I asked Jimmy Hinton to provide insight into the turnaround process in the small church where he ministers in Somerset Pennsylvania. He graciously provided these insights, reminding us that small churches don’t have to die. They can make a return to growth but it is going to take work!
Many people have told me over the years that it is easier to plant a church than to try and change the direction of an existing church. This is true in many ways, but church planters are faced with a whole different set of challenges. Many of my friends who minister at small churches are frustrated at the lack of meaningful dialogue between them and their elders/deacons. In fact, several of them feel that they are stuck in the proverbial rut and that the elders are lording over them and, in some cases, working against them. Another friend of mine once joked (sort of) that perhaps we should be praying to God for strategic deaths in our congregations so that His church would actually stand a chance of turning around. Some of my friends have seriously debated whether it would be better to walk away from their small congregations and plant a new church. So I ask the question that many ministers and church leaders are asking, “Is your small church doomed?” If the signs point to yes, is it too late to turn it around?
Matt asked if I would write some of my story on how our small church made a turnaround. Some may disagree with me but, by all definitions, a few short years ago our congregation was a dying church. While we are not exactly splitting at the seams yet, we have recently begun to evangelize in meaningful ways and are more unified now than we have been in years. People are genuinely excited for the Lord and new people are coming in just about weekly. We are appointing elders and deacons this October. I serve at the congregation that was my home church growing up, and in my 33 years of life they have not had any elders or deacons. We are not the exception in the Northeast. It is quite common for Churches of Christ to not have elders or deacons in this area.
I have served at Somerset for four years this June and my wife and I are as excited as the day I began. Just as an aside, I do not claim to be an expert minister, a church doctor, or someone who has all the answers. I simply am a servant of God who has been, and continues to be, blessed by Him. There are several commonalities among small churches in decline, and I will offer some biblical principles that I believe, with God’s power, can turn a dying church around. I will add that, just like a dying marriage, a dying church is worth fighting for. Isn’t this what Paul did with the church at Corinth? Church “divorce” should not even be on our radar. The church is the bride of Christ, and she belongs to Him, each and every member. We have no business hijacking her, abusing her, or dividing her up into pieces.
1. It is not your job to change people—Many church leaders carry a burden of responsibility that they were never called to carry. We cannot change people. If a minister accepts a position because he wants to change people, he will burn out very quickly. Rather, he should model, instruct, and encourage Christ-like living in all that he does. Invite others to follow your lead. Be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
2. Make known your expectations—The quickest way for church leaders to find themselves at an impasse is to hide their expectations with one another and with the congregations they serve. I let my church leaders know what I expect of them and ask them what they expect of me. Every few months I make adjustments (as people grow and are equipped) and keep raising the bar. My congregation knew when I was selected as their minister that gossip, personal attacks, and anonymous complaints (all things that were going on prior to my hiring) will never be tolerated by me. Just recently, we raised the expectations on Sunday worship. If people are assigned to serve on a given Sunday, they will be on time and they will come prepared, just as the minister is expected to come prepared to preach. Our worship has had a complete turnaround just simply by making expectations known.
3. Absolutely no straw-man arguments—This is one that destroys churches, quickly spreads anxiety, and is downright divisive (see Titus 3:10-11). When a minister hears, “People are saying. . .” he usually pictures a mob of angry congregants and expects the worst. This is the intended purpose of straw-man arguments—to create a fictitious mob in order to gain leverage and intimidate. I have a policy that there will be no anonymous complaints. Period. If someone wants to throw a stone, they will write their name on it or it is dropped immediately. I once received a nasty letter in the mail criticizing my sermons. There was no name or return address. I threw it in the trash and never acknowledged it to anyone else. I’ve seen ministers and church members nearly ruined by church leaders over something an anonymous person was upset about. If someone doesn’t have the guts to go to the person who offended them, they have no business hiding behind a straw man and stirring up the Lord’s church.
4. It is the minister’s job to train, re-train and equip leaders—This is one that I have fought God on for a long time. Preachers of small churches have enough on their plates, right? As if preaching isn’t demanding enough, ministers of small churches often find themselves caught in the additional roles of full time shepherd, deacon, secretary, janitor, tech guru, evangelist, song leader, author of bulletin articles, counselor, coordinator of church events, leader of men’s business meetings (the name says it all!), officiant of all funerals and weddings, director of education and outreach, the interim youth minister, and the go-to guy for all other decisions, including whether or not purchasing a new stapler should be approved. Plus the minister must find time for his family—another full time job. The irony is that ministers are taking on all of these responsibilities precisely because they have not adequately trained others to be leaders. Paul was doing more than just evangelizing everywhere he went. He was mentoring, training disciples, and calling others to imitate his pattern. Paul was equipping leaders to equip the saints. This command to equip others has really broken down in the small church. Acts 6:1-7, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:1-31, and Eph. 4:1-16 have become my modus operandi. Meditate on them and find ways to put them into practice. If a church falls apart after you leave, the signs point to a dependent church where members were not equipped to serve and lead.
5. Make it happen—We joke that this has become my motto when people come to me with fresh ideas for ministry. Harold Shank calls this permissive leadership. Ministers, you should model permissive leadership to your congregations, including your elders and deacons. When a church member comes to leaders with excitement and new ideas for serving others, the best thing they can hear is, “Make it happen.” Most idle people, I am convinced, are currently not serving because either nobody has allowed them to serve or they haven’t been taught how. We leaders must learn to trust, equip, and empower the saints to serve. Children will never learn how to ride a bike if the parents always ride it for them.
6. Create structure or it all falls apart—Churches under 100, especially if there are no appointed elders and deacons, tend to follow the strongest or most domineering personality. Because there are not recognized shepherds and deacons, nobody really knows who the actual leaders are. Typically, small churches easily become androcentric (male-centered) and whoever happens to show up at scheduled men’s business meetings are designated “leaders” and “decision makers.” Small churches need to get more structured and ministers need to start recognizing giftedness among each and every one of the members. If you see someone as a potential shepherd, let him know and start building him up. If you see certain women who have gifts, encourage them to nurture them and serve more often. Encourage and teach your members how to work together so that nobody is sitting on the sidelines. Working together eventually dismantles and deflates domineering people, because the congregation no longer needs a strong personality to do the work for them.
7. Let no one despise you and be transparent—I am mostly talking to ministers here. If people within a congregation (including elders or deacons) are giving you unfair criticism, remind them that they hired you because they trusted you to lead. Do not allow people to despise you. I am hesitant to offer this advice, but if a person is relentlessly harassing you for the way you lead, offer them to take your job for one week. This is not meant to be sarcastic. Most people have no idea how much ministers of small churches actually do or the types of spiritual problems that they are regularly faced with. Really offer for the criticizer to have people come to them with the kinds of things that you deal with on a daily basis and allow them to come up with the best biblical solution. At very least offer for them to shadow you for a day and ask them for input, or perhaps type up a few case studies and then ask them how they would handle the situations. I close with this passage:
“Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:11-16 ESV, emphasis mine).
Lead on, and may God bless and lead your small church to bear fruit!