I’ve been the senior pastor of my church now for almost a year and a half. I came here feeling a specific calling to help churches who were past their “glory days.” I wanted to be part of reinvigorating a church that had drifted from reaching its community. So my new church fit exactly what I was hoping for.
After being here now for over a year, I’m thinking it was less a hope and more a “death wish.”
Because there’s nothing I know of that’s harder than restarting momentum after it’s stopped. It’s like pushing a dead car up a hill, all while the passengers (church members) sit in inside waiting for the engine to rev up just like years before.
The first six months of my tenure here, I co-pastored along with the former pastor. While he was gracious and allowed me to implement changes, I really have only been calling all the shots for a year now.
And finally, some great things are starting to happen. Young families are joining…almost every Sunday now! After more than 30 years of decline, things are finally growing again. After looking out at a “sea of gray” in our pews, I am finally seeing younger faces.
To the outsider, it might look like it happened overnight. But actually, it was more of a gradual process, like a dam breaking. Pressure built and built until some of the barriers to our growth finally just gave way.
I’m not jumping the gun here. Trust me, we are still in that process. Much more has to be done for the growth to continue. But I wanted to stop right now and make a quick journal of what I’ve learned so far. Maybe it will help another pastor who is still waiting for that dam to break, and give him hope that the flood is indeed coming.
Here’s what I’m learning…
It Takes Time to Build Trust
Honestly, I pretty much knew the changes that needed to happen from the day I walked in the building. I sat in service after service, enduring things that I knew would not work long-term.
I could have just marched in and started barking orders Day One. I could have gutted the building and remaining programs, and put in place all the things I’m still in the process of changing…
…except it wouldn’t have worked. Why? Because the people didn’t trust me yet.
When you’re in a dying church, time is one thing you don’t have a lot of. The more time that goes by, the more young families may get frustrated and leave. The more time, the more older church members may die and hurt you financially. So you have to get moving!
But you can’t get moving yet. You have to wait. Because if you change too much before people trust your heart and motives, they will fight you and nothing will change.
Sure, there were little things we changed along the way. Some things didn’t demand I have much clout. But on the major things, I took my time.
I came to the church and fit as best as I could into what was already there. I preached in a full suit and tie. I kept the same worship service structure. I took time to get to know people and learn who the church was and had been first.
“Do not move an ancient boundary stone which your fathers have set” – Proverbs 22:28
After you discover where the boundaries are and why they are there, then you can move some of them. But if you move them ignorantly, you may find out the hard way. You may discover by removing them you’ve unleashed a monster.
Be Honest About the Problems
I’ve preached quite a few sermons over the past year that could be summed up as this: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Before I could get the church to change, they had to understand just how bad things were.
So I showed them pictures of shuttered churches that are falling apart all around our city. I told them they were close to a tipping point where there would soon be too few able-bodied people to teach the classes and do the work of church ministries. I showed them how few of our members actually live in our neighborhood anymore.
I made sure they knew that just because they had a great past didn’t mean God wouldn’t let them die. Their reputation meant nothing if they weren’t still doing the work of the Gospel and reaching and discipling new people for Christ.
In this process, I told them over and over what wonderful people they are. That’s because they are wonderful people, with only a few exceptions. I wanted to be sure not to beat them up, or depress them so badly they’d give up. But they had to know how dire the situation was.
The hardest part was the sermon series on Ezekiel. I talked about the glory of God leaving the Temple. I told them point-blank that was what they were in danger of experiencing. That was a heartbreaking series of sermons, and I know it was tough for them to stomach. But it had to be done. They had to know they were in danger of ceasing to exist, and that continuing on as if nothing was wrong would be disastrous.
We were fiddling while Rome burned, and playing shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic. The iceberg was dead ahead, and it was time to start turning the ship!
Clear Debris Out of the Way
There were impediments all around to new people coming and joining our church.
First, our sanctuary looked old-fashioned. Plastic flowers adorned each window sill of the stained glass windows lining our walls. The platform was covered with that same dark red carpet your grandmother’s church still has.
It looked like a funeral home, around the room and in the pews as well.
Our people thought they were welcoming, but really just to each other. When we did that traditional “shake hands with your neighbor” time in the service, people mainly shook hands with those they already knew. First time guests stood dazed as members reached past them to welcome each other.
So we stopped the welcome time. We’ll teach on being a welcoming church more, and, possibly, reinstate it later. But for now, it’s just in the way.
Anyone bringing a child to the nursery on Sunday had to write down the same info every week on a sticker that was placed on the child. It was tough enough to do one time, but felt like insanity after a couple of Sundays. So we set up a computer check in system that prints the sticker out automatically.
That was easy, right? Wrong. It took us six months to get the system to work properly! Why? Human error, lousy computers, lots of things. But it was basically because we were trying to do something new. It should have been an easy fix, but it took forever. However, two computers and six months later, it is up and working consistently. Praise the Lord!
Let People Go
This was the toughest one. I love people, and I naively hoped I could convince everyone to stick with us through the changes.
As we changed worship styles, I started a second service where people who didn’t like my style could go and hide. It would be old-fashioned with hymns played on a piano, and our senior adult pastor preaching the service. I thought I was bending over backwards to help people stay comfortable calling our church their home.
But, in truth, nothing I’d do would be enough for some people. And those people had to go.
As crazy as it sounds, there are some people who like their church to be dysfunctional. The smaller the church, the more important they feel. The fewer good teachers you have, the more their skills are needed. So growth for them is threatening.
Some folks are just fine with no new families joining. Sure, they’d never say it out loud, but in truth they really don’t like to meet new folks. It’s uncomfortable, especially when some of those new folks don’t look like them, dress like them, or (look out, I’m going there) vote like them!
So when things start changing, they’ll start leaving. Unfortunately, they’ll never admit to the real reasons for their departure. They’ll always blame the pastor for it so they don’t look like big babies who have to get their way.
As they started leaving, God kept telling me not to worry. I argued, “I’m losing my church members!” He corrected me, “Those people aren’t the church I brought you here for. They are the past. I brought you here for the church this will be in the future. Most of your members aren’t even here yet!”
Also, some staff may need to go. That was even tougher for me, because I’ve been terminated before and know personally how devastating that can be to a pastor and his family. But one problem our church had was that they were still living on a budget for a church twice their size. This was a leftover from their glory days, and they’d expected to have a larger staff to do all the work.
But as I looked at the budget, I could see that we were “living beyond our means” and that our current spending was not sustainable. So I started cutting the budget and warned the staff there might be personnel cutbacks later as well.
Thankfully, this gave some of our staff freedom to look elsewhere. So I only ended up terminating one full-time non-ministerial staff member. And something funny is happening. Volunteers have stepped up to take their places—often with amazing results. Some of our systems and programs are actually running more efficiently than before. So God honored our fiscal responsibility in the end.
I hope these insights help you if you are in a declining congregation now. Don’t lose hope—God can still do great things and restore what the locusts have eaten. It will take time and sacrifice, but saving a church is worth the trouble.
But unlike Easter Sunday, raising the dead for you may take more than three days. So buckle up, Buttercup—it’s gonna take some time!
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.