the odds. Their collective denial allowed them to feel okay and that they and their church were safe. Yet, they also felt trapped in a situation for which they could not find any solutions. They knew that they would not be able to sustain their church because their building and finances were about to give out. I think they felt powerless, but still they had not given up hope. That was when they called me as their first full-time pastor in decades, their first female pastor ever, and they asked me to help them change. People do not necessarily resist change, they resist loss. And much was at stake to lose.
I believed that God had a calling not just for me but also for the congregation. My job, as I came to understand it, was to use all of my experience, gifts, and skills—personally, professionally, and prophetically—to help the people grow a new church within their old church and, in the process, help them grow a new heart for God and for the mission of their church. To turn this church around from old to new, I knew that the people might have to feel worse before they began to feel better. And they did. Nothing we’ve done has been easy, but we know that God has been with us every step of the way, from their decision to call me as their pastor and invest authority in me to their collective hope of a future for their church.
Not everyone in a turnaround church is going to agree with the way change happens. Power struggles and conflict need to be dealt with in calm and systemic ways. Previously, the members had lived with two major fears. The first was that the church would close, and the second was that those who had led them would leave. The second came true and others had to step up to lead. Yes, those who had threatened to leave did. When those who remained saw their worst fear come true and they survived, they felt free to change direction. The result of that group leaving was a shared leadership that set the stage for dramatic change. Members took responsibility as a spiritual community for worship, stewardship, and leadership. The congregation took a new look at itself and invited the Holy Spirit to fill the vacuum created by its former leaders’ departure. The Spirit creates an environment where people can take initiative to empower themselves and others, take risks, and experience success.
We were able to change the course of our own history by interrupting the course of fifty years of decline. By exposing the denial and by opening ourselves to the truth of possibility about the church, most, but not all, of those who lived under the cloud of denial again sing God’s praises. Not everyone made it, but those who stayed have found reasons to rejoice in God’s finding favor in their church.