The “Secret” and Hardest Part for Pastors Attempting Church Revitalization

There is a part of church revitalization we don’t talk about much – if ever. Yet, pastors think about it a lot. 

I know this from personal experience and from talking to literally dozens of pastors attempting church revitalization. 

Although it is a secret, I’m convinced it’s the hardest thing any pastor will face who wants to see a declining established church ever thrive again. 

I hate to pull the cover back on my pastor friends on this one, but often it is not until we admit a problem that we can really focus on some solutions. 

So, here’s the secret, hardest part I’ve observed about church revitalization:

Deciding if you will stay long enough to see a turn. 

That’s it. 

And this can honestly be said about many other changes we make as leaders. You have to decide if you are going to outlast the tension change naturally creates. 

To test my assertion, if you are in the first couple years of leading church revitalization, see if any of these apply: 

  • You wake up some days and don’t know if you can do it anymore. 
  • You and your spouse dream about where you could work – maybe another church; perhaps even in the marketplace.
  • Secretly you search job site boards looking for other positions for which you might qualify or be interested.
  • You wonder if you are alone and if anyone else struggles this way.
  • There are times you wonder if the problem is you – if you’re doing something wrong, if maybe it is a sin to even be thinking as you do some days. 

Any of those sound like your story? 

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with any of these. Those are raw human emotions. Change is not only hard for the congregation – it’s hard for the one leading it. And some of it may simply be a way to cope and survive. You get little “mini-mind breaks” that keep you going. 

But here’s what I know to be true: Until you decide if you’re going to outlast the critics and weather the storms of change you will likely never realize the success you really came to achieve. 

Of course, there is never an excuse to be arrogant, tyrannical or controlling. I always tried to be humble, but purposeful. God had sent me and the church had called me to do a job. Helping a church revive again requires change. And leading change is hard and the reactions to it are not always pretty. 

The question in church revitalization is not if it is going to be difficult. Someone told me that the longer the church has been in decline the longer it will take to revitalize. I know for sure it takes longer than we often hope it will. The question is if you are going to last through the difficult to get to the potential wonderful. 

And I’m not even suggesting you have to or should. That’s a much more personal matter with many different parameters that depend on your unique circumstances and the church. Some churches can’t be revived. There are no guarantees and no perfect formulas to follow.

I’m simply pointing out something I have learned the hard way. 

In an upcoming post I’ll offer a few suggestions for staying through the hard seasons. In the meantime, I’m saying a prayer for all of you who will read this post and are in the middle of discerning whether to stay or go. 

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Jim Wright says:

    As a pastor in his early fifties, my concern is that in about 3 to 4 years if the church is not able to be revitalized and closes, who will be interested in hiring me? I know the Lord is in control. But I wonder if I gambling with my family’s future. Again I know God will take care of us but in my humanity I struggle with that question.

    • Ron Edmondson says:

      It does get harder when you’re in your 50’s. I’m there, so I understand. I think though that most people in church leadership realize how hard revitalization is. And how difficult some churches can be.

  • Thank you for your post. I needed this. I find myself going through everything on your list almost weekly.
    It helps to know that I’m not the only one who has wanted to give up on revitalization.
    Thanks again.

  • Kevin Wicker says:

    There are different reasons why churches need revitalization — or as the older generation would say, “in need of revival”. When a church is “run” by a group of board members or a certain set of contributors that own the property or keep the lights on, it can be a difficult challenge to a pastor to appease those “in charge”, while trying to follow the Lord as a spiritual leader and visionary. So often times there is a conflict of interest. Some threaten to leave. Others threaten to fire the preacher. Some simply leave. It’s all downhill from there. This is generally the case.

    My dad pastored many churches in his 60 years of ministry. I was brought up in and around it — even considered to follow in his footsteps. I witnessed many circumstances in church life. Nothing puts out a fire in a church body more than divisions and petty preferences among the ‘pillars’ of the church.

    When a true ‘revival’ comes upon a church body, there is usually a common vision: Christ being first while being of service to each other and to the community. Jesus is the central figure. Revival is a Spiritual experience. When there is no revival or revitalization, the church dissipates. The is a reason for it.

    According to Scripture, the pastor is the authority figure, responsible for: overseeing (1 Timothy 3:1), serving as a diligent caretaker (1 Timothy 5:17) feeding the body/ preaching the Word (1 Peter 5:2), and guardian of the doctrine (Titus 1:9). He is responsible for leading the flock into a deeper faith and fellowship with God and each other. If the church is to grow, there has to be a nucleus or a team of faithful attendees that share the pastor’s vision. A pastor cannot see his vision come to fruition when there are those who won’t catch on to the vision. Generally those are the ones who fight the pastor.

    Before taking on a church, a pastor must have his own personal revival. He must have a vision and a heart for the community. He must understand the protocol and the players on the board. He must rightly discern what holds back revival in the church, and walk in wisdom — because he may be dealing with “weeds among the wheat”. Being a pastor as a career isn’t enough. You must really know how to follow the Voice of the Lord. You are taking on a responsibility better suited for one with spiritual maturity and an established walk with God. Anything other than that makes you a hireling — which is 95% a recipe for disaster.

    A long story short, the church needs revival. It begins with the man behind the pulpit. We cannot conjure the Holy Spirit, nor will any conceived program will ever revitalize a church. Jesus is the Head. The Holy Spirit moves when He is invited to move. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts, and brings a united vision. You’ll never have a revitalized church without a spiritual revival.

  • Ken says:

    Thank you for the honesty. It is refreshing and comforting in a needful way.

  • Rick says:

    What’s missing in too many revitalization efforts is a system’s perspective. A linear view can hurt relationships with the pastor needlessly; it puts a lot of pressure and stress on the pastor as the change agent because the alliance the pastor has with the people in the system, namely the stakeholders among the membership, keeps breaking. What’s needed is a consensual domain and a structural coupling with an outside person or team. Change becomes possible because the presence of an outsider creates the possibility of change. A systems theorist would keep the pastor within the system, focus on goals that change the context that would make new behaviour logical.

    Revitalization efforts usually view the church as allopoietic, which is also hurtful. Churches these days are autopoietic, and change agents need to keep that view in mind, recognizing how they impact the system and are impacted by it, and work on non-instructive communication to allow conversations to drift toward discerning goals that shape the context.

    Plateaued and declining churches are not wrong. The system is doing what the system is designed to do. The output is seen by the supra system as useless, namely off-mission, but the insiders don’t see it that way. Non-instructive, conversational drift, with an autopoietic viewpoint, and protecting the pastor from becoming a change agent is essential for the longevity of the pastor and the fruitfulness of the attempt to revitalize.

    Many pastors simply don’t have the option to stay long term. Since they are typically the change agents, they become something that the system can’t adapt to, so the system casts the pastor out in order to restabilize. Staying and committing to the process is often not the decision of the pastor; it’s often the case that the pastor can’t survive the system as it attempts to restabilize.

    So, IMO, revitalization attempts need a revitalization team that takes on the role of a coach for the church in order to protect the pastor and the process. The revitalization team needs to join with the church system in a structural coupling to create a consensual domain, mutually interacting through conversational drift.

    System theorists who understand first-order and particularly second-order cybernetics would really be helpful in our church revitalization efforts.

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