Notice I did not say IF you lose confidence in yourself.
I said WHEN you lose confidence in yourself.
It’s going to happen. You WILL lose confidence in yourself. Multiple times over the years in fact. It is not a matter of IF but WHEN.
The question is why?
In my experience, Senior Pastors lose confidence in themselves when they are unable to lead their congregations to grow numerically, increase their offerings, and generate conversions.
Changing Attendance is Harder Than You Think
Offerings and conversions are unquestionably the easiest things to change in the life of a church.
You can change your financial situation in a matter of months. If you’re willing to follow the admittedly hard to hear advice I have in my article “What To Do When Facing A Massive Budget Shortfall” and combine that advice with THIS article and THIS one, you’ll change your financial situation in 90 days. I promise.
But changing a church’s attendance is about as easy to fix as that underperforming restaurant in your area that’s been in decline for years.
Things won’t change for that Chinese restaurant by whipping up a new Kung Pao Chicken recipe or printing new menus. There are systemic things to address like location, management, branding, supply chain management, facility appearance, maintenance, etc.
The list of things to address is massive, and rarely does one know where to start first. Like Senior Pastors of declining churches, the owners are busy running the restaurant and putting out fires and trying to keep everyone paid in the midst of mounting personal despair.
After helping dozens of Senior Pastors like yourself find a path forward, I’ve learned ten undeniable truths about church attendance – the way churches decline, how they pull out of a spiral, and what this does to a Senior Pastor’s soul in the process.
Ten Undeniable Truths About Church Attendance
- Once a church’s attendance stagnates, it’s about 50-50 whether they’ll ever actually grow again. Most churches reach a certain attendance threshold and then stay there until the church disbands. Chances are that whatever attendance you’re at right now, you will NEVER grow beyond that.
- No matter how bad it is right now, it’s only going to get worse with time.
- Even if you wanted to grow again, it takes 3-5 years to re-engineer the culture, staffing, facility, and resource base needed to make that happen.
- Since there’s a LONG lag time between the desire to grow and the ability to grow, frustration quickly mounts, and it’s almost always self-directed frustration by the Senior Pastor.
- The leaders around the Senior Pastor almost always have more faith in the Senior Pastor than the Senior Pastor does. However, after a few years, even the most loyal of leaders start to get antsy.
- When this happens, Senior Pastors become outwardly defensive and inwardly depressed. I know because I’ve been there.
- Few Senior Pastors in this state are willing to make the emotional investment needed to change themselves. That’s because they’re too inwardly obsessed and broken.
- While the Senior Pastor may not have been the cause of the church’s decline, they will most certainly be the church’s only ticket out of a spiral. Churches will not grow unless their Senior Pastor leads the charge. Period.
- Unless the point leader can find a way to (a) go out and find the tools/insights needed to lead the church in growth and (b) stay motivated in the 3-5 year “pit of despair” when things are being tried with few tangible results, they’ll eventually give up hope.
- There’s always hope.
How to Recapture Your Edge
Are you in that long lag time between the desire to grow and the ability to grow?
Let me give you three things to ponder that will help you re-calibrate the frustration you’ve been feeling.
1. Make Sure You’re Comparing Apples to Apples
Much of what passes for church growth these days is either (a) larger churches stealing church members from smaller, under-resourced ones or (b) more entrepreneurial churches “adopting” churches as their campuses.
There’s a ministry friend in the Midwest who is an entrepreneurial genius. He’s a multi-site madman. He approaches dying churches with good properties in towns of 25,000 or less and appeals to them to become a satellite of his church. He then gets the church to deed the property over to his church, hires a campus pastor, rebrands the facility, and pipes his sermons in via satellite every Sunday morning.
It’s a great strategy.
Until people start talking about how amazing he is at “growing” his church.
His church didn’t “grow.” You realize that, right? All he did was re-baptize Sam Walton’s strategy for launching new Walmarts.
Personally, I think this is a GREAT 21st century evangelism strategy. I laud him for his vision and sacrifice. I especially laud him for his sincere faith and humility.
When in one week his church “jumps” by 200+ people in attendance, he knows all he did was “take over” a church. He rejects any comparisons because he knows that comparing your singular non-growing church to his is comparing apples to oranges. He fights against this comparison with every ounce of his being.
I have another ministry friend in Texas whose church is one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. It’s one of those churches everyone visits and fawns over for his amazing leadership and clarity of vision.
The problem is I know him. When a Senior Pastor of a megachurch down the road – a church five times his size – faced hard times, he told me, “His people have started visiting my church. I’m going to go after them. I need their giving.”
Sure enough, three years later, his church had literally doubled in size and was on the “fastest growing churches” in America list.
I bring up these two examples to simply ask: are these the people you’re comparing yourself to?
If so, STOP IT.
You must compare apples to apples, and you’ll find that when you do, the absolute vast majority of Senior Pastors who are in your shoes are facing the EXACT kinds of situations you’re facing.
So, turn the shame volume in your head down a few notches and take Third Eye Blind’s advice and “step back from that ledge my friend.”
You don’t suck as a leader.
You are normal.
2. Create Your Own Conferences/Learning Experiences.
One of the keys to finding a path forward as a congregation is for you to stare at yourself in the mirror and admit to yourself that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
I mean that.
Tell yourself, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do next.”
Nothing happens until you get to that point because until you can admit that to yourself, you can rest assured that you’re not hungry. You don’t really want it bad enough to go out and find the answers. You’re not in search mode yet.
The problem is that most elder-board situations aren’t healthy enough for you to just blurt that out at your next meeting.
Instead, you have to find people OUTSIDE of your church with which to bear your soul and from which to seek objective advice.
Besides coaching, one of the best ways to do that is to create your own conference. Early May is one of the best times to plan a trip like this for late summer.
About six years ago I stopped going to Exponential and other regional church conferences for pastors – not because I don’t find them inspiring (they always are), I just don’t find the information shared very practical for my specific situation.
What I decided to do was “create my own” conference each year. Here‘s what I did:
- I picked a large metro area where I could easily find a ton of churches.
- I located churches that had recently grown through the same attendance barrier we were facing.
- I then set up meetings with the Senior Pastors of 8-10 of those similar-sized churches. I created a list of questions I asked each of them, and then ended by sharing my situation. I asked them, “If you were in my shoes what would you do?”
- Then I had that Senior Pastor take me on a tour of their facility. I stole all their literature and took a million pictures and videos to take back home.
In the last six years, I’ve been to Orlando, Los Angeles (twice), Las Vegas, Northern California, Denver/Colorado Springs, and Dallas. I simply took the same amount of money that I would have spent on a conference and created my own.
There are some very practical benefits to making these trips.
- I realized I wasn’t the terrible leader I had convinced myself I had become at each barrier I faced.
- I had a ton of fun. I made 3 appointments in the mornings/early afternoons and then did fun sightseeing stuff in the late afternoons and evenings.
- I realized I have to “see” a place. I have to walk into an auditorium at the next stage of growth. I need to count the parking spaces. I need to sit in on their staff meeting and see how it looks with a few more people at the table.
- It greatly helped my staff and elder board to “see” these churches as well. I’ve gone back to the videos and pictures from these churches countless times. “Need an idea for what to do to that kids’ classroom? Here, look at Eastside or First Christian’s color scheme. It’s really cool.”
- These trips gave my wife and I an opportunity to fall in love with ministry again. Words cannot express what it meant to us when Rick Stedman and his wife Amy took the time to meet with us over lunch so many years ago. They were such an encouragement. Suddenly we didn’t feel alone.
3. Refuse to Play the Victim
I get it.
In 2008, the same month the stock market crashed, we broke ground on a $6,000,000 facility expansion.
In a matter of 9 months, we went from a rapidly growing congregation garnishing national attention to a church whose lender couldn’t pay the contractor’s bills.
Over the next four years, I went through personal ministry hell.
Staff had to be fired.
We burned through every cent we had and accumulated $500,000 in unpaid accounts payable.
I gained weight.
Went on an anti-depressant.
And dug an emotional hole in which to crawl and simply hang on and survive.
If it weren’t for the amazing leaders on my Leadership Team, I simply wouldn’t have made it.
When did it turn around?
The day I admitted to my Leadership Team I had no idea what I was doing, but that I was going to visit other churches and find out. In fact, over the next four years, I visited 30 different churches around the country. Over time I found a path forward and found my confidence again.
More specifically, things turned around for me and the church the day I stopped viewing myself as a victim facing impossible circumstances and instead began to view myself as a leader who wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
It turned around the day I got pissed.
And came out swinging.