The Risk of Turning Around a Church

21st Century Strategies
By Bill Easum

Most church leaders have had no training or experience in transitioning a church from dying to thriving. Don’t let the unknowns deter you from innovating or taking risks. Remember that innovation is not about skills; it is about passion for ministry. People with a deep passion for mission can explore more of the edges of congregational life than they think.

Turning church members into disciple makers–disciples who make other disciples–is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Too many of our church members at best warm pews and at worst never attend worship or participate in mission. With the advent of a skeptical generation that demands authenticity, it is fair to say that Christians are the biggest obstacle to the expansion of Christianity.

What Needs Turning Around?

Church membership has nothing to do with being a disciple. A disciple is one who intentionally seeks to emulate Jesus in everyday life. This means someone who deliberately takes on the cause of Christ (Luke 98:23-25); puts Jesus before self, family, and friends (Luke 14:25-35); commits to world evangelism (Matthew 9:36-38); loves others (John 13:4-35); and abides in and is obedient to Christ (John 5:7-17). How then does a church leader go about making disciples who make disciples?

First, most church leaders have to change their understanding of the role of clergy and paid staff. Ephesians 4:12 reminds us that the role of church leaders is “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” This service is not “running the church” and going to meetings. The role of church leaders is more than just taking care of members. Their primary role is to provide an environment in which they can grow to be disciples who make disciples. They live and breathe helping others grow in their faith rather than merely taking care of them. True, some people need to be taken care of. However, most people have within them so much more to give to the cause of Christ. Many are just waiting for the opportunity to stretch their spiritual wings. Church leaders who truly care about them, give them that opportunity instead of keeping them dependent upon them.

The effective church leaders I have met in my travels are committed to four BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals). They risk just about anything to be part of carrying out the Great Commission. They focus their energy on developing the priesthood of all believers. They encourage people to seek God’s gift within them through a process of discernment. They are rabid about the multiplication of everything important. In other words, growing people is more important to them than doing for people what they could be doing for others.

Second, church leaders must realize that not all church members are or will become disciples much less disciples who make disciples. This simple observation helps clear the way for church leaders to concentrate their time on the few who are ready for discipleship as well as to comb their acquaintances for people who are open to the possibility of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is biblical for church leaders to concentrate most of their effort and time on a few.

Jesus spent most of his time with the Twelve. Often, he zeroed in on just Peter, James, and John. By spending time with a few, Jesus set the stage for others to win many. He knew he could do just so much. By multiplying himself, he could make a lasting difference. Like Jesus, pastors who want to make a lasting difference spend the bulk of their time working with people who are ready to take on responsibility instead of spreading themselves too thin. This group is always a small percentage of a congregation. This is in stark contrast to pastors in dying congregations who spend most of their time taking care of the equivalent of spiritual hangnails. Instead of starting spiritual fires, they spent time putting out fires.

Third, pastors must become focused on the long-term vision of disciple-making instead of the day-to-day management of the church and the care of feeding the membership. In doing so, the pastor does four things: consistently proclaims the good news in ways that are indigenous to the people in the area; equips paid and unpaid staff to equip other laity “for works of service;” casts and guards the shared vision of the church; and gets out of the way enough so that others blossom in their faith.

More important than what the pastor does is who the pastor is. The pastor is the spiritual leader of the church. The pastor’s spiritual life and spiritual call are mutually reinforcing. The pastor lives to be a role model for making disciples. This is far more difficult than just taking care of people.

Fourth, staff who know how and are willing to equip and empower people for ministry is the next essential. These people do not “do” ministry. They equip and empower others to “do” ministry and then coach them along their spiritual journey. Equipping and empowering are different. Church leaders often equip people but then do not empower them. Empowering a person means getting out of their way and allowing them to exercise the spiritual gift within them without having to ask for permission. This way people grow in their faith instead of relying on the faith of those whom they hire.

Fifth, empowered lay pastors are becoming the primary form of lay leadership. In time they will be to the 21st century what the “minister” was to the 20th century. The criteria for lay pastors usually include the following. Lay pastors are called to a ministry instead of nominated by a committee. They become lay pastors by feeling called to take responsibility for a ministry. They do not feel responsible to cast a representative vote on some future issue. They are also accountable to the pastor and the mission/vision/purpose of their particular church. They participate daily in prayer and Bible study. Monthly training and regular mentoring is a normal part of their service. (For information about Lay Pastors see my web site,, and search for Wesley Groups as well as Lay Pastors Manual.)

Sixth, small groups that multiply and teams that produce are the places where most empowerment will take place. The only people empowered by committees are those who already have power of leadership qualities. Spiritual wallflowers never blossom in committees. Multiplying small groups and effective teams bring out the latent qualities in people. A great website for small groups is and for team based organizations

Seventh, discernment is more important than nominations and voting. More and more churches are eliminating most, if not all voting, and relying on God to raise up the leaders and ministries needed. Spiritual gift inventories are replacing “dialing for people” encountered by most nomination committees when they call people to fill offices that nobody wants to fill.

The Scary Part

Most church leaders have had no training or experience in making disciples. Management and making decisions have taken the place of making disciples. When you look out over the congregation or go to a church meeting, how many spiritual giants do you see? Most pastors don’t stay in one place long enough to know that most established church members have not grown spiritually since they were a teenager. This is not what God intended.

Making disciples can be a very threatening process for a pastor in an established church used to the pastor doing everything for them. Most pastors inherit a group of leaders who may or may not be disciples. Often, one or two of them seem to be power hungry.

If you are in an unhealthy church, take a twenty-year view of the situation. Realize that it will take several years to build a core of spiritual leaders. Cast your vision for a healthy church. Begin to work with the few who respond and nurture them in a small group as long as it takes. In the interim, work hard to get a few of the disciples in “official” places to make the process of decision making easier. Move forward as the opportunity arises. The operative words are either move or persevere.

If you feel in your gut there has to be more to vital ministry than you are experiencing at the moment, start the journey of faith and trust your instinct. Here’s how to avoid some of the stress points that appear most often in transitional ministries and what leaders can do to reduce the stress.

What to Do about Stress Points

Leaders and their spouses often face major stress when one or more of the following situations happen.

  1. When controllers are pressured to leave office. We have seen very few turnarounds take place without a major changing of the guard. It is usually unwise to think that the same people who got the church into its current in-grown situation can lead it out of the mess. The number-one lesson I learned during several years of leading “Turn Around Seminars” is to encourage the pastor to gather and nurture a team of called, gifted, and equipped laity before beginning the turnaround. Only when the group appears biblically and spiritually mature enough should the pastor begin to prayerfully and lovingly replace the leaders. Often this process takes up to a year, and sometimes longer.
  2. When making the attempt either to change an existing worship service or begin an additional worship service. I’ve learned from experience that the easiest way to turn a church around is to begin a new worship service designed in a way that today’s person can hear the gospel. However, if the leaders have little clue about the essential mission of God’s church or if they prefer for the church to remain a cozy little club or family chapel, then conflict erupts. If the new service succeeds, the conflict often gets worse.Turnaround pastors commonly hear these negative responses: “But we won’t know everyone anymore” and “That kind of music doesn’t belong in this church.” These are unhealthy and unfortunate responses. How much better to grow healthy leaders who develop mission-shaped people who ask, “Does everyone in our area know God?” and “What kind of music will help people worship God?”
  3. When the pastor begins breaking the personal-chaplain mold and begins trying to be a leader. Such action always results in a shift in emphasis. Scripture’s teaching is that the clergy equip God’s people to do the ministry. Somehow the attitude in some churches is that “the laity run the church and clergy do the ministry.” We see very few churches turning around where the paid staff does most or all the ministry.This transition also takes a lot of time. One of the best cures for opposition to lay ministry occurs when laypeople begin to experience the joy of doing ministry themselves, as well as being ministered to by equipped laity. The key is to go slowly, and seriously equip God’s people for ministry. Begin the process by training new people to expect laity to minister to them instead of the paid staff’s tending to their every need. Next, begin to ask, “Who among our members will accept ministry from the hands of laity?” Let the laity minister to them while the pastor and/or staff continue to minister to those who expect you to play “pastor fetch.”
  4. When the transition begins to cost money. Most dying churches have money in the bank that they’ve saved for a rainy day. Such passion, though often misdirected, is understandable, especially for those who lived through the Great Depression. Churches with fewer than 125 in worship need to look for ways to implement the transition with as little cost as possible.When I first came to the church I pastored for 24 years, we had very few people in attendance. I launched the turnaround without spending a dime, simply by spending as much time as possible out of the office and away from the flock, but without losing the pulpit. It is possible for a pastor singlehandedly and within one year to bring 50 people into a small church (one located in a populated area). Such a number of additions can change the makeup of the entire church.
  5. When a desire for high commitment begins to encroach on the entitlements usually afforded to longtime members. We know that the higher the standards placed on church leaders, the healthier the church becomes. However, making this shift causes conflict. Longtime members who feel entitled to all the benefits of membership become upset when encouraged to act like servants who exist on behalf of the non-Christian people around them.This conflict often surfaces when leaders try to rearrange the church spends money, targeting more of it toward non-Christians; or when paid staff begin devoting more time to non-Christians than to members; or when members are asked to park farther from the church to make room for visitors; or when some higher standards are applied to membership and leadership. Church leaders often find that they have to “grandfather” the longtime members and apply the new standards only to the new people coming into the church, at least at first.
  6. When new leaders make mistakes trying to implement the innovations. The opposition uses the mistakes as an excuse to say, “I told you so,” and begins to stir up the conflict even further. The best way to deal with this stress: Admit and celebrate the mistakes as a great time for learning, instead of trying to justify the failed action.
  7. When churches with paid staff find that before the turnaround can happen, they must replace some long-term paid staff. The staff that most often have to be replaced are the longtime secretaries who refuse to use twenty-first century technology or who use their position to slow down the transition; the choir directors who try to sabotage the new worship services; or the part-time financial secretaries who tell less than the truth about the church’s financial health, hoping that bad news will discourage people from starting new ministries.

Tips for Turnaround Pastors

What else can you do to handle the added stress of a turnaround ministry?

  • Keep your own faith strong. Take time for regular Bible study and prayer each day. Get away from the church on a regular basis so that you have space to dream and ponder and be filled with wonder once again. Keep in mind that congregations are seldom healthier than their spiritual leaders.
  • Embody servanthood in all you do before beginning the turnaround. Everything about you must scream servanthood.
  • Keep in mind that turning a church around usually involves spiritual warfare, not just differing opinions. Sometimes evil is the opposition. Most pastors do not understand this. Or they underestimate it.
  • Be prepared for conflict. Never take opposition personally. You don’t have this luxury. You must be the spiritual leader of the church even in the midst of conflict. If you respond personally, you raise the level of conflict beyond the ability to overcome. Instead, you must pray for the opposition. Learn from those who oppose you, but do not let them set the course for the church if you are convinced that the church must change or die.
  • Realize that the higher your spiritual gift of mercy, the more difficult the turnaround will be for you. Turnaround pastors are often called on to choose the mission over the interests or desires of individuals, even those close to them. People with high mercy gifts find this decision hard to make. They also tend to take things more personally than they can afford to and survive the turnaround. So if your mercy gift is high, consider the costs. If you decide to proceed, surround yourself
    with people who have low-mercy gifts.
  • Keep your focus on developing spiritual giants instead of developing new programs or worship services. Focus on growing people, not the church.
  • Make sure you are secure enough not to worry about job security or feeding your family. Another way to say it: If you’re convinced a turnaround is what God wants you to do, then if you lose your pulpit, have confidence that God will open up another place for you to serve.
  • Make sure you are in the turnaround for the long haul and aren’t going to jump ship at the first sign of mutiny. To do so destroys the hope of those who want change and increases the power of those who don’t want change.
  • Prepare your new key leaders by not over-promising and under-preparing them. Leaders need to know what to expect before committing to the turnaround. They should never be surprised by the responses.
  • Plan one or two quick victories, especially in the really small church. People need to have something to celebrate in the early part of the actual transition.
  • After all of this, the best advice is to follow the passion of your call. If you sense transition is what needs to occur, start it. If you’re not sure, or if you consider it only because so many of your colleagues are doing it–then forget it!

Innovating “On the Fly”

For the next fifty years, the ability to constantly innovate “on the fly” will present one of the most important leadership issues facing any organization. Not since the Reformation has the need to discover new ways to achieve old things been as important as it is today. Those not secure enough to innovate on the fly will be unable to effectively lead a church through the next twenty years. I make this claim for two reasons.

I see this ability in the pastor of every great church in which I’ve worked. Most pastors go through the motions, doing what pastors have done for decades, getting farther behind while often working harder. However, most pastors of growing churches with growing people experiment with new ways to achieve old things. They seize on new opportunities instead of trying to solve old problems.

I also make this claim because of our world’s present environment. The next twenty-five years or so will be remembered as a time of continuous ebb and flow, of disequilibrium. The phrase “radical change” does not adequately describe today’s context. We live in a time of constant flux between extinction and birth. Some examples might help. Most jobs now driving the economy did not exist fifteen years ago. Most jobs that will drive the economy fifteen years from now do not exist today. Between 1980 and 1995 forty-four-million jobs disappeared while seventy-seven-million new jobs were created. During the same period, every mainline denomination declined in strength while new associations of congregations emerged, such as The Willow Creek Association, the Vineyard movement, Hope Chapels, Calvary Chapels, Leadership Network, the growing alliance among postmodern pastors, and many emerging urban-oriented parachurch groups. Many staff positions that churches will need ten years from now do not exist today.

Deconstruction has replaced evolution. The epistemological and ontological foundations of the world as we know them today are breaking down and giving way to new ways of perceiving reality and processing knowledge. Everything on which the industrialized, modern world was based is being destroyed. We live in a world between rules. By the midpoint of the twenty-first century, a new foundation for civilization and community will be constructed and new rules recognized. In such a world the most fatal remark one can make is “We’ve always done it that way.” About the time we get something “down pat,” the world no longer needs it. The laptop on which I write these articles could symbolize this ebb and flow. Although it is less than six months old, I have already started looking for its replacement.

Innovating on the fly means living at the edge of chaos without becoming part of the chaos. Leaders who seek harmony and equilibrium will lead churches that stagnate and die. Like organisms adapting to the ecosystem’s constant changes, leaders of effective churches constantly test the edges of church life. They don’t just tolerate change; they build it into the fabric of their ministry.

Effective leaders today reside somewhere between absolute order and absolute chaos. The trick is to ride the wave of chaos to its crest without becoming engulfed by it. Instead of seeking order, leaders court the chaos. The worst thing a leader can do today is to avoid the chaos of the moment for the order of the past. To do so signs one’s death warrant as a leader and consigns the organization to death.

I have learned some clues along the way to share with those who want to be part of God’s workings at this time in history.

Clues for Innovating on the Fly

Clue #1: For constant innovation on the fly, the innovator must have an anchor in the past. I have seen only one anchor that sustains Christian innovators in times of real turmoil: a deep, personal, life-changing, ever-renewing commitment to Jesus Christ. No prestige, office, salary, or fame can provide the kind of sustenance and stamina that the next fifty years of Christian history will require. If we lose our Christ-connected core, we have nothing worthwhile to share. Make sure your anchor is firmly in place.

Innovating on the fly does not just signify a skill one possesses. It is a passion arising from one’s commitment to a mission. Christian innovators so desperately want to communicate God’s message that they do not fear trying new things and making mistakes, as long as they learn new ways to accomplish old things. The stronger one’s anchor is in Jesus Christ and the mission he left with us in his last will and testament (Matthew 28:19-20) and his post last will and testament (Acts 1:8), the more easily one can innovate and live with the ensuing chaos. When they can no longer achieve the mission, innovating leaders desperately look for ways to achieve it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.

Our society will find anchors in short supply over the next fifty years. The fragmentation, disequilibrium, and uncertainty of our time will make for a rough ride. The goal of innovation for a church leader is not to create something new but to find new ways to achieve something old–Christian community. The key to such leadership: Have a solid core!

Clue #2: Go for the big, hairy, audacious innovations. Be bold. Small innovations equate to little more than tinkering. Fiddling with small changes just keeps everyone in an uproar.

Clue #3: Never stifle an innovating moment–even if you’re not sure if it is the thing to do. I remember returning from vacation to find a note on my office door from one of the preaching pastors: “Bill, wear blue jeans Sunday morning to worship. We are going to wear them all summer.” At the time I thought this “dumb idea” would cause lots of trouble. Today, it is normal dress in many postmodern churches.

Clue #4: As soon as you perfect what you are doing, move on to something else. Don’t hang on too long to something working very well. Keep looking for ways to improve what you do, or move to the next level. The old adage, “Don’t let go of what you’ve got until you have something new to grab hold of,” simply does not mean much in a turbulent environment.

Such an act requires major discipline and constant seeking to place oneself where God works in the world. The trick at the top: Keep perspective and see over the horizon. Being at ease in Zion remains the worst enemy of innovation.

Clue #5: Gravitate toward the edges of your religious group (denomination, association, or network), because innovation has less resistance there. You will never find the status quo at the edge, nor will you hear “We’ve never done it that way before.” Maximize your edges by reading in areas outside of your discipline, attending events not sponsored by your denomination, networking with pastors in other traditions, talking with your kids, or visiting new websites.

Clue #6: Listen to your instinct, not your critics. During the first twenty years of my ministry I received a lot of criticism from all fronts. They said I was doing everything all wrong, even though my church grew. At one point, a bishop collected signatures to get my ordination revoked. Another time, this same bishop tried to get a major seminary to drop its teaching relationship with me. All because I innovated on the fly. Now I find it hard to stay home enough because so many denominational officials, including many bishops of my denomination, consider what I advocate to be the way to the future.

All along, I felt in my heart that I was going the right direction, but surely so many of my peers couldn’t be wrong! For a short time I listened to them too much, which caused me to waste some of my earliest years. However, it soon became clear that what I was doing caused my church to grow and what they advocated caused their churches to decline. So I began to follow my heart and simply tuned them out.

As a result, the church I served for twenty-four years was one of the first congregations in the U.S. to do a number of things: required months of training before allowing teachers to enter the classroom; offered two or three preachers every week from which to choose; put computers in the Sunday school; offered multiple worship services; considered small groups as the hub of the church; did away with (deconstructed) the official denominational committee structure; had a social-justice ministry that attacked the root causes of social injustice in our city and state; and had one of the first strong, permission-giving, lay ministries in the twentieth century.

A Word of Warning and Encouragement

One last thing about innovative leaders: They tend to gather around themselves other leaders who may or may not be innovative but who thrive on continual movement into the future instead of a static reproduction of the past. When a person who is not a leader replaces an innovative leader, three things always seem to happen: the innovation stops and maintenance begins; the leaders in place when the innovator left begin to leave because they no longer feel challenged; and non-innovative, past-oriented people move into the vacuum and take the organization back to a state of equilibrium. Innovative leaders must replace innovative leaders.

I began this chapter by stating, “turning church members into disciple makers–disciples who make other disciples–is one of the most pressing challenges of our time.” I also claimed that “Christians are the biggest obstacle to the expansion of Christianity.”

The good news is that they–and we–don’t have to be. What kind of disciples will step out of your church? The answer may rest in what you do next.

Bill Easum founded 21st Century Strategies which in 2000 became Easum, Bandy & Associates (EBA) when he merged with Tom Bandy and his Thriving Church group. In 2000 Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian reformed 21st Century Strategies Inc. Easum is the author of numerous best-selling books including Dancing With Dinosaurs, and Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.