7 Suggestions NOT To Do When the Church is in Decline

Downtrend chart and red pencil. Selective focus

Part of my ministry involves working with other churches. Sometimes when I hear from a church they have been plateaued or in a season of decline for several years. They are often looking for answers of how they can turnaround.

I love helping churches, but there truly are no standard answers. It’s unique for every church and every situation. I do know, however, that if a local church never adds new people…eventually it will cease to exist. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

The hardest lesson a church needs to learn in a period of decline, however, is not what they should do…but what they shouldn’t. I’ve seen churches make, what appears to me, to be an abundance of wrong decisions towards growing again. The purpose of this post is to help churches who may find themselves in a declining period avoid mistakes I’ve seen some churches make.

Here are 7 suggestions NOT to do when in decline:

Blame others – It’s easy to blame the decline on a former pastor…or one the deacons…or one the seniors…or even on the culture. But, the reality is, when you are in decline, this matters less than what you are going to do about it. And, as long as you are blaming someone or something you won’t address the real issues.

Make excuses – There are a multiple reasons we could probably discover…many of them true…of why a church begins to decline. You should know them, but at some point, excuses only cloud our ability to move forward. We tend to live in them rather than move past them.

Pretend – I’ve seen so many churches pretend there isn’t a problem…when everyone knows there is one. (Or many.) If you want to grow again, you’ll have to admit there is a problem that needs addressing. (And, this is the subject of another post…but…in full disclosure…just so you know…that may involve implementing some change. No…that’s not full disclosure. It WILL involve some change.)

Lower expectations – It seems natural when the church is in decline to expect less, but that never works. You are trying to attract new people. You need more excellence, not more mediocrity to do that. You may need to lower some of the programs you offer, but never lower expectations of the ones you do.

Cut expenses – This one has dual meanings, of course, because reducing expenses may be exactly what you need to do. The point here is to make sure you lower the right expenses. Don’t cut the things that got you where you are or will get you where you need to go. Don’t cut promotional or community investment dollars, for example, just because they are intangibles or an easy decisions to make. The fact here is that many times the expenses you may need to cut are difficult decisions…unpopular decisions. So we often avoid them and cut the things that we should be doing to spur growth.

Overreact – Too much change during a period of decline can be deadly. Too little change can be equally damaging. Panic of leadership almost always leads to panic in people trying to follow. Strive not to react too strongly either way. Don’t change everything and don’t clamp down and refuse to change anything. Renew the vision God called you to…set good, clear goals and objectives to chart a course forward, and then trust that God will see you through this period.

Give up – There may be a time to quit. The fact is the church, as in the Body of Christ, is here to stay. Jesus promised that. That promise isn’t made to every local church. Local churches close every year. But, before you give up, or before you resolve that church growth is for other churches…but not this one…make sure you haven’t given up too soon. In my experience, we often quit just before the breakthrough. Do all you know to do, then stay close to the heart of God, waiting for Him to bring the increase again or lead you in making harder decisions.

In THIS POST, I share 7 suggestions a church should do in a period of decline.

(Let me address the pushback I often receive on posts like this…many times from well-meaning people who think I’m too strategic to be Biblical. God is in charge. He sets the rules and adds the increase. But, that does not leave us without responsibility. Read the parable of the talents…or the story of Nehemiah…or multiple others. God has given us minds to be used for His glory.)

Have you pastored a church in decline? What mistakes did you make?

My Thankfuls: 10 Reasons for a Happy Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-clock

For years, when the boys were at home, we shared our list of “Thankfuls” each Thanksgiving holiday. We would each take turns (one item at a time) of ten things we were most thankful for that year. I remember early in this tradition the boys’ spellings weren’t always correct, but their lists were always sincere.

I miss those special times sitting in our living room, but that shouldn’t stop me from sharing my list with you.

Here are my “Thankfuls” this year:

1. My relationship with Christ. And the grace that got me there. (And keeps me there.)

2. My loving wife. She’s my best friend. She’s seen my best and my worst and keeps being my biggest supporter.

3. My two amazing sons. Jeremy and Nathaniel (Nate)…age 25 and 22…are simply two of the best men I’ve ever known. Seriously.

4. Jeremy’s wife Mary. If I had raised a daughter…or picked a wife for my son…I would have wanted a Mary. Thanks God.

5. My calling. I work for Jesus. How cool is that? I ran from it for years…but it’s the best “career” I’ve ever had. And, I’ve had several.

6. Family and friends. Cheryl and I are so blessed with amazing families…with low or no drama. We have friends we can call upon at any time day or night. The greatest asset of our married life together is people.

7. The staff and people of Immanuel Baptist. Nearing a year and a half with them, I can honestly say we’ve met some of the most loving, supportive people we’ve ever known. We’ve already made friends for life.

8. My health. Granted, I work on it, but I’ve had friends die of cancer (and other causes) this year…some younger than me. I am thankful for being able to run…and walk…and feel well enough to work…and play.

9. The city of Lexington. We adopted our new home quickly. It’s our mission field, and that’s what missionaries do. We love the sports, exploring the many restaurants, the neighborhoods, and especially the people. What a lovely place to live!

10. The future. I look around the world today and see a lot of darkness. But, this year, I’m thankful, as always, that I serve a risen Savior. That makes every morning new with His mercies and grace. I’m grateful the days ahead are bright…because He is my light. (Cheesy…maybe…but always true.)

There’s part of my list. I could continue, because I am blessed. No, my world is not trouble free…far from it actually…but when I pause and consider all that God has done and is doing around me…thanksgiving is my only proper response.

And for what (or whom) are you thankful this year?

6 Tips for Happier, Healthier Relationships

family prayer

It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. Family and friends. Good food and good times.

Mostly.

Truthfully, this time of year is especially stressful for some. I am not referring, in this post, to the ones who have lost loved ones this year. That’s especially difficult. My prayers go out for you. I’m talking about those who have living “loved ones”…positionally speaking at least.

The holidays expose many people to broken relationships, hurt feelings, grudges from the past. Many will have to be around people, by default, that they wouldn’t choose to be around unless those people were blood relatives…or in-laws…or friends who aren’t your friends, but come with the package of celebration. They will be there…and the reality of that causes you to be less enthusiastic about celebrating this year.

That’s true, isn’t it? And, the truth hurts sometimes…doesn’t it?

(Raise your hand if that’s your story.).

What should you do? How should you respond to the one who has hurt you the most…or who always seems to say the wrong thing…or who is…honestly…even mean at times? How do you respond to the most difficult relationships in your life?

I want to encourage the Biblical approach.

Here are six tips:

Bite your tongue – When you are tempted to snap back…don’t. Sure, it will be difficult…even seemingly unfair at times, but see it as spiritual discipline training. (James 1:26)

Extend grace – Forgive. Let go of a grudge. Even though it may not be received well and nothing may change in the relationship, it will change you. (1 Peter 4:10, Colossians 3:13)

Put on another’s shoes – Anyone who hurts you…has a story. Usually they were hurt too…by someone. Remember…hurt people…hurt people. Think about where the other person is coming from before (or as) you encounter them. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Practice patience – Be honest, some relationships require more patience than you thought you had, don’t they? But, isn’t that what we are called to do as believers? It is a “fruit of the spirit”. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Exercise humility – When we humble ourselves, we may get taken advantage of at times, but God always rewards humility. Who knows? It may be the break point in the relationship. (James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6)

Pray for them – The last one is sometimes the most difficult…but oh how Biblical! Prayer releases the burden to the burden bearer…the One whose yoke is easy…the One who paid for your sins. Prayer can even change the dynamics of a relationship. Pray for the awkward, difficult, shattered and broken relationships in your life…and the people who caused them. In the most tense moments this holiday season, slip away and pray. (Matthew 5:44)

Apply liberally, as needed.

You’ll have healthier, happier relationships this Thanksgiving and Christmas season…and even into the New Year.

Do you have a difficult relationship facing you? What tips do you have?

One and Only One Leadership Principle

Leadership Ahead

I received this email recently:

Ron, a question for you.

If you had to pass one and only one leadership principle to others leaders, What would that one principle be and why that one?

That’s a hard question, but I thought for a minute and came to a thought.

Here’s my reply:

It’s not about you.

Why?

Because, leadership is about something bigger than you.

If ever we begin to believe its about us, or our agenda, or our plan…or even more dangerous…our people…we will become controlling, prideful and eventually ineffective.

How would you answer?

The Myth of a Pastor

image

This is a guest post by Nathan Joyce. Nathan is the senior pastor at Heartland Worship Center (www.heartlandworship.com) in Paducah, KY. He received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in pastoral care and counseling. Follow Him: @heartlandpastor, http://nathanjoyce.wordpress.com

The Myth of a Pastor

​Leprechauns, the Yeti, vampires, and the American pastor have one thing in common. They are all subjects of mythology. A rich folklore exists for each of them. However, the pastor is the only one being smothered by myth. Why? Because only pastors are real, and only pastors are dying by trying to live up to the myth that surrounds them.

​If you are a pastor, you need to be aware that your church has built a narrative about you that you can never live up to. It’s not completely your fault, although you are probably contributing to it. The myth was well and alive before you ever arrived on the scene. The focus of this myth is that you are hardly human.

Here are a few possible myths:

1. You can meet needs without having needs. Your calling is to empty yourself in the lives of others, but very little room exists for you to be lonely, hurt, insecure, tempted, and needy.

2. You are the perfect family member. Your marriage should be strong at all times. You are to be a parent like Ozzie Nelson not Ozzie Osbourne.

3. If you happen to struggle, make sure it’s with something minor and in the past. The myth would love to state that you never struggle, but if you must struggle, it needs to be with something harmless. Certainly depression, lust, addiction, and broken relationships are off the list of viable options unless they occurred years ago and have been triumphantly defeated.

4. Your spiritual life constantly sizzles. You have a special “line” to God. Your moral life has no failures, and you always “feel” close to God.

5. You live up to your sermons. Every preacher must decide whether to preach up to God’s standards or down to his own life ability. Many people who hear you think there is no difference.

6. You are excellent at all of the various aspects of ministry. You’re an introvert that can study like a scholar. At the same time, you are an extrovert like a cruise director. You must be funny and stern at the same time. You must be simultaneously creative and well structured.

The result of the myth is that pastors are burning out, falling out, and breaking down morally in record numbers. Souls are empty, leaving pastors susceptible to moral failure and depression.

What can we do?

First, it is up to every pastor to avoid the pride that desires to live up to the myth. It’s not simply a matter of workload management or needing more encouragement (although these can help). The issue comes down to whether or not a pastor tries to live out the myth or if he rests in the truth and grace of God. The myth demands so much energy, while authentic and honest living, including confession concerning our neediness, brings rest.

The heart of the Gospel is that we are helpless and needy. The Gospel does not become obsolete once we are initiated into salvation. It becomes the anthem of our new existence, resulting in a Gospel-spirituality that operates out of the same daily, honest confession of neediness.

Second, our churches must adopt a culture of nurturing the minds and hearts of its leaders. Most churches spend more time and money on landscaping than on cultivating the souls of their leaders. Churches can begin to demand Sabbath, healthy boundaries, strong investments into family time, and regular spiritual feeding for pastors and leaders. Unfortunately, the culture of many churches is skeptical, oppositional, and unrealistically demanding. If churches nurture and safeguard the wellbeing of their leaders, it would be to their own benefit. Inspired, enduring, and motivated church leaders will empower a church as much or more than any other factor.

What other myths have you seen applied to pastors?

5 Ways to Fuel Creative Thoughts

ideas spinning

I’m an idea guy. No on has ever accused me of not having an original thought. Most of the time the opposite is more accurate. The teams I lead usually fight overload with the number of ideas I produce. I have to discipline myself to “unthink” and give teams permission to tell me “bad idea”.

But, even idea people have lulls in their creative process. We grow stagnant. Get bored. Need help spurring thought.

So, how do idea people get new and original ideas?

Here are 5 ways that work for me:

Get up and walk – If it is cold I walk inside, but outside is my preference. Several times throughout the day I take a hike. My best ideas rarely happen sitting at my desk.

Whiteboard – Diagraming or drawing my thoughts makes me think. I have one wall in my office covered  with idea paint. If thoughts get stale…I play with dry erase markers. Literally. Start writing or drawing and it leads to more ideas. Every time. (I also have several doodling apps on my iPad.)

Exercise – Whenever I’m in a lull, exercise triggers my brain. And, it’s good for my health. Sometimes a mid afternoon sweat will make the last half of the day my most productive in thought.

Hang out with creatives - Iron sharpens iron. Creatives sharpen me. I like to occasionally hang out with random thinking, highly creative types. I’m random, nut structured, so I have to pace my time with the over-the-top creatives, but they always trigger new ideas.

Different environments – Going somewhere I’ve never been always fuels me. A new city. A new park. A new restaurant. A new coffee shop. A different library. Change the space…expand the pace (of thought).

Those are a few that help me.

What triggers your creative process? 

5 Suggestions When Firing Someone in Ministry

Unemployment

My post on firing people in ministry created a great deal of interest. As I expected, some felt it made the church seem too much like a business. I get that, but the other fact, and many understood although sadly through difficult experiences, is that if we don’t address this very serious issue, Kingdom dollars are often misused. And, if we are honest, that has been allowed in ministry far more often than it should be. Our command to love or even to be kind shouldn’t cause us to waste Kingdom dollars.

Please read THAT POST before reading this one.

The fact is, in nearly every situation I’m aware of where this type decision is made, it’s not an issue of likability. It’s not that we don’t love the person or their family. If that was the case, all this would be easy. It doesn’t always even mean the person did something wrong. At times, it is a simple issue of chemistry or fit and often the person proves later to be a great fit elsewhere. Making this difficult decision has many times proven best for all parties involved, but admittedly, getting to the point of release is sometimes a most difficult process. As hard and delicate an issue as this is, it is poor stewardship, in my opinion, not to address the issue.

With that in mind, I’ve had several ask me to expand on that post. If you have to release someone from a ministry position, what are some best practices to protect the church and person?

Here are 5 suggestions when you have to fire someone in ministry:

Be certain – Not as much from a legal sense, but from a moral sense, we need to be sure this is the right move. (You need to be legal too and if you aren’t sure in that area ask. I have always consulted an attorney before anyone is released.) The fact is it will be difficult. It may even be messy. There is usually some damage done to the body. You shouldn’t hide from the right decision because of it, but you should make sure you’re making the right decision.

Be generous – This will differ depending on the person’s tenure with the church and the reason for dismissal, but be as generous as you reasonably can be. This could be financial, but it could also be in the way you allow an exit to take place. I’ve had some unique situations to accommodate. Knowing how hard this is going to be for the affected party, as much as possible, be overly generous.

Be graceful – I’ve been involved in a few messy situations involving the release of a staff member. Many times the most gracious thing to the departing staffer is the information that’s not shared. There is always more to the story and everyone wants to know the “more”…sadly many times for the wrong reasons. Keeping that information as confidential as possible extends grace to the person, the person’s family and the church. Grace should also be extended in creating an exit strategy that protects the person’s future employment possibilities, as much as possible. There may be moral or legal issues you feel obligated or legally have to share, but as much as possible, extend grace.

Be honest – Here, I am talking about what you communicate to the person being released. Don’t sugarcoat. Now is not the time. What’s the real reason? Hopefully, by this point, there has been sufficient due process and fair warning, except in cases where an immediate exit is the only option. Either way, tell the truth. I’ve seen churches disguise the real issues in an effort to land a “softer blow”. Many times this only creates more tension, because of the ambiguity and uncertainty of the dismissal.

Be helpful – How can the person improve for their next position? What are the areas they do well? In what ways can you help them land better into their next role? The person won’t always be open to your “help”, but you should be available to help them wherever and however they might be.

This is admittedly hard. No one enjoys this discussion or this process. I don’t even enjoy writing this blog post. We should be Biblical in our approach always, but it’s not Biblical to avoid hard issues hiding behind a label of ministry.

What other suggestions would you have when you have to release a person in ministry?

10 Suggestions for Healthy Grieving

troubled young woman

Part of my work is helping people grieve. Or at least learn how to grieve. It’s not one of my favorite parts, because it always stems from the reasons why they need to grieve. It means hurt. Brokenness. Pain. Disappointment. That never feels good.

Yet the fact remains…part of living in a fallen world…is living among the thorns. We must learn to grieve because there will always be reasons to do so.

As much as we need to know how to grieve, however, I continually meet people who either don’t know how or refuse to allow themselves to grieve. I’ve even met well-meaning believer who believe they shouldn’t. The Scripture is clear. We do grieve. We simply don’t grieve like the rest of the world.

So, here are 10 suggestions for healthy grieving:

Don’t deny the pain – It hurts. Admit it. Be honest with yourself with others and especially with God. If it’s anger…tell it. If it’s profound sadness…say it. You’ve got to grieve at some point to move forward, and you’ll grieve sooner and better if you’re honest about the need.

Learn to pray – Grieving can draw you close to the heart of God. See that as one blessing in the midst of pain. The Scripture is clear…draw close to God and He will draw close to you. He is close to the broken hearted. Use this difficult time to build a bond with God that you’ll never regret having.

Remain active – You may not feel like being around people, but if you’re normally a very social person, discipline yourself in this area. Granted, some people were never very social, even before their grief. We shouldn’t expect much more from them in grief, but even for them, community matters. Don’t shelter yourself from others.

Stay healthy – Eat well and exercise. Sleep as regularly as you can. Stick to a schedule. You’ll need the strength to carry you through this time.

Help others - There is a special blessing that comes from serving others that can help you recover from your own pain. Serve at a soup kitchen. Deliver toys to needy children. Find a way to give back and you’ll invest in the health of your own heart.

Journal your thoughts and feelings – One day you’ll be glad you did. You’ll see the process God has taken you through and the healing He has allowed you to experience. You’ll need these reminders again some day.

Give it time – Grieving doesn’t complete itself in a day…or a week…or even a year. The depth of the pain always is relative to the time of a sense of recovery. And, some pain never leaves us. We simply learn to adapt to it. We learn to find contentment and even joy in the midst of sorrow and loss.

Share your story – You help others when you allow others to see you share and understand their pain. When you hide your story, you deny others of the privilege of healing through your experience.

Get help when needed – Don’t suffer alone. There are times all of us can use professional help. Don’t be ashamed to seek it.

Remember hope – If you are a follower of God…the best days are still to come. Even in your darkest days, remember, one day…every tear shall be wiped from your eyes.

You can get up, recover and move forward again even stronger than you were before, but please don’t fail to grieve. It’s necessary. Vital. Healthy. Natural. Even Biblical. (1 Thessalonians 4)

Praying for you who need to grieve.

What suggestions do you have for healthy grieving?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4)

The Transition of a Founder: Handing off the Reigns

Meeting handshake

Starbucks Howard Schultz had to return to the helm at Starbucks. Apparently, according to numerous reports, he tried to leave, but came back to attempt to reverse the suffering the company experienced. Dell’s Michael returned to help steer Dell back to health. Steve Jobs once returned to Apple. Other companies, who have founder with lesser known names, have seen their founding fathers return to the helm of leadership. Companies like Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Vonage saw founders return. They all returned to help the company succeed again. In some of these cases things were never the same after the return, but my point is they were forced to return to the companies they founded.

I have a theory.

Companies today will face this dilemma more than companies founded in years past.

Could it be that because companies today begin with such an imprint of their founder in their DNA that it is becoming more difficult to pass the reigns of the top spot to another person? Study Starbucks and you have to study Howard Schultz. (He even wrote a book about it.) Look at Dell computers and you see Michael Dell all over the company philosophy. Even today, as he is trying to rebrand the company that holds his name with a newer identity, his personality appears to drive the process. Companies today are very much an impression of their founders. Google’s corporate “fun” environment apparently IS Larry Page. Every time I’ve heard Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, interviewed he describes the social network with a passion that only a founder could exhibit.

Companies are launching into their niche faster than ever before. The information age and technology allows for growth at a pace unknown in previous generations. Much of that growth is a direct reflection on the personality and passions of the founder who is seen in the public as the chief representative of the company. Social media fuels that even faster. I’m not sure building around a personality has been the case as extreme as it seems to be today.

As I view this phenomenon within corporate America, I can’t help but wonder if there are implications for churches as well.

Doesn’t Northpoint have the personality of Andy Stanley? Lifepoint certainly embodies the imprint of Craig Groeschel.

What will happen when these leaders attempt to retire? The answer to that question remains to be seen. I have no doubt these two mentioned are thinking about those issues, but are their lesser known counterparts? We certainly are planting lots of churches. And, that’s a good thing.

But, certainly also, we are planting many churches today that share their DNA with the founding pastor. The world of social media elevates the role of the founder in churches too. People follow leaders…personalities. We can agree Jesus is to be that personality…it is Him we are to follow…but even still, society tends to look for individual leadership to follow these days. Hopefully, those churches are preparing to be churches that will last for years to come.

This thought process encourages a few things churches (and organizations) may want to consider in their beginning years:

  • We must be thinking transition of the founder from the founding.
  • We must be careful not to elevate people or personalities over a vision.
  • Whenever possible, we may want to consider easing a leader out gradually, rather than allowing a fast exit of the founder.
  • We must make sure our visions are easily transferable, if we want the church (or organization) to exist long-term.

As with most posts, I don’t have all the answers. I’m, hopefully, just triggering thoughts.

What are yours?