When church leaders need to crack a code or solve a problem, help is everywhere. Books, blogs, coaches, conferences, e-zines, and webinars are so plentiful that the trick is no longer accessing information, but evaluating and organizing it. And there’s help for those tasks, too (there’s always an app for that).
If you need a strategy that fits your vision, you can find it. If you face a mystery, someone can help solve it. If you need an expert who specializes in evangelizing 38.5-year-old suburban males who work in financial services and eat their cereal with tablespoons, you can find one!
But what if the strategies work? What if you clear the hurdles successfully? What do you do when the preaching hits the mark, the church grows, and Mr. Mo Mentum visits?
Do Churches Like Mine Grow?
Someone is reading this and thinking, Here’s what I do: I wake up, because that’s a dream! My ministry is struggling to gain traction. I am facing antagonists and challenges. Every pastor is acquainted with these thoughts, but church leadership is no place for pessimists. We need to believe that breakthroughs still come, and not just in metro suburban churches that look like office parks or IKEA stores.
I know a minister whose rural church has a Thomas Kinkade appearance, but a vibe that is much more energetic. The pastor took some chances early last year with some new approaches to worship and spiritual formation. God is blessing his risk taking! He’s seeing attendance numbers that are 15 to 20 percent beyond those logged a year ago. Enthusiasm is high. Challenges and detractors remain, but the voices of affirmation are stronger right now. It’s tough to argue with healthy growth.
Trouble never completely vanishes for church leaders, but there are seasons when prayer and persistence bring God’s favor! Suddenly the winds shift. Rather than tacking back and forth to make limited progress, by God’s grace you hoist the mainsail and rack up the nautical miles. Critics quiet. Leaders gel. Jim Collins would say this is when “the flywheel turns.” If you’re a Nehemiah fan like me, we are talking about the season when Sanballat gets lockjaw, people follow your lead, and the gaps in the wall begin to close. You see lives changing, and your church is the catalyst. It’s a beautiful thing.
So, now what?
Build on Positive Momentum
Much of the New Testament is written to churches facing adversity. But we sometimes overlook the victories that were celebrated throughout the New Testament. Paul said the faith of the Roman Christians was world renowned. And Paul couldn’t stop thanking God for the good things happening in the Ephesian church. Even the blazing discernment of Jesus found things to applaud among the struggling churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3.
In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul told his protégé not only to anticipate periods of distress (out of season), but also periods of success (in season). What are you doing to prepare yourself and your church for God’s favor? What would it mean if God grew your church 15 percent by this time next year?
• Do you need to add another worship gathering to your weekend schedule?
• Will you need to quickly train more small group leaders?
• How will your approach to pastoral care need to change?
• Is there prime real estate that needs to be converted to serve a higher priority?
• Should you shuttle core folk to/from a remote parking area for a while?
• Do you need to hire a director of whatchamacallit?
As a pastor friend recently told me, “Ride the winds of momentum as long as you possibly can!” Think ahead. Continue clearing a path for new people to come and grow. Help your church get accustomed to the reality that the next big initiative is always in the pipeline.
Leverage Your Influence, but Humbly
I listened intently as a highly visible senior pastor was described by his coleaders. The more his church flourished, they noted, the more humble and disciplined he became. That’s a model way to respond to God’s favor on a church. Pastoral swag is repulsive and dangerous, but humility glorifies God and further magnifies a leader’s impact.
The church I help lead took the opportunity to serve another church recently. While mentioning it here could be misunderstood, I hope you’ll trust my motives for doing so.
When our senior staff learned of a healthy church in another city that was experiencing growing pains, we invited the elders and senior staff to spend an evening with us. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve discovered a few. So we extended an invitation, provided a nice meal, gave a tour of our high-impact ministry spaces, and then discussed what was on their minds.
While those leaders will certainly sift through our advice for what is applicable, they raved about the time we spent together. We charged no fees, requested no reimbursement for the meal, and invested 90-plus minutes beyond the time they requested. As we closed the evening, we offered to accept future phone calls (and even make future trips to their city) to coach and encourage.
The truth is, we were in one of our busiest ministry seasons ever, but the opportunity was one we sensed God directing us to take. It gave us a chance to serve others with no ulterior motive. And, as I wrote this article, I learned of another member of our staff who just returned from helping a church improve its guest services efforts. The letter of thanks made it clear that our staff member’s input moved the needle.
We are part of a kingdom of servants. Sharing resources and information is a way to prove that we follow the One who came to serve, not to be served. While the format used must change over time, we must never stop helping one another.
Raise the Bar on Yourself
Sometimes your church will grow because you are doing things better. But, surprisingly, sometimes it’s the growth of the church that prompts you to do things better. Believe it or not, excellence doesn’t always precede growth. Sometimes it follows!
My advice for senior leaders is this: don’t wait until it becomes painfully obvious that you need to develop new skills or tend to a weak area in your life. Begin to change now. Improve now! Here’s a list of ways you might want to apply this principle:
• Improve your sermon prep schedule or plan.
• Study leaders at the next level.
• Invest more in future leaders.
• Confront your personal flaws.
• Gain new leadership skills.
• Repair an important relationship.
• Ask forgiveness for a prideful or inconsiderate act.
• Confess the sin that has the tightest grip on you.
• Actively pursue a stronger marriage.
Hear the advice Paul offers in Ephesians 6:10, 11 in the context of pastoral and personal development. It’s a good reminder you must make the decision to grow, while the high-octane fuel needed for change comes from God at work in you. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”
Notice that the enemy about whom you have preached is strategically evaluating you for weaknesses to exploit. That should make our skin crawl. It should motivate us. But along with the warning is a promise that we can flourish with God’s help. There’s an old hymn we all sang that taught us what to do with a promise like that: stand on it.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.