The 4 Most Overlooked Truths About Leading a Turnaround Church

turnaround 200cIt’s one of the toughest tasks in pastoral ministry. Leading an existing church through a turnaround from unhealthy to healthy.

But it’s even harder when we’re trying to do so without understanding some basic principles needed for a successful turnaround to take place.

Here are four common, fundamental principles that are regularly ignored or unknown by pastors trying to turn a church around.


1. When a church gets turned around it will be heading in a different direction

Why do we use the word “turnaround” if we don’t want anything to change?

Many pastors say “I want to help turn this church around”, when what they really mean is “I want this church to get bigger.” Those are two different goals. If you want a bigger church, there are plenty of resources that will give you those principles, but know this…

Bigger is not a turnaround. It’s just more.

Sometimes numbers are the least important factor in determining a church’s health. They can even be a false proxy that deceives us into thinking we have health when we don’t, and vice versa.

We need to be ready for things to change. That’s what “turnaround” means, after all. If you and the church are not ready for change – for a lot of changes, actually – you’re not ready for a turnaround.


2. A turnaround means more than surface, stylistic changes

Yes, when a church gets turned around from unhealthy to healthy, it may mean changing your order of service, your music, your clothing style and other facets of your church’s culture. If you want a real turnaround, everything outside the core biblical principles needs to be up for grabs.

But singing Chris Tomlin songs to guitar and drums, instead of Charles Wesley hymns to organ and piano is not a turnaround. No matter how spiky the worship leader’s hair is.

Turnaround happens in the middle ground of attitudes, methods and systems. It’s deeper than a new church logo, but it should re-affirm, rather than challenge eternal biblical principles. More about this in a future post.


3. Turnaround doesn’t start with what we add, but by what we remove

When we did a multi-year turnaround at the church I now lead, we stripped everything back to almost nothing before we started adding things.

Here’s why.

It’s easier to see your real needs when you have nothing. When the calendar is filled with events we’ve gotten used to, it’s harder to know if they’re really necessary.

But be very careful here. We didn’t just start chopping things off because “the pastor wants to change things”. That’s dangerous.

Instead, we won the long-term battle of attrition. We removed events and activities one-by-one, and only when it was obvious to (almost) everyone that they were no longer working. It was like a company reducing its staff by not replacing retirees, instead of by layoffs.

After we “retired” an event or an idea, we didn’t rush to replace it. We waited a while. In some cases, we came to realize we didn’t need anything at all. Less was more. But even when we decided we did need something to replace it, we still didn’t add anything new unless and until we knew for sure we had something that was both better and sustainable.


4. A turnaround church needs a turned-around pastor

Is it cynical to say that most pastors really don’t want to turn their church around? What most of us want is a bigger church.

The main turnaround that has to take place is in the heart of the pastor. If it’s just about pastoring a bigger church, you might as well walk away now. No one ever built a great church just by trying to build a bigger one. Yes there are some that grew healthy and big at the same time, but ask yourself this hard question…

If you had to choose between pastoring a healthy Small Church that you knew would stay small, or pastoring an unhealthy big church, what would you choose?

Healthy is better than bigger. Turnaround starts here.

No pastor is ready to implement a true, lasting church turnaround without acknowledging this one simple fact. Bigger isn’t better, it’s just more. And there’s no sense having more of something unless it’s better.

And no, this isn’t some bait-and-switch where I tell you, “get the church healthy without worrying about growth, then when it is healthy it will grow like crazy!” The truth is, the reason pastors need to be OK with pastoring a healthy Small Church is because that’s what 90% of us will end up pastoring for most of our ministry.

There is no promise of growth, even for a healthy church.

Health is not a means to an end. It is the means and the end.

That attitude starts with us, pastors. It starts with us.


So what do you think? If you’re a pastor, are there any attitudes that may need to be turned around in you, to allow for a turnaround in your congregation?

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6 thoughts on “The 4 Most Overlooked Truths About Leading a Turnaround Church”

  1. Once I got to the understanding of what healthy means for a church, I really began to let go of some things, become more relaxed, not that it has been easy, or that our “turnaround” is going to be a quick one, but it is going to be a steady one. We are just beginning to implement some changes by getting a leadership group on the same page, then it will flow to the folks who call this place home and out into the community. Something God gave me the vision of a long time ago, but I was using the wrong means to and end. Now I have the means and the end.

    And there is something else I would like to add to the healthy pastor part and starting with but I will do that in the forum.

  2. This whole idea of healthy does not mean (exclusively) numerical growth…is where we get a lot of double talk from leadership and “those in the know.” Just received a great periodical devoted to the small church. Lots of good stuff in it. But in reading through it I saw SO MUCH double talk. For every person that made a comment of “some well-led, spiritually healthy churches will remain small…” there was another comment that said, “We measure nickels and noses…” as a sign of success. At some points I felt like I had mental whiplash.
    Karl – what you’re posting is SO NEEDED. I really pray the message gets out and gets into the grain of “big thinkers.”

  3. I’m currently ‘acting as Pastor’ for a small AOG church.Our Pastor fell ill the end of 2012.There were a few things to clean up at first and some of the people who have been there since the church was founded kicked against that smacked of change. But we went forward slowly.Since I’m also a father of 4 time was an issue and the workers in the church were stretched to the max.So we did away with Sunday night service and combined Sat night prayer service with mid week bible study.We spend the first half hour in cooperate prayer and the remaining time in bible study.We play soft reflective worship music during that time by way of Cd.So everyone is free to grab a pew or kneel at the altar.
    It all seems to be working better with more members showing up. Sometimes less is more….Amen.

  4. Just stumbled across this article while searching for some resources to add to a curated list I’m developing.

    I’d like to advance the discussion just a bit further by adding a 5th item. (perhaps you address this in another article in the series) A turnaround church requires a WILLING church. This is an often assumed and unstated truth in a lot of the literature on church growth and church turnaround.

    It is possible that a highly skilled pastor can enter an unwilling church and turn it around anyhow. Based on the research I’ve found (there are several good doctoral dissertations that present statistically valid results), those pastors are probably less than 5% of the population.

    So for the rest of us it takes (1) a skilled pastor, as you’ve indicated and (2) a willing church.

    We’re working on research that should result in a couple of diagnostic tools (we hope) that will pinpoint what needs to be addressed in order to bring a church to strategic willingness.

    Thanks for this article. It’s a keeper.

    1. Hi Bud. I’m glad you found us!

      Your point about a willing church is correct. It’s an often overlooked, but essential component.

      I actually address this issue in the article I wrote right after this one. It’s entitled “Expanding the Sweet Spot for a Healthy Church Turnaround”. I start that article by saying, “Knowing God’s will for your life is not enough. When you’re a pastor, your responsibilities are bigger than that. There are three participants in any healthy church. The pastor, the congregation and God. Knowing and coordinating the zone where their hearts intersect is the most important task a pastor can do. And it’s critical to understand and do well if you want a successful church turnaround.”

      Here’s the link if you’d like to read more of that post.

  5. I just came across this article! The truths presented here are solid and very tought provoking. I love the paradox of bigger / turned around. The thought that most people want the same thing just bigger is a concept that all of us will have to wrestle with! The other points are spot on.

    Thanks for posting this for my consideration in moving our church forward!

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