7 Actions I Recommend When A Church is Declining

By | Church, Church Planting, Church Revitalization | One Comment

What should you do when a church is in decline? I get asked that question a lot.

It should be noted there are no cookie-cutter solutions for reversing a church in decline. Churches have unique characteristics, because they have different people. There are different reasons which cause decline. And ultimately, God is in control of all of this.

I would be considered arrogant and even hurtful to pretend to have all the answers for a church I do not know.

There are a few suggestions, which come from working with churches in decline.

Here are 7 suggestions:

Evaluate

What is going wrong? Why are less people attending and new people are not? Ask the hard questions. Is it programmatic, a people problem, or a Biblical issue? Don’t be afraid to admit if your church is just plain boring.

If nothing has changed in the programs you offer in the last 10 years – I may already have your answer. But ask questions. Ask for inside and outside opinions. This takes guts, but is critically necessary.

Ask visitors. Recruit a “secret shopper” attendee to give you an objective look at the church. Evaluate even if you are afraid to know the answers. You can’t address problems until you know them.

Own it

The problems are real. Don’t pretend they are not. At this step, cause or blame is not as important. They were important in the first step, because they may alter your response, but now the problems are yours. They are not going away without intentionality. Quit denying. Start owning the issues. I see too many churches avoid the issues because they are difficult – or unpopular – to address.

Find a Bible story where people of God were called to do something which didn’t involve a certain level if risk, hard work, fear or the necessity of faith.

Address major, obvious issues

This is hard. Perhaps the hardest one. If the church has “forgotten your first love” – repent. When the church holds on to bitterness and anger from the past – forgive. Sometimes walking by faith has been replaced by an abundance of structure. In these times you may need to step out boldly into a new area of ministry.

If the church is in disunity it must come together first. When the church loves the traditions of men more than the commands of God it must turn from sin. And, if the problems involve people, you can’t be a people pleaser. (I told you this is hard.)

Find alignment

Where does the church best find unity? What will everyone get excited about doing? This is many times a vision, or a moment in history that was special to everyone, or a common thread within the DNA. Find and focus attention on it.

In my experience, God will not bless a church in disunity, but churches have issues, causes or programs that everyone can get excited about and support. Church leaders must be working together to build enthusiasm, momentum and unity.

Regroup

At some point, regardless of how drained you feel from the decline, you’ve got to come to a strategy of what to do next. You need a road map of where you are going in the next season. (It is Biblical to think ahead. Consider Luke 14:28)

I’ve never personally been able to plan in great detail more than twelve months out and sometimes, especially in times of less clarity, only a few months, but you need a plan. Start with your overall vision and explore ideas of how to accomplish it again.

Put some measurable goals in place to make progress – things you’ll do next week, next month, and in a few months down the road. It will hold you accountable if you have an action-oriented strategy and build momentum as people have something to look forward to doing.

Reignite

Put your energy and resources where it matters most. This often involves getting back to the basics of what it takes to achieve your vision. If you are a church with a heart for missions, for example, amp up your mission efforts. When special events are the church’s wheelhouse then do them. It may mean not doing things that aren’t working or things that tend to drain energy and resources. Look for what is working, or has the potential to work again – the fastest, and begin to stir energy around that program or ministry.

You need quick wins so the church can feel a sense of progress again.

Celebrate

There will be wins. You may have to look for them some days, but when they occur celebrate. Remind people that God is still moving among you. Now, it should be noted, for the overly celebratory types, that you can’t celebrate everything. If everything is wonderful – or amazing – then wonderful and amazing is really average. They need to be legitimate wins. If you celebrate mediocrity you’ll set a precedent of mediocrity. But, when you see signs of heading in the right direction, make a big deal out of it.

Those are seven suggestions. I strongly encourage you, if you want to see the church growing again – if the church yearns for health again – be intentional. Be willing to ask for help. Raise the white flag and invite honest dialogue.

The harvest is ready – the workers are few – we need you! We are losing too many churches and not planting and reviving enough. Do the hard work. Pray without ceasing. And, trust your labor will not be in vain. Praying for you.

What suggestions do you have for a church in decline?

5 Actions Before I Preach

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As a pastor, I was often asked what my routine was as I prepared to preach on Sunday mornings. Ultimately, it’s all about Jesus, but I realize I have a responsibility as a shepherd to do all I can to be prepared.

Ideally, I always tried to be completely finished with my sermon Friday, so I could take Saturday off. Sometimes I would spend an hour or so on Saturday doing one final edit. I tried to limit my activities and get a good night’s rest Saturday night. I spent Sunday mornings doing one final edit of the message.

I had some Sunday morning routines, which best helped me prepare.

5 ways I prepared to preach on Sunday mornings:

Read something in the Bible other than the passage I’m preaching on 

I wanted to feed myself before I try to teach others. Often I am reading through the Bible and I continued this on Sunday mornings.

Pray 

I spent longer on Sunday mornings than other mornings in prayer. It prepared my heart. I prayed for those who will be in attendance and those who may still be debating attending. I prayed for God’s presence to be with us. I prayed for other leaders in the church. I sought a sense of oneness with God’s heart to mine.

Exercise 

I didn’t get to do this every Sunday, but when I did I was more mentally alert and physically prepared than when I didn’t.

Worship 

Ideally, I loved to put the Sunday morning line up of worship music in a playlist and allow the music to lead me in worship. Either way, I tried to find a time to worship on Sunday mornings. When I’ve made much of God before I get to church, I find I’m better able to make much of Him.

Pray 

Just before I preach I have a fairly standard prayer. It goes something like this, “God, I can’t do this. You know I’m not worthy to speak on Your behalf. You know and I know that it’s only by Your grace I can be here this morning. If You don’t show up, today will be meaningless.”

That’s how I prepared on Sundays. What’s your process, pastor?

12 Principles of Leadership Inspired by Jesus

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There are many leaders I admire who have influenced my own leadership. I admire the teachings on leadership by guys like John Maxwell, Andy Stanley, and Patrick Lencioni.

There are leaders from my personal life such as a former pastor, a former boss, a high school principal and leaders in my own community who have influenced me as I have watched their leadership.

I also love to learn from a great athletic coach. There have been teams I have chosen to support because of the coach that leads them.

The principles, however, which I admire most are found in the leadership style of Jesus. Jesus’ leadership is still impacting culture today.

Here are 12 leadership principles of Jesus:

He invested in people others would have dismissed.

When I consider the disciples I see a group of men who were not the “religious” elite, yet Jesus used them to start His church.

Jesus released responsibility and ownership in a ministry.

I recall how Jesus sent the disciples out on their own. There was little micro-management it appears.

He had a leadership succession plan. 

Jesus consistently reminded the disciples He wouldn’t always be with them. Of course, He was still the “leader”, but He left others to take the ministry forward.

Jesus practiced servant leadership better than anyone.

Imagine this – the King of kings was willing to wash the feet of His followers.

He was laser focused on His vision.

Regardless of the persecutions or distractions, Jesus kept on the mission God had called Him to complete.

Jesus handled distractions with grace.

When the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years touched His garment, Jesus stopped to heal her, even though headed to a definite purpose.

He was into self-development.

We find Jesus constantly slipping away to spend time with God.

Jesus was into leadership development and replacement.

The disciples were very purposefully prepared to take over the ministry. Jesus pushed people beyond what they felt they were capable of doing.

He held followers to high expectations.

Jesus was not afraid to make huge requests of people. “Follow Me” meant the disciples had to drop their agenda to do so. He told the disciples they must be willing to lose everything to follow Him.

Jesus cared more about people than about rules and regulations.

I see Him willingly jeopardizing Himself by breaking the “rules” to help someone in need.

He celebrated success in ministry.

People that were faithful to Him and His cause were rewarded generously.

Jesus finished well.

Do we have any questions whether His ministry was effective?

Any other reasons you admire the leadership of Jesus?

8 Ways to Add Margin to Your Day

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How do you fit more activity into an already busy schedule?

Isn’t this a great question?

How do you create more margin in your schedule – to do the things you want to do and the things you need to do?

Here are a 8 tips to create more margin:

Prioritize your life.

What do you value most? Without knowing this we find ourselves chasing after many things that have little value. If you haven’t identified a set of values for life, start here.

Stop unnecessary time-wasters.

If every night includes three hours of television, don’t be surprised you didn’t get to spend a lot of quality time with your children. Most of us form bad habits of doing something that waste bulks of time. Make a list of what you spend the most time doing and see if there are places you can cut.

Work smarter.

I know so many pastors who simply handle things as they come up rather than work with a plan. The benefit of organization is that you can do what you need to do more efficiently and are more productive.

Schedule times to organize.

Spending time planning the week will make the whole week more productive. Usually for me this is the first part of my week. If I know where I’m headed it’s much easier to get everything done and still handle distractions.

Prioritize your day.

It doesn’t matter what system you use, but keeping some sort of prioritized list of tasks increases the rate of completion. Sometimes I start with the easy ones first to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t say yes to everything.

Be picky with your time allotment based again on your end priorities and goals. It’s even okay to say no to some things.

Schedule down and family time.

When my boys were young, I wrote on my calendar time with them. This may sound mechanical, but it kept other things from filling up my schedule. (I still schedule this time for Cheryl – and, it sounds counterproductive, but we get away even more frequently during busier seasons.)

Evaluate your schedule often.

Plans should not be implemented and then ignored. Develop your plan to create margin in your life, then periodically review the plan to see how you are doing and what needs to be changed.

One Danger In Vision-Casting

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Vision casting can be dangerous for the health of a team.

Sometimes vision-casting can destroy an otherwise healthy team.

I know that goes against what all the great leadership books and experts say, but it’s true. I have been guilty of this one – many times.

The most prolific vision-casters can ruin a good team.

Let me explain.

Casting a vision is one part of success in an organization. It is an important part. I have been known to cast a vision of things to come. My favorite way this happens is to go away for a few days, think, pray, and jot down notes. Then I come back to our team and draw out my thoughts on a whiteboard.

Oh, that’s so much fun! (My team knows when I go out of town it can be dangerous.)

So, yes, casting a vision is an important part of leaders. And, for clarity sake, I’m not talking about the one over-arching vision which drives the organization. I’m talking about the current thoughts in a leader’s mind of where the organization needs to go next week, next month or next year.

There’s more to leading a team than casting vision.

Completing the vision is another, equally important part.

And that’s the danger part of casting vision sometimes. The danger is when the team doesn’t understand the vision, there are no plans created of how to complete it or competing visions are still on the table from the last time I went out of town.

That spells danger for a healthy team!

It won’t matter how well the vision was cast. In fact, in this scenario, it can even do more harm than good if the leader is a really good vision-caster.

Here’s the thing, visions can often appear bigger than life. They can be lofty and stretching for the organization. They can be exciting and inspiring. That’s all good.

But people left without the “how” to complete it may feel discouraged. When people never seem to be able to keep up or complete their assigned tasks they can feel defeated. And if this is repeated over time, they may even feel like failures in their work.

They may even give up and the the vision dies.

Vision-casters, by nature, thrive on casting, so they are continually throwing out the next big idea. It’s fun, exciting, motivating – visionary.

But good leaders continually work to ensure people not only catch the vision, but also understand the how and have the resources to accomplish the vision.

It takes both.

As I’ve self-admitted, I can struggle here as a leader. Part of recognizing this is building discipline into my leadership.

Good leaders:

  • Ask questions to make sure everyone understands the vision
  • Ensure there are plans, strategies, and systems in place
  • Break the vision down into measurable steps or goals
  • Stay with the process during implementation phase
  • Allow the team to push back when there are too many competing visions on the table
  • Set the pace of the team so that there are seasons of pushing hard for what’s new and seasons of implementing
  • Make sure there are built-in seasons of rest for the leader and the team

Have you been on the bad side of vision casting?

5 Ways to Listen to Different Voices as a Leader

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One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen leaders make is forgetting everyone doesn’t think like them. I have personally made this mistake many times. We assume what we are thinking is what everyone else is thinking.

Wrong.

And time has proven this to me repeatedly.

The fact is people are different. They think differently, have different desires and, thankfully have different ideas. The way they process and share those ideas are often different from the leader.

This can be frustrating if we allow it to be, but with intentionality it can also be extremely helpful. As a leader, I limit the organization when I limit it to my ideas or abilities.

So, if you recognize the need and want to lead with people who are different from you, you’ll often have to lead differently from how you wish to be led. Make sense?

I’m just being candid here, but frankly, I’d be comfortable leading by email, but how healthy would such an environment be?

When you fail to remember this principle of leadership – that people are different – you frustrate those you are trying to lead. You get poor performance from the best leaders on your team and, worst of all, your team fails to live up to its potential.

Here are some thoughts to warrant against this:

(Please understand, I am using the word “I” a lot here. I don’t really like the term, because I think better leadership is a “we”, but I want you to see how I try to be intentional in this area.)

Welcoming input.

This has to come first and is more about a personal attitude. I have to actually want to hear from people on my team – even the kind of information which hurts to hear initially. Personally, I want any team I lead to feel comfortable walking into my office, at any time, and challenging my decisions. Granted, I want to receive respect, and I also expect to equally give respect. Knowing what my team really thinks empowers me to lead them better.

Intentionally surrounding yourself with diverse personalities.

One intentional thing I do is try to have good friends who stretch me as a person. I have some extremely extroverted friends, for example. They remind me everyone isn’t introverted like me.

On any church staff where I have led, I found some different personalities to compliment mine. I try to consistently surround myself with different voices, so I receive diversity of thought. We will all share a common vision, but we should have some unique approaches to implementing it.

Ask yourself, “Have I surrounded myself with people who think just like me?”

Asking questions.

Personally, I ask lots of questions. If you come to me with a question I am likely to answer with a question, such as, “What do you think we should do?” I give plenty of opportunity for input into major decisions before a decision is final. Periodically, I like to set up focus groups of people for input on various issues. I want to hear from as wide a range of people as possible.

Most important, I place a personal value on hearing from people who I know respect me, but are not afraid to be honest with me.

Never assume agreement by silence.

I want to know, as best as I can, not only what people are saying, but what people are really thinking. To accomplish this I periodically allow and welcome anonymous feedback. It is important to provide multiple ways for feedback. Even during meetings I welcome texting or emailing me (depending on the size and structure of the meeting) during the meeting. I’ve found this approach works better for some who may not provide their voice otherwise.

Structuring for expression of thought.

Here I am referring to the DNA and culture for the entire team. There has to be an environment where all leaders are encouraged to think for themselves. This kind of culture doesn’t happen without intentionality. As a leader, I try to surround myself with people sharper than me, but I want all of us to have the same attitude towards this principle of hearing from others. I believe in the power of “WE”.

It’s not easy being a leader, but it is more manageable when you discipline yourself to allow others to help you lead.

How do you structure yourself to hear from people different from you? What are some ways you have seen this done by other leaders?

Communicating Personal Vision – A Huge Challenge for Senior Leaders

By | Leadership, Organizational Leadership, Team Leadership | 3 Comments

The Challenge

One of the greatest challenges I have felt as a senior leader is to regularly communicate the big picture vision I own in my head.

Of course, this is the idea behind vision and mission statements, but those are very broad statements. I am referring to the dreams I am currently dreaming. There are often specific goals and objectives I think we should currently be attempting as an organization.  

The importance:

I know I need to share what I’m thinking for people who can’t read my mind.  It is hard for those we lead to get inside our head, but so important if we want to lead well. If we want to earn and keep trust and credibility in our leadership, then we must make sure people understand our broad visions.

In fairness, they are thinking about their own individual responsibilities. Their role may not be to think for the entire organization. That’s usually the role of senior leaders.

What I attempt to do:

Sharing my heart for the personal vision I have requires more intentionality in communication. Many leaders assume others are following. It isn’t until people don’t accomplish what the leader hopes they will that they realize the people trying to follow never fully understood what a leader was expecting.

This is always a work in progress for me, and more difficult in a new position, but here are some things I try to to communicate my personal vision as a senior leader:

  • Communicate regularly
  • Keep notes to myself of what needs communicating (and I do that in categories of the people that need to hear it)
  • Utilize different communication styles for different listening types
  • Use understandable language – and explain when it is not (I like to draw a lot of diagrams to flesh out my ideas in front of people.)
  • Do not assume others know what I am talking about – they may not
  • Speak openly and transparently
  • Allow people the freedom to ask me anything they want

And the greatest suggestion I have – Ask lots of questions of others! Make sure people understand what you are saying.

What about you?

Does anyone else struggle with this challenge?  What suggestions do you have for a leader sharing their heart with those around them?

Don’t Hire Yourself When Adding to the Team

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In my experience, people typically tend to hire someone they can easily get along with, relate to and with whom they will enjoy working. That often translates into hiring people who think like them, make decisions like them, and even have similar life interests.

While hiring for cultural fit and chemistry on the team is certainly something I agree with and try to practice, I encourage senior leaders not to add another “of them” to the team.

The challenge:

If we are not careful, simply because of the chemistry between us, we will be attracted towards candidates that are a lot like us. It often translates into hiring clones of the person doing the hiring. Before long, as the organization grows, it is full of people with similar interests attempting to reach the vision.

Again, while a team of “like-minded” people may sound good in principle, it can actually become a very limiting system. Variety on a team is what stretches the team to reach new heights.

You can hire people who can get along, but are still different from you.

The more I have grown as a leader the more I have concentrated on my weaknesses.  I know my strengths well. I now need to know what is holding our team back from all we could be. In recent years I have strived to surround myself with people that stretch me and have skills – and even personalities and temperaments – different from me.

Leaders, as you are building your team, I suggest you look for people that are not like you. Don’t hire yourself – hire someone who completes you. Hire people that take you out of your comfort zone, maybe even conflict with your style a little. In the end, it will make your organization better.

How I Blog about Current Leadership Issues

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All the leadership examples I post on my blog come from real life situations – either mine or yours, collected through years of leadership experience. 

I get asked frequently, “How do you post about people you know? Don’t they figure out you’re talking about them?”

And, truthfully, sometimes they ask, “Is that post about me?

The reality is, however, that every situation seems to repeat itself – many times. (There is nothing new under the sun.) In fact, I will seldom post specific details of a specific situation. I wait until I observe it more than once and I keep posts as broad and general as I can.

Many of the situations from which I draw principles come from readers of this blog sharing their stories with me. And I have received lots of them over the years. Some come from other churches with whom I’ve worked. Many of the situations from which I develop leadership principles happened years ago when I was in secular business and management. Sometimes the details are cloudy, but the principles are still quite clear.

I do have a system (informal that is), however, of how I post about current leadership issues, especially those real life to me, where I know the people involved.

Here is my “system”:

I wait until some time has passed – The principles learned will still be good. It could be a month or several years, depending on how easy to discern the details would be. (Evernote is where I mostly keep my notes.)

I also try to make sure I have removed my emotions before I post about a situation. I’ve been burned a few times (and burned others) by posting in anger, so I’ve learned to never post until I’m back on even ground emotionally.

I consider all parties involved – I want to make sure I’m telling the story correctly. The point is trying to capture the facts as they happened, not as someone felt (or I felt) as they were happening. If it’s a personal issue for me, I never share any situation I wouldn’t be comfortable discussing with the people involved.

I especially don’t want people I lead feeling slammed through my blog, so I make sure to address leadership problems outside this blog. Frequently, I mention upcoming posts so they know in advance I’m writing about a certain topic.

Examine what was learned – I always want to learn from experiences; good or bad, so I ask myself how the teams involved are better and how things could improve because of this situation. Again, I try never to post out of personal frustration, but I do try to share that which can benefit others from my experience or the experience of others.

Change details – I never share names, unless I have permission and it’s necessary for the story. Also, I change enough details to keep people guessing as to the characters in the situation.

Post – Eventually I use the story or situation to write about a leadership problem or principle. My theory is that all leadership principles develop somewhere – and there is always a story behind them.

Where did you learn some of your best leadership principles?

Life Cycles of an Organization: And the Team That Leads Them

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Every organization has a life cycle. In fact, over time an organization will likely be many separate cycles. I have written about organizational life cycles before.

But I have observed another dynamic within these life cycles. In each life cycle the most successful organizations I have been a part of had a team skilled at three separate functions.

The three functions are:

Starters

Starting involves those who can dream, vision-cast, and recruit people to follow a new idea or initiative. These are the people who embrace change and are always ready for something new. (BTW, this is the group where I typically fit.)

Maintainers

Maintaining involves setting up and managing systems in an effort to continue the progress usually begun by others. These people may be slower to embrace change; valuing things which are organized, structured, and understandable. (BTW, every team needs these people to be successful.)

Finishers

Finishing is different from starting or maintaining, because it’s not beginning new, nor is it staying the same, but it involves taking an established idea and carrying it to the next destination. It could be to improve things or to close them gracefully. These are people who have the ability and desire to make existing things better and to finish things well.

Here’s why this matters in an organization:

In my observation, people tend to lean towards one of the three, and may be comfortable in two of them. I have found it rare for someone to be gifted in all three. But on successful teams, all three are operating together within a life cycle.

I love being a starter. Since I was in high school, I’ve wanted to start clubs or initiatives, alter the direction of something, or stir up some intentional change. It is one reason I’m consistently tossing out new ideas to our team. (It’s also how I frustrate them most.) I can live in the finisher role for a time if it involves development or innovation, but I always drift back to starting something new. And I burn out very quickly in the maintaining position.

One goal of a team could be to balance the strengths of the team members around each of these, so the team is always starting, maintaining, and finishing. The most important thing is that the team and leaders recognize that each of these functions of a life cycle are equally important.

Every healthy life cycle requires all three.

Which one are you wired for best?

(If you say all three, you might want to ask people around you to help you evaluate your answer.)