Why Church Turn-Arounds Fail

Here's a typical scenario. A young pastor graduates from seminary. He begins looking for a church. He submits his profile and interviews with a number of churches looking for a pastor. Eventually, a church calls him. The church is small and has been in decline for many years. They are confident that, with a young and promising pastor, things will begin to turn around.

Sometimes things do turn around. More often than not, the pastor is unable to bring about the change that the church really needs.

What's the problem? Is it the pastor? Many would say yes. In fact, many pastors have repeated this pattern in their ministry and retire feeling that they have failed. This is made even worse by the knowledge that some pastors manage to go into a struggling church and see things change.

I think it's more complicated than that.

Systems resist change. I'm convinced that the challenges of turning around a church are far more significant than we realize. If you have any interest in this at all, I really encourage you to listen to the episode of This American Life that I mentioned the other day. I know it's talking about car plants, but as I listened I couldn't help but see the parallels to churches. Even when you have the right knowledge, it's often next to impossible to transform an existing congregation without significant intervention.

Shallow change isn't enough. Hiring a new pastor is often seen as the answer. This can reflect the belief that a minor tweak is all that it will take to turn things around. When things don't change, it's easy to blame the pastor. In many cases the pastor never had a chance. The problem goes much deeper.

Pastors in church turn-arounds often aren't given the support they need. Church planters are assessed and trained. They conduct studies on strategic locations. They launch churches with a strategy, and receive coaching and support for years. In contrast, pastors are often sent into church turn-arounds with no assessment, training, strategy, or support. Yet all of these are needed just as much as in a church plant.

In short, we need to be a lot more strategic about churches that need turn-around. This is especially important because cities are littered with churches that are in desperate need of turnaround, and I don't think we've been as strategic as we need to be in meeting this challenge.

We need more church plants. We also need to relaunch a lot of churches, which is essentially church planting using the resources of a previously existing church. But when it comes to turning around churches, we have to do better than sending a solo pastor in alone hoping that things will change. We need to be just as strategic as we are in church planting.