The church down the street that once had a vibrant ministry is being torn down to build condos. It’s not uncommon these days. Like so many countries before us, the US is rapidly moving toward a Post-Christian Era. What worked before won’t work in the future. A growing number of church leaders see their job as Revitalization Pastor.
A New Kind of Senior Pastor
Leadership of the church has commonly fallen into one of two job titles: Church Planter or Senior Pastor. The Church Planter title is given to the Pastor who started the church from scratch. Church Planters bring church to where there was no church. A Senior Pastor may be a Church Planter but the title is also given to someone who takes over leadership of an established church.
A Revitalization Pastor is a Senior Pastor who takes on leadership of a church that is waning. Often, after a multi-year slide of decline, with good intentions the church jumped from one emphasis to another looking for a way to grasp what they once had. No matter what they tried, their numbers continued to dwindle. Nothing worked, and the people who remain are discouraged and disengaged.
This is not a glamorous role. The closest metaphor I can think of is that of an ER doctor at a County Hospital. It’s bad and the chances of survival are slim, but it is the job of the Revitalization Pastor to bring a dying church back or help it go down with dignity.
Where Vision Has Perished
A big clue as to what happened to these churches is found when you look at the church’s vision and mission. There’s nothing in their actions that support that this is what they want. The lack of ownership and engagement is obvious. Any new pastoral candidate can see that.
One thing has become clear to everyone: the church doesn’t have critical mass anymore. They are past the point of growing the traditional way… by having a good program and being attractional. They need to move to outreach. But outreach is something you can do when you have the luxury of a stable, functional church. First stabilize, then do outreach when you have time and a comfortable margin.
The primary goals of a Revitalization Pastor are 1) visioncasting, 2) getting the people engaged in ministry, and 3) bringing in the community.
Casting Vision for What’s Next
Sometimes if you are coming in as a new leader, you don’t need to ask people what their vision is. Their vision is the past. A return to the glory days. What’s needed is to help people discover and embrace their vision for now moving forward.
That said, casting vision is more than sharing your vision—no matter how good it is. You have to remember that you are asking people to change the way they do life and that is a huge ask. Understanding and compassion partnered with conviction and obedience to what God is asking you to do are all key elements to effectively casting vision for what’s next.
In some cases, you can achieve this by identifying achievements in the church’s history when “on track with God.” Reflecting on these achievements can give insights into the timeless principles that could inform the way forward. Look at the outcomes, why was that ministry powerful? It connected the body, brought in new people, met needs. The core principles will resonate and open a door for new ideas on how to get there again.
Sometimes the people have been so exhausted by one vision after an another… it helps to go back to what they are confident that God wants them to do. You can even ask, “If God really had his way, what would look different?” Have them sit for a few minutes asking God to give them an image of what he wants to do.
A key element in change management (and revitalization is definitely change), is giving people something to do during the transition. Not just busy work, but work that is meaningful and is connected to bringing about the new.
- Identify needs: How can the church be helping people with real needs now?
- Outline action: How can you develop support groups to meet those needs?
- Celebrate community: What can you do to breathe life into the community?
- Welcome others: How can you start reaching out beyond the walls of the church to make disciples?
Unlock the Doors
Outreach is always essential in a church; indeed, a church is not doing the work of a church unless it is reaching outside of its own walls to make disciples. Even—and especially—smaller ministries or those in decline need to engage in outreach. Large well-funded programs can glide along on autopilot for quite a while before anyone realizes they are hollow. Smaller ministries have no such luxury. They need to start acting like a church immediately.
A dying church has locked themselves inside. It’s no longer about “come and see” it’s about convincing the church that it’s safe to go out.
I found Managing Transitions by Willaim Bridges especially helpful when learning to navigate organizational change. It is a must read for Revitalization Pastors. For personal application, the Change Management Profile offers an assessment that will identify your strengths and where you need to grow and the Change Management Skills Builder offers solid instruction to help you improve in targeted areas.