Once upon a time a church was built. The need existed. People were burdened for the lost who needed Christ. Charter members made sacrifices. Believers served and gave. And a congregation came to life, proclaiming the Gospel and serving it's community. It's energy and newness attracted a crowd. Momentum carried it to grow and build and connect with people. God blessed the work, a community was blessed and the Kingdom advanced.
That was then, whenever then was. This is now, and circumstances have dramatically changed. The builders, who started a movement, have long since passed on and entrusted the church to successors, who inherited an institution. For the last several generations the very existence of the church has been taken for granted, the passion has cooled and the commitment to service and self-sacrifice has greatly diminished. Tradition and routine has become familiar and uninspired, resulting in complacency that has led to a ho-hum church and decline. Membership in the church has become a religious garnish for most members who still attend rather than reflective of a personal all-in commitment to Jesus. The church has become like the church in Ephesus that Jesus spoke to in the book of Revelation. He told them, "You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from it's place."
At one time God built something great and exciting through properly motivated and committed people who put God first personally and made a strong commitment to corporate spiritual life through the church. Frustrated pastor, is this your church's history? Does this sound all too familiar? You know it's time for your church to get out of the well-marinated complacency it's been soaking in for far too long. You've known it for quite some time, but you're getting to the point of discouragement.
It takes effort to build something. It takes tremendous effort to build something right. However, unless caretakers apply constant attention and properly focused energy to what has been built, it will decay with the passage of time. Instruction abounds that teaches us that church's have life cycles and how older churches that have lost their passion and effectiveness must refocus and rebuild or face the sad reality of a slow, painful death (e.g. Breakout Churches, Rainer, 2005; Simple Church, Rainer & Geiger, 2006; Comeback Churches, Stetzer, 2007; Transformational Church, Stetzer & Rainer, 2010; There's Hope for Your Church, McIntosh, 2012).
Those who have penned these and other books from their experience, research and insight offer great assistance to the pastor and church leaders. The common thread through each of these works, however, is the need for strong, spiritual leadership that perseveres to see complacent, dying churches break free and be healthy and thriving once again.
I believe what I'm learning the most about pastoral leadership is the critical importance of ministry perseverance. Real leadership is just hard. Whether you naturally crave leadership or have it thrust upon you, the plain and simple truth is that leadership is difficult. I suppose if it were easy, everyone would do it. Pastoral leadership has another layer of difficulty because it is other-worldly. Pastors walk by faith in their leadership and try to lead volunteers to walk by faith as well. Sometimes being faithful to God is counterintuitive to culture and convention.
When you're the new pastor the people have their fingers crossed hoping that you will make the difference. And for awhile it may seem they are actually convinced that you are finally the one that will rescue them from past conflict and years of ineffectiveness. And you may even buy into the delusion that your awesomeness alone will save the day. This state may persist for the first couple of years while you preach, get to know people, seek to understand the church's history and evaluate the current situation.
Then, while in that 3-6 year range, you have finally brought into focus a realistic picture of the spiritual conditions of people and the church as a whole. By now you've made some unpopular decisions, offended a few people, and made some mistakes. You have some who have quit coming and frankly don't think your all that awesome anymore. Everything feels stagnant and you're beginning to wonder if the church will reach new people and grow. Participation has slumped and giving may even be down. Now, you're tempted to leave. You know the church has seen better days, but what you're up against now is a pervasive and frustrating complacency. Oh, you still have the faithful few who show up, serve, give, lead and are true team players. Thank God for them! But the key word is few.
The truth is that a church mired in complacency is probably going to stay in it until its death or until a stubborn, strong-willed, God-called pastor leads them out of it. In established churches, much of the problem is that just when the critical, hard, frustrating, and defining moments are happening, many of us pastors look to find a new place to lead. (Or the church, who has become disillusioned with our leadership, sends us packing!) We tell ourselves that these people are impossible, or that we are no longer effective leaders, or my family can't take this any more. You start making a list of pros and cons about your ministry and begin to agonize over the future. The joy you used to have is stretched thin and your burden within is great. You just honestly wonder to yourself, "will this place ever spiritually turn the corner?" You doubt yourself thinking, "Maybe I'm the problem, and it's time for another to take over who might do better."
Pastor, sometimes God does providentially call you away from one ministry field to a new one, orchestrating the circumstances and tugging at your heart. There is that God-ordained and affirmed move that sometimes comes. But I think there is a difference between being truly called to somewhere new and simply running away from where you are. We must be very wise about this! I suspect that many of our so-called new callings are no more than rationalized retreats. Often, when the going gets tough, the pastor gets busy looking to go somewhere else. As a consequence his heart, soul and work ethic are no longer where he is, which compounds the problem. Now, the pastor has become complacent through discouragement and become part of the problem.
Pastor, if the majority of your congregation is blissfully swimming in a pool of complacency, don't lose heart. Maybe as a whole the church has left it's first love, like the Ephesians, and now loves this world more than it does her Savior. Still, don't lose heart. Maybe some folks, who have little patience for the Word of God applied to their lives, show up less often now or not at all, still don't lose heart.
How can I say simply not to lose heart? Of course, it is easier to say than to do, but it is exactly how the Scripture encourages and instructs us.
"And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary" Galatians 6:9
"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart." Hebrews 12:1-3
"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." 2 Timothy 4:2-5
Pastors, being a good leader is hard. It's about skill and personality. It's about prayer, planning and execution. It's about motivating and inspiring. But I think that on many Mondays, it's simply about not quitting. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Let His sacrifice put your frustration in perspective. Keep preaching the Word of God without apology or soft peddling. Let God, by His Spirit apply the Word to the hearts of people and trust God with the results. Know some will not receive it and some will. Keep bouncing back. Be resilient. Endure the tough stuff and keep charging. Don't slack. Work hard. Do the job God has called you to do to the best of your ability. Keep your family encouraged and trusting the Lord.
The complacent church that has left its first love will only truly be revitalized and rebuild a thriving ministry when a pastor will go the distance, pushing through the toughest and most discouraging times, and lead a congregation to be healthy again. You can't do it alone, but a congregation can't do it without you.
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