I'm choosing to write about something that some of us pastors would rather not talk about. Furthermore, I'm not writing about this hypothetically. This is happening in my ministry context right now and I believe the Lord is stretching me and teaching me a thing or two about leadership in the process. Consequently, I want to breech this sensitive subject, bare my soul, and maybe be an encouragement to my church and other pastors in the same boat.
In my small town God is doing no small work in a new church plant. This church in three short years has gone from nothing to attracting 500-600 in Sunday worship. This church had over 1,000 on Easter Sunday! This church is drawing people from all the surrounding counties as well as our own. This church is the talk of the town and rightfully so.
This church is part of my own denomination of Southern Baptists. Three years ago this church received a generous sum of money to be a "high impact church plant" of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (some 2,400 churches). This support allowed the church planter (the pastor) to move his family and launch the work. This is something our convention does across the state. As a denomination our hope is to start churches in areas where new, vibrant churches are needed. So, my church along with every other Kentucky Baptist church that gives to the Cooperative Program helped to get this church started.
I remember talking to this pastor before he moved to Hazard, when the church was still just a dream of what the Lord was leading him to do. He and I already were acquainted, and I was completely supportive of this move, if indeed this was what God was doing in his life and in my community. Along the way, our church helped him out by getting the word out in the first stages of the church plant and lending space and equipment. I was always glad to help.
But here's the problem. This church was not supposed to get this successful this quickly in my ministry backyard! As my old church (founded in 1898) continues to struggle in so many ways, this new church has exploded into the largest, most exciting church in the county. This congregation has introduced a new style of worship, reached unchurched and dechurched people, seen many conversions, and impacted the community for the Gospel. They are getting it done! Consequently, they are also drawing some church folks away from other churches. I've just recently lost my first active family to the new church, and it hurt.
So, what am I to do? How do I respond to this reality? I've been working through this as a pastor and the following is what I believe God has taught me. If you're a pastor in a similar situation, I hope it will appropriately rebuke, encourage and challenge you.
1. Resist envy and the temptation to criticize
Envy is an ugly thing and we pastors are not immune to it. One can feel it beginning to rise up in the soul when another is having the success that you would wish for yourself. We all know that in church work we are not supposed to be competing. "We are all on the same team," is the right thing to say. Sometimes, I think we pastors say these words attempting to convince our own hearts of this truth because in our hearts we don't affirm this sentiment. Envy ultimately leads you to begin to resent the more successful work and secretly wish for it's failure. Yep, I just wrote the words we are all afraid to admit.
Ask yourself this question: How would I react inwardly if I heard that the new, growing church that took my church members suddenly had a horrible conflict or scandal? Inwardly, would you be grieved for the church or would you privately rejoice in their misfortune? You may want to keep that answer to yourself. Like I said, envy is an ugly thing.
One of the hallmarks of an envious spirit, even if you try to mask it, is the irresistible urge to criticize the new church. You'll be tempted to dismiss what God is doing by saying things like, "It's the newness that's attracting people, nothing more." "Sure, they're drawing a big crowd, but look how superficial it is!" "Can you believe the gimmicks they use to get people in!" "Yeah, they put on a good show, but it won't last." And on and on it goes within the circle of envious pastors and lay leaders.
This ungodly, self-destructive spirit you must stop in yourself before it consumes you. I think because we are sinners, even if saved sinners, we naturally start down this road. But as soon as you recognize it in yourself, God tells you clearly you don't have to let it control you. Christ has broken the power of sin in your life and you are no longer a slave to it. Go read Romans 6 again if you need to right now. I think the first step of moving on effectively in the ministry to which God has called me is to repent of the envy I may have in my own heart first.
2. Start taking notes
Instead of being envious of the new, vibrant church, start paying attention to what they're doing. I'm not saying start doing what they are doing. That would be a mistake. But pay attention to the vision that is driving their activity. Instead of resenting the new pastor, take him to lunch and listen to his story and pick his brain - even if he is 20 or 30 years younger than you!
The truth is that he is just as insecure about many things - just like you. But he does have something that you and your church lacks. He began the church with a clearly articulated vision that has fell on much good soil and blossomed. The enthusiasm he has for the vision has been caught by others, motivating them to serve, go, tell, bring, and share. This vision has translated into the excitement that you see and wish you could see in your own church. This is why you've lost good people to this church. They are possibly attracted to a clear, compelling vision of which they can be part that they know doesn't exist in your church.
3. Lead your flock to recast a vision
At one time your old church was new. At one time your ho-hum church had an exciting vision. The problem is that it lost it along the way and now the church simply is on a cruise-control, maintenance mode. This is the kiss of death for a church. First Baptist Hazard was founded by the visionary pastor A.S. Petrey in 1898. The church grew consistently and planted several other churches in the region until peaking out in the 1960s. Since then the church has been on a trajectory toward death. For the most part it's been a slow death, but dead is dead no matter how or when you get there.
However, my old church like yours has an opportunity to reboot. On our current path the church is doomed; however, that doom is not necessary. It can be avoided and new life can come to the church. But the church must grab hold of a new vision. It must embrace change, dream big, and make the necessary sacrifices. New church plants often talk about the "launching" of a new church. Careful planning, communicating, preparing and promoting of this launch is crucial to the ultimate success of the new church. An old church needs to take a similar approach; however, for the old church this is a "re-launch." But this re-launch can be just as dramatic as starting a new church.
In a church where the vision has faded through the years, the pastor must lead the congregation through a long-range strategic planning process. I'm closing in on the completing of my fifth year at FBC Hazard. When I first arrived there was much work to do in regards to stabilizing ministry, improving morale, listening to the needs, and building trust. I came in on the heels of some devastating conflict. Now, the church has stabilized, the spirit is good, I can see clearly where the church has been and what the needs are, and I have the trust of my congregation. Now it's time to move toward a new, bold, big vision for the future.
I've never taken a church through a bonafide long-range planning process, so I've had to go back to school. I figured out that we have to tackle two sides to the same coin to do this right. First I needed to assemble a team to assist me in the long-range planning and I needed to figure out how to do it. So, I started reading. The guide I landed on is Aubrey Malphurs' Advanced Strategic Planning: A New Model for Church and Ministry Leaders. I can't tell you how thankful I am for this book. It has become my step-by-step guide. Get this book. Read it. Use it.
Second, I knew that our church's present Constitution and By-Laws had to be updated and significantly altered to align with the emerging vision for the church. That document needed to have embedded in it this vision. It needed to reflect the structure, organization and procedure for strategically pursuing this vision. Therefore, we are currently at work on making the needed changes in this document to be in harmony with the emerging vision from the long-range strategic planning process.
This long-range strategic planning process is far from complete, but it's becoming crystal clear just how big this is and how much is riding on it's success. Like many dying churches, FBC Hazard is at a crossroads. One road is the easy path - the one of least resistance. It is the path of denial, maintenance, status quo, and minimal impact that will ultimately lead to pain and death. The other road is the harder path - the one of change and sacrifice. It is the path of honest evaluation, prayerful thinking, hard work and real faith in God's provision.
I'm desirous for my old church to breath the fresh air of new life. I believe that these dry bones can live again because God can breath new life into them. But our motivation has to be a God-sized vision that will infuse a congregation with renewed enthusiasm, attract new people, and reach the lost with the Gospel. With what I've learned so far, here is what this vision must possess:
1. It must have biblical foundation
The values on which the mission and vision, and ultimately the strategy to accomplish the vision, must be biblical values. What God loves, we must love. The principles God lays down in His Word for us, must give shape to the fundamental values that will drive the ministry. Answer these questions from the Bible: What is the church? Whose church is it? What is the purpose of the church? What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? The answers to these kind of questions will get you pointed in the right direction.
2. It must be big and bold
Most often we just think too small. We tend to think only about our limitations based on how little money we have, how poor our facilities may be, how uncommitted people can be, or how previous efforts have failed. What we forget is that God can accomplish surprising and amazing results with our little. Can we have faith for God to do well beyond what we might normally expect? I think we have to. This is the compelling part of the vision that will excite people. So what if they think you're crazy! We must get a bold vision that is bigger than the sum of our budget, personnel and past experience.
3. It must fit who we are as a congregation
I've spoken of the new, growing church in my town. God has blessed them and is doing a great work there through them. I believe that I can learn much by observing what's happening in that ministry. However, it would be a huge mistake to think that their style, organization, methods, or any combination of such things is the reason for the success. Again, it's the vision that is driving all those things that is the reason. My vision for FBC Hazard must fit who we are. It must flow authentically from our personalities, our passions, our style, and what we value and can offer our community. I'm not sure I know exactly what all this is yet, but I'm determined with my team to figure it out.
4. It must be measurable
The purpose of a long-range plan is to develop a strategy to accomplish the vision. How do you know if you're accomplishing the vision? You have to be able to measure it. A long-range plan should set specific goals over specific periods of time. And part of the boldness of a vision is not being afraid of failure. Failures are only failures if it causes you to give up. Otherwise, what one person might call failure, I'll choose to call a learning experience. A vision is a snap-shot of the future as you hope it will be, God willing. How many people do you want to reach? What kind of ministry do you want to see impacting lives? How many lost souls do you want to see be reconciled to God through Jesus? Don't see this a presumption, see it as vision.
If you're a pastor of a dying church, take heart. All may not be lost. Regrettably, some churches will die. And if a church will not be passionate for God and be committed to the Great Commission, then maybe it should die. But for many churches that are on the downward slope, it's certainly not too late. But the time to act is now. If you have the trust of your congregation and you can confidently assemble a team of committed people, start the long-range planning process as soon as you can. Do your homework first. You're steering the ship. Know where you're going before you lead others. But get started and make the impact that God called you to make!
P.S. The new church isn't really killing your church, even if you're losing members to it. Your church was already doing that to itself before they moved in.
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