Serial Church Killers

In the interest of being clear, I state the following: There may be many reasons for church death, but the right minister can shepherd a congregation to Christ-centered solutions that will keep that congregation viable in its community and in the body of Christ. The right pastor can inspire change; the wrong one can instill despair.

There are O&A churches that thrive, and O&A churches that are die for becoming so. Within the subgroup of thriving, successful churches are liberal churches and conservative churches, larger churches and smaller churches, churches in debt and churches in the clear, etc. None of these factors per se seems to determine church survival. I contend that the crisis of church survival is primarily a crisis of leadership, and not of styles or social factors.

Pastoral performance is a taboo subject in the church today. However, we can and should consider the factors that enable a given pastor to sequentially save — or bury — church after church. For starters, let’s at least understand that all who succeed want to succeed, and among those that fail, at least some of them want to fail! There are others who simply believe that church success and survival are beside the point — and I’m not saying they are wrong. I will say, however, that if you want a particular congregation to survive as a church, one or more leaders within that congregation has to choose to help it survive! And while human willpower is not the point, I do think that the pastor who insists that a church survive and thrive is more likely to make the hard decisions that help it to do so!

There is not one instance in scripture where God wills the death or failure of a church. Revelation has seven letters warning seven churches to shape up or perish.

Some people seem to  think that church death is good. By some theologies, everything that happens is therefore God’s will, God being all-powerful and all-knowing. Why, then, would God advise anyone in any direction whatsoever? No, God does not will the damnation of souls or the demise of congregations. At worst, God permits us to choose between life and death.

The choice, however, is ours alone. God clearly prefers we choose life. God told the children of Israel how to survive as a nation, but let them choose to survive or perish.

If you believe Que Sera, Sera — what will be, will be — then you rest secure in your own salvation and write off every failure as God’s will. If that’s true, then it must be God’s will that I work with dreamers, because I want ministry partners who are willing to work for the kingdom of God!

Some pastors move from church to church, leaving each one in worse shape than before. Some people, given free rein, would move from committee to committee, ministry to ministry, job to job, confident that God wills success or failure, thereby relieving them of any responsibility.

At a General Assembly — the national gathering of Disciples of Christ — in Ft. Worth a few years ago, I overheard a minister at lunch say, “The last two churches I served are dead, and they deserved to die!” There’s a man of great faith — in the wrong theology!

2 Peter 3:9 says God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Isn’t God powerful enough to get what God wants? So why do any perish? Because we decide to repent or not, to struggle or surrender, to be generous or greedy.

Generally speaking, Disciples are not Calvinists. But you wouldn’t know it to hear them talk of the inevitable demise of traditional church. Where traditional church is deemed too unholy to survive, the traditional church that actually survives and thrives becomes demonized as something unnatural, or essentially unChristian.

I’m not saying that church success requires a big-steeple church — but a big-steeple church building can certainly be useful real estate. I’m not saying that Elders must be old — but elderly people just might remember some essential element of church success from days gone by. I’m not saying that a 500-seat auditorium is a good fit for a 50-member congregation — but both can be excellent springboards for going forward as church!

I pray that pastors who decide that a church should fail will instead realize that they have failed to inspire the congregation. Instead of giving troubled churches an interim pastor, perhaps we should give troubled pastors an interim career, where they can shake their faith in inevitable death and regain the notion that with God, nothing is impossible.

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About Rev. Joel Tucker

Rev. Joel Tucker, an Ordained Minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has been in ministry since 2001. Currently, he is Senior Pastor at Guyton (GA) Christian Church. He holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Auburn University. He entered ministry after 20 years in corporate communications and five years of computer programming. If you want to encourage the blog with money, send it to http://PayPal.Me/JoelTucker.

17 thoughts on “Serial Church Killers

  1. I hear a lot of the corporate world coming through in this. How do you measure success in a church – purely by numbers, by donation, by the number of conversions? My denomination has many parishes that are 40-50 members – are these unsuccessful churches? If I am misreading your post please fill me in.

  2. This post did not seem to me to be about success, at least as in piling up wealth or achieving fame. Rather, it seemed to me to stress the importance of leadership, especially pastoral leadership in creating a vibrant community of faith, regardless of the size. I applaud the author for bringing up the issue of ministers who do not have the gift for creating a healthy mix of pastoral and lay leadership.

  3. It’s a great question. I’ve been frequently challenged in defining church success. My larger contention is that however you define it, DO define it, want it, and work for it.

    Generally speaking, a church that is failing is easier to define. That church suffers a steady decline in membership and a steady narrowing in age demographics, especially a scarcity of children and youth. If such a church is not failing financially, it may be at increased risk of doing so where it relies on a smaller number of supporters.

    Let’s try this: If someone needs a church, is yours likely to fill that need? Is your church an active supporter of broader missions of the General Assembly (DHM, etc.)? Is it encouraging new ministers and ministries?

    Size does not define church success. Some say the best church would split into two of 50 every time it reaches 100 members. That’s a great model. Of those 40-50 member churches, are they likely to grow, shrink or remain the same in the next decade? I’ll accept stay the same as success, because so many churches are steadily declining in members and resources.

    I’m not in love with my own definition of success. I am, however, convinced that followers of Jesus Christ are called to make disciples, and I find that a loving, diverse, open church with some variety of programs is a tool in accomplishing that assignment. I encourage members to use the church as a resource to build community, to be family, and to grow in Christ. A church that does that is successful; a church that runs people away, shrinks the tent away from needed ministries is at least less successful.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts. I believe one factor in church decline not mentioned is the congregation’s “reputation” in the community. I was the third pastor of a nine-year-old mission church and its last. The founding pastor left after the church struggled over the “tongues” issue. The second pastor struggled with a devastating family problem. Also, a few years before I came, there had been an allegation of child molestation and the family of the child had left. The alleged molester was still active. I was told of this allegation a few months after I accepted the call. I was a part-time pastor because they could no longer offer a full-time salary: worship attendance was in the 40’s. There were no families in the congregation with children under the age of 14. The morale was waning among some very devoted and loving members. The community was about 25,000. Can you imagine what people said as they drove by the church building? “You know what they say one of their members did…” True or false, that was part of this fledgling congregation’s “rep.” After months of prayerful discernment and conversations, the congregation disbanded about 16 months after I came. A word to the wise…make sure your congregation has a muscular child protection policy, make sure all are aware of its rules, and enforce it–for the sake of your children and to protect those who work with them!

    • Unfortunately, the senior pastor is the vanguard for the church’s reputation in the community. Who else is going to preach child safety and push for child protection? If no one else does, the clergy must! And if orhers do, the clergy should back them up. Ditto for proper worship and sound doctrine.

  5. A crisis of leadership? There is a reason most pastors don’t stay in this profession more than 10 years, and it’s not their own incompetence as leaders. Our history is littered with the crushed souls of dynamic leaders who were beaten down until they finally left the ministry in despair. You cannot lead people who do not want to be led. There were times in my earlier ministry when my ministry felt like trying to force old, tired, terminally ill patients to accept invasive and painful life support when what they really wanted and needed from me was compassionate hospice care. “Just let us die in comfort,” our churches have been begging their pastors.

    But I do think that we are at an exciting nexus and that the old, entrenched resistance is gone. Many of our churches have finally reached a place where they are willing to be led into a new era. They are only waiting for a vision to follow. Don’t blame yesterday’s leaders. They tried and were often cruelly rejected. But perhaps now there is a readiness. The question before us is whether those leaders who’ve been so badly burned before can find the courage to step up and lead again? And whether what I’m sensing is real, and that churches are finally willing to be led.

    • Maybe I should rather lament the rarity of a specialist pastor who can triage a troubled church. The subject here, however, is the poison pastor who makes things worse, and the apathetic pastor who simply doesn’t try. These pastors do exist, and we exacerbate the damage by excusing their performance.

      • I will have to take your word on pastors as you describe, it must come from your personal experience, either working with them or had been a congregant, and I am sorry. I have not had that experience. I believe the issue is more the general modern mindset of the entire church, and the need of postmodern change. My experience is the called pastors try greatly with a lack of support from the church, both local and regional. Blessings and prayers on your personal experience.

      • No, JC. The observation is based on the post mortem of dead churches while the corpse was still warm. The rapid growth and decline of a church usually parallels the changeover of clergy. Really, others haven’t noticed? We have great pastors and stubborn congregations … Ok. So who’s the change agent? If this church isn’t responsive to our leadership as pastors, then what church shall we lead? We tried the Baptists, but they don’t need us. Are other denominations more successful because they attract more cooperative congregants? If so, do they give lessons on how to do that?

        My experience is not just the negative experience of watching bad leaders pull a church down, but also watching great leaders build them back up.

      • I am sorry, but your words seem to put it all on the pastors. I am not saying our leadership is not an issue, but nothing is black and white. I was offering a pastoral message to your article, that I simply do not agree with your premise. My observations and experience is that church is changing again, as it has in the other great awakenings and both the established church and leadership does need to change. However, the main issue is for churches that are “dying” they are generally the ones resistant while the good leader is restricted by student loans. It is a viscous cycle, that burns out great leaders (i am sure there are bad pastors and bad fits out there, but my experience that is not the majority). It is fine we disagree, but I hope you hear that it is something more than bad leadership, which I do see you are open to. I highly suggest DBB’s Christianity After Religion. It is a great read and dives into what is going along in the shrinking church.

      • Rev, this one hurts to say, but I think your second response makes a great point:

        “However, the main issue is for churches that are “dying” they are generally the ones resistant while the good leader is restricted by student loans.”

        I’m commissioned, not ordained; I didn’t attend seminary and am therefore not restricted by student loans. I’m a second-career pastor, raised in the Bible belt and hyper exposed to churches, good and bad, successful and not. Is our seminary system overburdening good leaders, burning them out and breaking the bank before they even get started? I always suspected as much! Seminary professionals have a conflict of interests — i.e., the cost of maintaining the seminary system, and the decline of institutional support for that system, is overburdening the very leaders the system is designed to train!

        Another topic for another day requires research by those same conflicted professionals. It is precisely this: DOES SEMINARY TRAINING ENHANCE CHURCH SUCCESS? The procedure is simple: 1)Define church success, by whatever measure you desire; 2)Measure it! and 3)Compare the results for various churches with the level of seminary training among the leaders of those churches.

      • The value of a seminary education is such a difficult issue for me. My years at seminary were some of the best years of my life. Seminary taught me to think, it developed in me a much deeper and more meaningful faith. It formed me in wonderful ways. Had I not gone to seminary, I doubt that I would be a Christian today. But at the same time, it did little to prepare me to lead “successful” churches. It was theological, biblical, intellectual. It was not practical at all. But I don’t think I could be as effective, faithful, or thoughtful pastor, I don’t think I would have as (hopefully) deep or wise a perspective, had I not gone to seminary. So I don’t know…what do we do with seminaries? As problemmatic as they are, I fear that if we didn’t have them, we’d have to invent them. Or perhaps re-invent them.

  6. Joel, I like the energy of your post, but the problem is complex. Sure, leadership is needed and vital. A sense of imagination and adventure is key to overcoming the “stuck” nature of our systems. A congregation must be willing… or at least willing to trust. The community and neighborhood must have potential as well.

    Have our seminaries not done their jobs? Maybe. There is some great criticism of how our seminary cultures have trained our students over different generations to be great preachers, then great administrators, then great pastoral counselors, and so on, and yet… a student must make the most of their training as well. No theological education can be perfect. And, we are reminded, being a great preacher, counselor, or administrator does not necessarily make one a great pastor.

    Lots of our dying and struggling churches, before any imagination or great inspiration, need leaders who are willing to learn their story and gain trust. In some communities, that can take longer than possible. Churches with an average age in the mid-60s may only have 10 years of healthy ministry life yet, and it may take that long to gain a deep sense of trust and a whiff of a new direction where God would lead. Maybe it’s just not worth it, when you could possibly start 1-2 new vibrant congregations with a future in that time frame.

    I’m not a pessimist. The truth is, according to the gospel, death is not final. It is by dying that we are born to new life, as St. Francis (allegedly) prayed. A dying congregation is not something to be ashamed of – it can be a great victory. Who says congregations do need to last forever?

    Interesting link here for further reading, that the Episcopalians face the same struggle:

    In my experience, I’ve seen all kinds of pastors. Miserable ones. Amazing ones. Average ones. Most feel passionately about the ministry and every opportunity they are given. I’ve seen the same of congregations too. I do agree that people who are not called to ministry should not be in ministry, but even what seems like a less than adequate pastor, might be the right fit in some places.

  7. A pastor who is right for a particular congregation is, by definition, never less than adequate. If a congregation wants the church to die (and deems that honorable to the cloud of witnesses who chartered the institution), then mission accomplished is never far away. But if I didn’t want to spare the feelings of those who suffered church loss, I could provide a list of dead churches whose deaths were not voluntary nor, by most estimates, necessary.

    None of which discounts the many excellent and true points covered here. Clergy is not responsible for every church death. But as a class, we are by no means innocent of church demise. Let’s not take all the blame for failure, nor ANY credit for success, but let’s not shy away from the iobvious connections between leadership and organizational direction.

  8. What is a “successful” church?

    If you mean church as an institution – then there are plenty of industrial and managerial and organizational metrics that can be used to gauge success and progress.

    If you mean church as a faith community – then the metrics are simple and three-fold:
    1) Does the church serve as a witness to a God of unrestrained love and unconditional grace?
    2) Does the church exist as a community of compassion and justice?
    3) Do people, both those who consider themselves members of the faith community and those who come in contact with the faith community, have a better life because of their relationship with the faith community? Specifically, have they moved towards being more generous, more hospitable, more service oriented?

    These metrics mean letting go of attendance and giving numbers – letting go of those industrial and managerial and organizational metrics – and letting go of the hired minister as a cult leader or institutional CEO or chief entertainer or having anything to do with why we gather together as a faith community.

    If it is about the faith community, about being and living and exuding the Kingdom of God, then where we gather or how many gather or when we gather or how much money is collected or whether there is even a collection or who preaches or who teaches is reduced to complete irrelevance.

    The Good News is:
    1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and
    2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and
    the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and
    3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual.

    • Doug,
      I invite you and all other readers to define “success” however you wish. My purpose is to inspire you to also consider the role of leadership in achieving or falling short of your selected standard. In that fashion, if you can productively promote said success by properly encouraging leadership goals, traits and and direction.

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