Tag: declining churches

Dealing with Forced Termination

“Here’s Your Envelope”

Recently, a Pastor was called up to the front of the church the week before Christmas Day. It had been a difficult four years in the church, and while there was no promise of any raise, at least he knew he would get a Christmas Bonus. The deacons made that clear when he first started. 

As he walked to the front, he felt a little bit of appreciation for the hard work he had done over the past year, and was grateful to receive anything extra the church could give for his family. After receiving an envelope as a Christmas Bonus, the church dismissed and he went home with his family.

“How much did they give you?” His wife asked once they got home.

As the pastor opened up the envelope, he stood there, frozen. It was an empty envelope. Thinking maybe there had been a mistake, he called the church treasurer. “Hey _____, I just got home and we opened up the envelope I was given as a Christmas bonus and…” 

“Pastor,” she replied, “I was just doing what I was told to do.” Click

With thoughts racing, he began calling some of his deacons. Time and time again, he was met with the same response. The deacons couldn’t meet until the first of the year. They kept pushing him off. Knowing that something was very off, Pastor decided to reach out to his Associational Director of Missions and schedule a meeting with all of the deacons.

At the beginning of the year, he met with the deacons with his DOM present. They began telling the pastor a list of grievances they had collected over his tenure. It was a list of petty complaints and differences. It was just what the pastor feared: the empty envelope was a ruse to see if he would leave. As a result of the mediation that took place, some deacons decided to leave, and others stayed. But the pastor had to deal with this ugly reality:

The church had tried to forcefully terminate him.

Been there?

In Ep. 174 of the podcast, we were reminded that ministry is not for the faint of heart. We have all heard the horror stories, and perhaps you may have experienced forced termination yourself. Sometimes it happens with secret meetings, met after church hours in a Sunday School classroom. Forced termination can come from a small group of people who have had it out for the pastor as soon as he arrived. We’ve heard it with a letter on the office desk, changing the locks on the doors, or a knock on the door in the middle of the night by a church member. Some may have heard the words, “We had a vote of no confidence…”

I recently was working with a church Revitalization project. When I visited a Wednesday night service, I noticed the pastor’s wife crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she pulled out an anonymous letter she had received in the mailbox. It was from a former member that had left during the current pastor’s tenure. The letter read, “For the sake of this church and God, please take you and your family and leave our church.”

People can sometimes be cruel and hurtful.

A study recently conducted that of all pastors, 23-41% will experience a forced termination once in their career.  Four out of 10 pastors will be forced out of their church either by firing or by some sort of pressure that leads to their departure.

Effects on the Church

If you’ve ever been fired from a church, no matter the circumstance, it is deeply painful. We tend to find identity in our vocation, and when being “let go” we start to feel like there is something wrong with us. It is no surprise that many pastors either walk away from the ministry or at least take a leave of absence from the ministry itself after a situation like this. 

But there are many effects of forced termination on a church as well. David Myers, a retired Director of Missions from Chattanooga, wrote in an article:

What forced termination does to the soul of the congregation is significant in and of itself, but the practical, logistical impact is also significant. The church may lose members who are unhappy with what has occurred or how it was done. The loss of financial support may result from membership decline or withholding money. The name and reputation of the church is marred in the community and beyond. Hesitant, reserved or negative recommendations of the church are given to prospective new ministers for that church. Many ministers are reluctant to consider relocation to a church that terminated its previous minister.

Evidence in Declining Churches?

Since this website deals mainly with Church Replants and Revitalizations, we need to address a specific angle of forced termination. What does it mean if the church you are working with has a history of firing pastors?

It may not be written in the business meeting minutes, but you can often find out by asking several long-tenured members of the church what happened to pastors in the past. There is something wrong with a church that historically has found ways to “let go” of their pastors. For example, many churches have used the word “incompetence” as reason to fire a pastor. But when “incompetence” is defined by decisions a pastor has made that some disagree with, that is not incompetence. When infrastructure and preference take priority over the leadership of your pastor, these are dangerous signs of a declining, unhealthy church. 

A church like this has some foundational issues. They are rejecting the biblical teaching of obedience to spiritual authority. When a Pastor has violated any code of conduct, shown evidence of sinful patterns, or put the people of God at risk of danger from false teaching or lack of care, these are real issues that should be addressed under the right structure. A church should be able to rely on their constitution and bylaws to go through the right process, and address any significant issues in the church.

And there are ways that we can prevent this from happening. It’s important that a pastor has a leadership team or a board to filter significant decisions through. But this comes with the understanding that a pastor must lead the way that God is calling him to lead, as long as it lines up with biblical teaching.

What can we do to help a church change their ways of the past?

  1. Go back and address the wrongs of past leaders against them and their families. There is nothing more scarring to a pastor and his family. This pain for the former pastor’s families should be addressed in the church and dealt with in a graceful way. 
  2. Remove those who have instigated or been involved with unfounded and unreasonable terminations from leadership positions within the church. Or at least have a hard conversation with them. If a church has some bullies, or a few who like to stir up the pot and be involved in “behind-the-scenes” campaigns, you cannot allow them to persist in places of leadership. 
  3. Address informal campaigns to force a pastor out through biblically based, by-law supported church discipline. Church discipline is one of the most neglected practices in the church today. But you would think that a church practice that is distinctly and specifically biblical would be practiced to pursue church health. Every healthy document of church constitution and bylaws should have a member conduct clause and a church discipline clause. 
  4. Make careful note of the redemptive actions taken above (repentance, reconciliation, peacemaking, and church discipline), and commit as a church to not let this happen in the future. 

If you’ve been a pastor who has been hurt by forceful termination, we know how painful this is. For encouragement and help, check out this article. And this helpful article from the Pastor’s Hope Network. For encouragement, help, and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team here at the Replant Bootcamp. 

road sign reads change ahead

The Emotional Cycle of Change

“A pastor goes into it thinking he’s going to change the world… He gets fired for changing the bulletin.” Yikes…  That is one of those tough sayings that rings true for far too many pastors that I know.  They had high hopes of replanting a struggling church but realized quickly that change is hard.  

But here’s some good news: change follows a fairly predictable pattern. And if you can exercise tactical patience, you really CAN change the world– or, at least, your church.

Stage One: Uninformed Optimism

Oh man.  This stage is absolutely great… while it lasts.  Unfortunately, that’s not very long.  At this stage, everyone is excited about the change.  They’re “ready for change,” they’re “eager for a new direction” and “looking forward to some new ideas.” The optimism is contagious, and there’s a good wave of momentum.  This is the stage when a pastor starts planning out some necessary changes and begins talking about them with key people who are mostly supportive.

On the Replant Bootcamp podcast, the guys compared this stage to the Israelites coming out of Egypt.  There was joy as they celebrated the First Passover and began to follow God’s direction.  They were led by God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and they were ready to take hold of the Promised Land God had pledged to them (Exodus 13).  

But just like Moses, pastors will discover that after the initial excitement wears off, the congregation will start into the negative Stage Two.

curvy road sign

Stage Two: Informed Pessimism

One of the most important things a pastor can do when implementing changes is to communicate.  You can’t over-communicate when you are making changes.  Your congregation needs to know the what, when, how, and especially why changes are being made. There is a temptation here for most pastors, because once change is communicated, then the protests start.  “We’ve done it this way for years– why change now?” “That sounds expensive and like a lot of work.  We don’t have the resources for that.”  “We don’t want to do something new.  We like it this way.”

In this stage, the benefits of change don’t feel immediate and sometimes the wait can make them seem unimportant. You might forget why you felt so strongly about the changes you were called to make.  The cost associated with the change becomes apparent, and the grumbling starts to wear you down.

Again, we can look to the Israelites and see the parallel.  In Exodus 14, as the Egyptians are racing toward them, the Israelites look at Moses and say, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11) Funny isn’t it? The same Israelites who were just a chapter before praising God for His deliverance have abandoned the idea at the first sign of trouble!  Suddenly they don’t remember the horror of Egypt, they would rather go backward than to face their fear, which leads directly to stage three.

image from the Princess Bride- the pit of despair

Stage Three: The Valley of Despair

The costs have been counted, and the people are grumbling.  Benefits for change seem far away and your people are struggling to support a change they don’t feel is necessary.  You’ve tried to communicate the reasons why, and you’ve fought the good fight.  But in stage three, even you will start to question your decisions for change.  You will start wondering if this is even worth it.  

At this stage, no one is happy.  You aren’t happy, your congregation isn’t happy.  Heck, even your dog is unhappy at this point.  You will look for a way out of this hard struggle.  And the easiest way to get out of it? Just go back to the way it was. After all, you rationalize, it wasn’t so bad before.  It’s the same feeling the Israelites had when they told Moses, “Just take us back to Egypt!”

Many pastors quit at this point.  And it’s definitely tempting to walk away.  But beware– this is a watershed moment.  If you can stand firm and exercise patience in this stage, you can make it to stage four!

Stage Four: Informed Optimism 

Yay!  We’re back to an optimistic point! Finally, you are seeing some fruits of your labor.  The benefits you knew would come are tangible and people are feeling momentum.  At this stage, there is support for the vision and excitement is building.  Your congregation has not only embraced the change, they now see the tangible difference it made and are inspired by it! 

For the Israelites, this looks like crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land (Joshua 3).  They have wandered for 40 years as a punishment for their disobedience and their obstinance.  But in crossing the Jordan, they are making a break with their old life and entering into their new life with God in the land promised to them.  (We certainly hope you don’t have to wander for 40 years in the desert of indecision, but you should know that most of the time you won’t reach this stage until year 4 or 5 of a replant.)  They are ready to take on the task of fulfilling God’s covenantal promise to them.

Stage Five: Success and Fulfillment

The final stage of the emotional cycle of change is success and fulfillment.  You are not only seeing your changes and your goals come to fruition, you are creating a whole new culture.  This is no longer about small changes, this is about the larger attitude of the church.  The church is changing from a “me first” mindset to a church that makes disciples that makes disciples that make the community noticeably better– one with a healthy culture of disciple-making and missional involvement. It’s not change for the next year or two, or even for your time as a pastor there, it is a multi-generational change that lasts long past your tenure.

Looking at our parallel with the Israelites, this is the Battle of Jericho moment.  This is complete trust in God and complete success in the mission of God.  

How do we get there from here?

Many of you are stuck in those early stages.  Can I take a moment to encourage you?  Typically, it takes 4-5 years in a replant to see the latter stages of informed optimism and success and fulfillment.  During that time, you will feel the temptation to give up.  Many pastors give up around year three, when they feel stuck in that valley of despair. But we need you to stick it out, pastor.  Your church needs you.  Your family needs you. There are battles to be fought and hard times to go through, and we need you to know that there are better days ahead.  God has not lost sight of you, and like the Israelites, you will soon see a victory.  Keep at it, pastors.  God has not abandoned your church– or you.

 

Stewardship Matters

MINE!

Is sinful nature difficult to identify? Are we really born into sin? Perhaps if you grew up on an island completely shut off from the rest of society, you might be blind to the idea of a sinful nature. We tend to identify it in other people before seeing it in ourselves, because our pride keeps us from believing that we could possibly be full of sin (ironic). 

But anyone who’s had kids can identify this pretty quickly. I have a two year old toddler at home who is soaking in all the words right now. One that has become his favorite is “Mine!” When he first started shouting this word, I began to think: did I teach him this? Did his mom teach him this? We may have taught him the words “mine” and “yours,” but we certainly did not teach him that everything he touches is…”MINE!”

Sinful nature: we have a natural inclination to sin; given the choice to do God’s will or our own, we will naturally choose our own way over God’s. We inherited this sin nature from the first man and woman, and it makes us naturally rebellious to God. Consider Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” 

This sin nature was warned to us, and unfortunately given to us, as a fulfillment of what God told Adam in the garden: Genesis 2:17, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” The sin of Adam caused spiritual, physical, and relational death to be brought into the world. 

The most prominent way this sinful nature presents itself is in the form of pride. “Everything is MINE,” the toddler says. But unfortunately, we don’t grow out of this thinking: we still think everything belongs to us.

YOURS!

The topic of Stewardship is extremely important to the Christian life. It’s meant to be a guiding principle to everything we do for God’s glory. But before we seek to steward anything, we must be reminded that everything we have belongs to God. I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 

The Bible clearly tells us that, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). James would tell us this: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:16-17). 

Mike Ayers, in Stewardship, Not Ownership, says the following:

“When we believe that the things we possess are actually ours or exist because of us, they begin to control and define us rather than the other way around. Consequently, our security and identity becomes rooted in them. And then, we are unable to separate ourselves from them, or release them, or trust God with them because to do so would mean to lose ourselves. This was never God’s intention for the gifts He gives His creation.” 

We see stewardship all the way back into the creation account, where God gave Adam the responsibility to care for creation by working and tending to the garden (Gen. 2:15). We are called to steward what God has given us for his glory, knowing that everything we have is His.

Stewardship as a Ministry Leader

So many churches have struggles in decision-making, financial expenditures, and even accomplishing goals because they have an ownership culture, not a stewardship culture. For example, when re-thinking church renovations like furniture, paint, and carpet, it can be hard to let go, because we become attached to the things we spend our money on. We think it belongs to us. When re-evaluating a ministry event or class, it can be difficult to let go, because sister Susan started it; it belongs to her. But does it?

In order for us to change the thinking of our church members, we must be modeling it ourselves first. For example, if we are trying to encourage church members to think biblically about stewardship, but  we have a difficulty letting go of that special, antique pulpit, we likely won’t get anywhere. Being a leader means leading by example, especially when it comes to stewardship.

In Ep. 168 of the podcast, Jimbo used the biblical example of Matthew 25:14-30: The parable of the talents. In this story, each servant received a different amount of property. Two of the servants were grateful with what they were given, they went and did what they could for the Master and invested. However, one of the servants was ungrateful, having received only one talent. Out of fear of losing what belonged to the Master, he went out and hid it in a field. Afterwards, the servant was scolded for his unwillingness to do what was asked of him, with what he had been given.

The point that Jesus was driving home in this context, was that we need to be prepared for his return by being good stewards of what he’s entrusted to us. The story of the talents is a good reminder for us not to fall into the trap of comparison. Some were given a different measure of talents, they still had the same responsibility. It does not matter what size church you have, how many resources you have, or how many people are left on your membership roll, God wants you to steward it well for his glory.

Faith, Fear, or Frustration

The parable of the talents teaches us that the first two servants acted out of faith. They knew who their master was. They took joy in their small part of managing what had been given to them, so they sought to make much of it for his pleasure. However, the third servant acted out of fear and frustration. He was fearful for how his Master would react (showing that he really did not know his Master) and he was frustrated that he didn’t get as much as the other two. 

When we think about the resources we have to work with, are you doing the work of ministry out of fear or frustration? It’s so easy to get into a mindset of comparison where we don’t have as much as another larger church in town, but we must see the bigger picture. It takes every church working together to reach our communities for Christ.

This is why I love working at a Baptist Association; we encourage church partnerships. Would it be easy for our smaller churches to get jealous of the larger church in town? Yes, but we must realize that every church has its own DNA, and they all reach people for Christ in different ways. Therefore, we encourage church partnerships where we can for the glory of God.

It’s the same in a Replant or Revitalization. Never fail to thank God for the blessing of having the opportunity to do ministry. God knows what He is doing. His desire is not for you to take a prideful ownership of what he’s given you – He desires that you would be found faithful in the small things. We must realize that He’s given us this ministry to steward it and glorify Him above all things.

There are a plethora of resources on the topic of Stewardship, but here are a few I like: Kingdom Stewardship, Stewardship: A Christian Duty, and Stewardship: Discovering Godly Ambition for Your Life. If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.

man with discouragement

Plagued by Discouragement? I Know the Cure.

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about all of the struggles and concerns she was facing.  Her job was going through a stressful transition, her parent’s health was declining, she had financial issues that resulted in much anxiety for her future, and her children were experiencing separate crises of their own.  At one point in her conversation she sighed and buried her head in her hands and said, “I’m just so tired.”

But here’s the thing– despite all of her anxieties, she was getting plenty of sleep.  She wasn’t physically tired.  She was disheartened and dispirited.  She was discouraged.  She was working hard and she was taking care of so many people, and she was feeling overwhelmed by her circumstances that she felt exhausted in her soul.

I am sure that many readers can see themselves in this person.  Pastors in general can feel discouragement from a variety of sources– the Monday morning inbox with a complaint about the sermon, the member who decides to go elsewhere with seemingly no real reason, the stress of his family living in a “fishbowl,” the burden of caring for everyone else.  But replant pastors are susceptible to an even greater level of discouragement.  For a replant pastor, the lack of resources can be a huge discouragement.  A lack of funds, people, time, and materials can make changes go slow but frustrations run high.  Many pastors are plagued by discouragement.

It’s an Epidemic

This plague of discouragement is not new.  In the first century, Augustine of Hippo wrote a passage on how to overcome discouragement to his fellow colleagues in the faith. And yet, here we are, 2000 years later, and a Barna study recently revealed that the number of pastors who have seriously considered giving up their ministry sits at 42%, an increase of almost 15% in just the last year. Even among the pastors who haven’t considered quitting, a large percentage are facing burnout, stress, and isolation (see a separate post on pastoral friendships on why isolation is dangerous to your ministry).  If almost 50% of pastors are so discouraged they are thinking of leaving the ministry, it’s not a small issue.  It’s an epidemic.

In my own life, I have seen countless pastors, specifically replant pastors, face battles with depression and discouragement.  Pastors who entered their replant bursting with ideas and excitement, ready to breathe life into their congregation and into their church.  Within a couple of years, many of these same men (and their families) are feeling beat down and beat up.  They don’t feel effective in their ministry, they are exhausted, and they are working as hard as possible not to drown under the weight of expectations.

What is the cure?

scripture of 1 Thess. 5:11 aside men helping each other

I have good news.  

There is a cure for discouragement.  It’s actually almost in the very word discouragement.  Can you guess?  The cure for discouragement is… encouragement.  That’s right, the cure for the feelings of despair, frustration, and exhaustion, is to feel hope, to have support, and to inspire confidence.

But how?  How can we get from one to the other?  

Way back in episode 11, Jimbo and Bob (JIMBOB) helped us to answer that question with their most encouraging friend, Mark Hallock. Mark is one of the most encouraging people on the planet.  If you’ve met him in person, you already know this, because you’ve probably experienced the “Hallock Hug.” There is a reason he’s referred to as “Happy Huggy Hallock.”

In the episode, the fellas discuss encouragement as it relates to Mark’s book, The Relentless Encourager. Mark points out that many of us have encouraging thoughts, but we don’t allow them to become words.  So instead of our encouragement blessing another person, it’s just another thought, no more or less than what to buy at the grocery store later. We are often guilty of forgetting to encourage others, especially as we are feeling discouraged and frustrated.  We are not intentional about making sure our encouraging thoughts become words and actions.  We may even feel some insecurity or pride that won’t allow us to admit when someone else is doing a job well.  But that attitude costs us.

The added supplement

scrabble letters spell out thank you

Encouragement for others is like a glass of cold water to a parched soul– and not only to theirs, but to ours, as well.  Telling someone about the difference they make in your life and lifting them up creates in us another powerful combatant to discouragement: Gratitude.

Have you ever seen a photo negative?  It is the same picture, but it is distorted because the focus is on the wrong thing.  We experience this when we are so discouraged we only see the negative.  When there is a lack of resources, the discouraged heart sees only what it lacks.  But the encouraging heart looks for those doing much with little, and in encouraging them, the encouraging heart becomes the grateful heart.  

Perhaps you are wondering how you can possibly encourage someone else when you are feeling discouraged yourself.  Maybe you’re even wondering why you should, since no one seems to be intent on encouraging you. (I won’t judge you for that!  I’ve had that same feeling!) But the truth is, we are never more like Christ than when we see people as God sees them and we encourage them in their walk.  Even as Jesus was discouraged to the point of sweating drops of blood in the garden, He prayed for his disciples’ encouragement (John 17). When we look for the ways we can express encouragement to others, we are looking for the positive in them.  We are loving our neighbor and our enemy better when we seek to encourage them, and this, in turn, makes us thankful for them.

This thankfulness and gratitude cultivates an environment of encouragement to the church.  Can you imagine the difference your church could make in the community if you became known as the church where people are encouraging and thankful?  If you were known as a place people could come out of the darkness and experience light and hope?  How can we facilitate that attitude in our churches if we don’t have it ourselves?

A replant pastor needs to breed thankfulness in his congregation.  To do that, he must first be grateful.  Instead of focusing on the frustrations and the negatives, he must look at what God is doing in the church.  God is not done with your church, nor with you!  Look at all you can be thankful for:

  • God has called you to raise dying churches and to reach the faithful– what an incredible calling!  What an incredible opportunity to see growth and change!
  • You can be thankful you are preaching faithfully– you are doing your part, and you know you serve a faithful God who will do His!
  • You get to reach people with the Gospel– I am always in awe that God uses such a flawed vessel for His Kingdom purposes!  So blessed to have been even a small part in someone’s journey toward redemption and grace!

Think about your church.  The struggles, yes, but I bet there have been successes, too!  I am sure that while there may be some “grumpies,” there are probably more faith-filled believers who stand excited and ready to see their church thrive again.  Yes, there is probably a lack of money– but God can do much with little and you are learning to trust Him in that process!

Now, think of the people who are standing with you.  The friends, family members, church members, fellow pastors– have you thanked them?  Have you encouraged them?  Have you sought to tell them the difference it makes in your life to have them stand with you in your struggles?

This is how we defeat discouragement.

We look for the positive in others and encourage them, and then we cultivate a heart of thankfulness and gratitude for them.

Go seek someone to encourage today.

Stages in a Replant: Planting

NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS PART 2 IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON THE STAGES OF A REPLANT.

Fellow Workers in God’s Field

Have you ever planted a seed? Maybe you are active in gardening every spring and cultivate your own seeds. Maybe you have only planted in an Agricultural class as a student in High School. But if you have ever carefully placed that seed in fertile soil, you know the experience of placing hope

You may be burying that seed in 2 inches of dirt, but once you place it there, it is outside your control. Sure, you may water that seed, or place a pot in the sunshine. But the forces of nature that cause it to grow are completely outside of your control. 

When we sow seeds in the lives of others, we are placing hope in God: that He will give growth to our efforts. The passage of scripture we looked at last week gives the premise for the four stages of a Replant. Again, it’s found in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”

Last week we focused on plowing: which is primarily the work of God as we are seeking Him in prayer and preaching the word. But this week, we are looking at the work of planting seeds.

What Kind of Seeds are These?

When we talk about planting seeds, we are talking about sowing the Gospel into the lives of others. In Episode 164 of the podcast, Bob said, “The planting stage is the work of the pastors and leaders to faithfully cast or sow the seed of the gospel into the lives of the people and the culture of your church.”

This does not simply mean articulating the gospel behind the pulpit every Sunday, although that is extremely important. It means that every ministry, every meeting, every service, team, and event is saturated by the gospel. Many think the gospel stops at message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and this message doesn’t carry into our daily lives. But while the gospel message is simple, its implications for daily life are profound.  The gospel even impacts the way we manage our ministry on an operational level.

Seeing Things Through the Lens of the Gospel

For example, churches can get caught in routine, continuing programs and functions for the wrong reasons. They think if they stop that program or function, they’ll feel guilty for stopping what once brought success in the past. However, the gospel frees us from trying to please God with our works. Christ has accomplished the work for us. Instead, we are now motivated to serve the Lord with gladness. Not out of obligation, but out of gratitude. 

In Creature of the Word, Geiger, Chandler and Patterson offer this helpful insight on how the gospel impacts even programming:

“Because church programs communicate, we must consciously bring the gospel to bear on them. Perhaps in analyzing your programs, you’ll discover that you schedule activities or programs because of guilty obligation. The gospel, on the other hand, frees us from feverish attempts to appease God with religious activities. The gospel frees us to say no and to rest from our work because we trust His finished work.”

God’s people will find so much more joy in their service when they recognize that it’s the gospel that compels them to joyful obedience.

Daily Application of the Gospel Transforms Us

Our whole hope is in the gospel, and our dependence is in its power for our lives and the life of our church.

Consider this quote from Thune and Walker’s book The Gospel Centered Life:

Many Christians live with a truncated view of the gospel…(the gospel) is not just the means of our salvation, but the means of our transformation. It is not simply the deliverance from sin’s penalty, but the release from sin’s power. The gospel is what makes us right with God (justification) and it is also what frees us to delight in God (sanctification).”

There could be many reasons behind a church’s decline. It can be multi-layered and complex. But most decline comes as a result of a lack of understanding and growth in the gospel. We must do the hard work of planting the gospel seeds in every member, process, program and policy of the church.

In Jerry Bridge’s book The Discipline of Grace, he provides commentary on Romans 3:19-26, and then gives us his conclusion: we must daily preach the gospel to ourselves. In a Replant situation, leaders must teach and equip their congregation to do this very thing. He says this:

“To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God’s holy wrath is no longer directed toward you.”

The gospel is not just a message that saves us, it’s a message that continues to work in us.

Practical Gospel Orientation

We must look at Gospel orientation as a filter. If you read any business or leadership books, they talk about how a vision statement must filter and guide everything you do, every decision you make. In a church, the gospel is the filter by which we do everything.

The gospel impacts the way we do children’s ministry, youth ministry, disciple-making, and even the financial team! If the gospel is our lens through which we view giving, we recognize that we can demonstrate the same type of outrageous generosity that God has shown us in our giving.

One rule of thumb would be to ask the question: How would Jesus do this, if we led this ministry? If he led this part of our church? Do our programs and events demonstrate that the gospel has the power to save? Or do they conclude that we are trusting in something else?

Our ingenuity and cleverness is not enough to make an impact and initiate change. We need the gospel to give life to the things we do, dedicating time and energy to personal relationships. This is  sowing the gospel into lives of others.

What Does This Look Like?

  1. Faithfully proclaiming the gospel from God’s word. According to Romans 1:16, the gospel is the power of salvation. We must be intentional if we are preaching God’s word to tie things back in with the gospel. God’s story of redemption is woven through all of scripture, so let it speak for itself and never forget to tie your sermon back into the accomplished work of Christ for us. 
  2. Dedicating time and energy to disciple-making via personal relationships. The gospel changes the way we maintain relationships. We should be practicing the discipline of helping others grow in the gospel that they have received. This is what Jesus said when he says, “…and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.”
  3. Examining and evaluating all aspects of church life in light of the gospel. Are programs duty-based or grace-based? Is your ministry focused on simply showing kindness to people, or proclaiming the truth of the gospel to them?
  4. Extending the gospel message beyond the walls of the church through empowering its members to love and serve their community by demonstrating and declaring the hope we have in Christ. 

Leader, Pastor, Replanter: do not ever underestimate the power of the gospel in your church. Remember, you are a fellow worker with God as you are casting seeds of the gospel in everything you do. “and each will receive his wages according to his labor.”

For more information on the work of plowing, see Bob Bickford’s article on NAMB’s website or listen to Ep. 164 of the Replant Bootcamp Podcast. See some of my favorite books on Gospel Integration in your church: What is the Gospel?, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, and the Explicit Gospel. Next on my list is Darryl Dash’s book, How to Grow: Applying the Gospel to Everyday Life

If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.

Spiritually and Organizationally Healthy

What Measures a Healthy Church?

When someone says, “We have a pretty healthy church,” what do they mean? For some, this could mean they have an increasing average attendance in their weekly worship. For others, their finances are in pretty good shape and they have plenty of money to remain open. But if we think much deeper, and we look to the word of God, we will find that attendance and giving are not the only rubrics for church health.

And while attendance, finances, and facilities are important, we cannot use them alone to identify a healthy church. A church can have great attendance and wonderful giving, but be spiritually filled with sinful behavior, disunity, and immaturity. How, then, do we gauge what a healthy church looks like?

Spiritual Health vs. Organizational Health

In many of Paul’s epistles, he does not give advice on numerical change, suggest input on budget outflow, or concern himself with a church’s number of events and ministries. Although these things are important, Paul is much more concerned with the overall spiritual health of their congregation. In 2 Corinthians 13:11, Paul concludes his letter by saying, “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” 

Again in Philippians 2:1-2, Paul says this: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

These scriptures, among several others, teach us that the spiritual markers of a church’s health are Love, Unity, and Maturity. Read the following passages of scripture, and evaluate their context: Romans 12:9-13, 1 Cor. 16:13, Galatians 6:1-5, Ephesians 4:1-7, 1 Thess. 4:9-12, Colossians 2:12-17. In these passages, Paul was not addressing one certain individual, but he was addressing the church as a whole. When writing his epistles to Corinth, Philippi, Colossae, or Ephesus, Paul wanted the church to be unified, loving, mature, and living holy lives for God’s glory. 

If we evaluate Paul’s epistles, Jesus’ interaction with the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12-16) or Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation 1-3, we find a common theme: Jesus cares deeply about the health of His church, and his concerns are primarily spiritual.

Should we just forget about attendance and giving?

While health concerns of a church are primarily spiritual, that does not mean that other factors are unhelpful to observe. Spiritual Health is of first importance, but Organizational Health is also helpful and necessary. 

Organizational factors are unavoidable. If you are in a building, if you draw a salary, then you are in an institutional church. And if you want that organization to be healthy, there are different markers to help gauge that just like there are to the people of God inside the church. A church will have difficulty succeeding if they have troubles with their finances, attendance, or facilities.

Markers of Organizational Health

In Ep. 144 of the podcast, Jimbo and Bob talked about three major ways we can understand a church’s organizational health:

Decentralized Leadership means that the responsibility of leadership does not all rest on one person. The importance of team leadership is invaluable in a church setting. When leadership is done by a team, better accountability exists. Ideas are more thought-out and sustainable when working together to understand the best models for ministry. God can use different experiences, personalities, and leadership styles to move a church forward together.

Next, a church needs Dependable Resources. Having dependable resources means finances are reliable, vital staff members are paid well, facilities are dependable, and church policies and processes ensure that ministry runs effectively. In Revitalization, many churches get hung up on this particular topic. But, if spiritual health is the primary concern, the outflow will contribute to these factors as well. For example, if a church talks about the heart of giving, sacrifice, and ministry, they will contribute more to the kingdom of God. Or if a church captures the heart of evangelism and disciple-making, higher attendance is a result.

Lastly, a church needs De-Personified Alignment. This means that the mission, vision, and ministry philosophy does not all come from one person. When the whole church gets behind their mission, and they are unified in their ministry, they are much more likely to be about the work of the ministry. However, personality conflict with one leader can derail a church’s mission. They must be all together. 

Both Trellis and Vine

When we talk about the health of a church, we have to ask the right questions: are we talking about the organization? Or are we talking about the body of believers? In organizational health, we must recognize some common concerns when the church is in decline. We have fewer in attendance, fewer people giving, and our facilities are falling apart. Some people might say, “Let’s just not worry about numbers.” Saying that would ignore very important aspects of organizational health. Why are we declining in attendance? This question must be asked.

The organization is only the scaffolding or trellis for the vine. While they are both important, spiritual health should drive organizational health, not vice versa. In a book called The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall says, 

“…most churches are a mixture of trellis and vine. The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing, and tending the vine. However…Christian ministries also need some structure and support. All christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work of the ministry. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, and governance all become more important and more complex as the vine grows.”

Putting it All Together

We are responsible to steward well what we have been given. We can’t focus on one aspect of this to the neglect of the other. If we just focus on organizational health, the body will be there just to serve and sustain the organization. Unfortunately, that’s the attitude of a lot of dying churches. Their major concerns are those things. We also can not neglect organizational health and only focus on spiritual health. If we do this, we will have no structure, there will be confusion and chaos. Being a health and balanced church means that we are focused on both spiritual health and organizational health.

For more information on church health, see the following resources: Ep. 144 and Ep. 136 of the Replant Bootcamp Podcast. 12 Healthy Characteristics of a Healthy Church, a resource developed by Brian Nall in Pensacola Bay Baptist Association. Pick up Mark Dever’s well-known book on church health, or Bill Henard’s helpful book on understanding why churches decline. If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.

Should we Revitalize or Replant?

Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to helping a dying church gain new life again? Or an instant formula that works every time? Unfortunately, no book you read on these topics will give you a predictable outcome for every situation. There are simply too many variables for a church’s factors of decline. And no two Revitalizations or Replants will be identical.

Conflict arises, culture changes, bad leadership exists, and churches sometimes fall out of touch with their community. Every church has glory days and difficult days. But if you’re reading this right now, it’s probable that you might be considering options for your church, or curious on what might be the best approach.

The Need for Church Renewal

When I first started working with dying or plateaued churches, I was overwhelmed at how many resources there were. In the past few decades, the need has become increasingly great for revitalization, because of the multitude of churches closing their doors.

The need for church renewal is urgent, and perhaps that’s why so many have turned to outside help for keeping their church alive. But there can be confusion on the language of so many books, programs, and resources. While revitalization is sometimes helpful, it’s not likely to work in every situation. 

With a huge stack of books on my desk, I started getting overwhelmed. I am still new to Associational work and needed some training on what to do with some of our churches who were facing closure and looking for answers. So, I attended a Replant training by NAMB earlier this year. Now, in a very rural setting with only 15 churches in our association, we have one church in Revitalization, one church in a Partnership Replant, and one church seeking to plant a church that died almost 10 years ago. 

There’s been confusion on the difference between Replanting and Revitalization. While there is some overlap, they are two different processes. Replanting is a form of Revitalization, but not every Revitalization is a Replant. So, what’s the difference?

Revitalization Defined

Church Revitalization is a deliberate, dedicated and protracted effort to reverse the decline or death of an existing church. Revitalization uses an existing church, with existing leadership, structures and history, but gives a renewed effort by addressing critical issues. 

Many choose this approach because it requires less change up front, and seems to be less invasive than other options. When church members are not ready for drastic change, they opt for this approach (if they opt for any at all). It can use an existing pastor and the pace of change is normally slow.

But there is some caution to Church Revitalizations. They’re less likely to lead to lasting change and more likely to be a continuation of the same, and for churches who are facing imminent closure, success is slim to none. In this situation, Revitalization may be possible, but it’s not probable.

However, God is more than able to do anything with any church for his glory. Some churches have experienced great success with Revitalization. 

How Revitalization Plays Out

After some conversations within a church, a church leader may either seek to be revitalized using their own congregation by suggesting a number of changes over a period of time to regain missional vitality and growth. The Church may address symptoms of the issues, but not causes. Sometimes, churches use outside help like a local Association or another ministry leader or team. 

In a traditional church, those suggestions normally go through teams or committees and need to be agreed on by the majority of the congregation. More organizational approaches see timelines and financial costs involved. A church leader may try a new methodology to doing ministry, but it sometimes gets pushback. 

According to a study by Thom Rainer, the estimated success rate of this type of revitalization is only 2%. But if there is a spiritually-binding covenant of agreement involved, its success rate is much higher. For churches facing closure, a more drastic approach may be needed to survive. As Bob mentioned in Ep. 1 of the Replant Bootcamp podcast, some churches have gone so far, they need a whole system reboot.

RePlanting

Replanting is a decision to close an existing church and re-launch as a new church, with new leadership (pastor), new name, new identity, new governance, new ministry approach and overall new philosophy of ministry. In some cases, it is not necessary to adopt a new name but simply to adjust it.

Replanting builds on the history of the previous church, but requires new leadership. A new identity can create enthusiasm and interest in the surrounding community. So a church that needs to Replant is one that does not have the time, energy, or resources to continue as their same church. 

Under this umbrella term, a RePlant can be done a few different ways: 

  • Replant Within: A Replant team is chosen out of the congregation under a Replant Pastor, and that team works together to relaunch as a new church.
  • Assisted Replant: Another healthy church partners with a dying church to provide leadership, accountability, and structure to Replant a Church.

Example

Thirty years ago, (Name) Baptist Church used to have about 200 in average worship attendance. They had an active Brotherhood, a WMU, children and youth programs, and lively worship. As they began to outgrow their facility, they decided to use their budget to begin building a larger sanctuary.

Through multiple conflicts involving prominent families and infighting about theological disputes, a group inside the church felt that their ministry staff wasn’t leading well. A large group of them wanted to separate and join another church. Others wanted to start a church of their own in a different location.

A large split happened. As a result, thirty years later a group of older members had done all they could to keep their church surviving. But without the giving they once had, their finances were quickly dwindling, and nothing they tried could reach a younger audience. Their reputation in the community was broken.

They grew tired of ministering, serving, and sharing the gospel after working so hard for so long. To make it worse, they couldn’t afford to pay a pastor anymore, so he eventually left. A long-time deacon went to the local association for help and their leader helped them consider some options.

All Things New

Another church closer to town wanted to help the church by restarting a new church in that location. Seeing that there was no way to remain open, the congregants decided to close as (Name) Baptist Church. They worked with another church’s leadership as they watched the church they once knew relaunch as a new church. 

During that time of closure, a new worship team and Replant pastor were introduced, a new mission and vision for ministry was birthed, new documents involving governance and membership were printed, and a new direction for the church on the horizon. 

Now, (New) Baptist Church has a different mission field. As they began to grow, baptisms and giving have increased, and they have plenty of space to meet in their sanctuary.  Their reputation in the community is restored, and their identity has changed.

Similarities in Need

This may sound like an awesome example. But it’s just that, an example. While many churches have experienced new growth and success with Replanting, it can’t always be guaranteed. But whether your church decides on Revitalization or Replanting, both have similar needs:

  • Both require time, energy, and effort
  • Both require a renewed spiritual commitment
  • Both require a high receptivity of change

As a final word of encouragement, Remember that God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20). We need that confident assurance during this type of work. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Association, Convention, or NAMB for help with leadership, advice, counsel and care. Doing the task of Replanting or Revitalizing alone can be a lonely road. But Jesus cares deeply about the health of his local church.

If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.

Episode #4 – When and How to Change Bylaws and Other Documents (Boots on the Ground Question from Wesley Lassiter)

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Episode #4 - When and How to Change Bylaws and Other Documents (Boots on the Ground Question from Wesley Lassiter)
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In this episode, Bob and JimBo discuss a boots-on-the-ground question sent in by Wesley Lassiter.

When is too soon to change the bylaws and other docs in a replant?

A lot of the answer will depend on the nature of a replant. Often in a replant as a campus or merger the legal documents will change very early in the process. This still needs to be walked with wisdom though.

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Episode #3 – How NOT to Lead Facility Changes

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Replant Bootcamp
Episode #3 - How NOT to Lead Facility Changes
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In this episode, Bob and JimBo start a new segment called, ‘Stupid Stuff We Did and Survived’. JimBo will share a few stories of how he unwisely led facility changes. We invite you to laugh at us and with us during this episode. Hopefully, you will be encouraged and challenged as well.

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Episode #2 – Advice for Replanting Residents and Rookies (with Boots on the Ground Guest Jesse Peters)

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Replant Bootcamp
Episode #2 - Advice for Replanting Residents and Rookies (with Boots on the Ground Guest Jesse Peters)
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In this episode Bob and JimBo are joined by BOOTS ON THE GROUND GUEST Jesse Peters from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Henderson, NC. Jesse is helping start a replanting residency at his church and wanted to know what advice we would have for replanting residents and rookies.

Replanting is not easy work, but it also isn’t super complicated.

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