Part 2 – How the Pandemic Is Accelerating Decline in Churches That Were Already on the Declining Side of the Typical Church Lifecycle
Keep people from leaving. That’s the priority focus of churches in the Preservation phase of the typical church lifecycle. Churches in this phase put very little focus on reaching new people for Jesus, and there’s a strong desire to “return to the good old days.”
Decision-making gets bogged down in multiple committees and divisive church boards, making it almost impossible to implement ministry changes.
Financial decline leads to protecting turf, rather than investing in ministry initiatives to grow the church’s Kingdom impact.
Leaders tend to dwell on the problems, blaming those problems on things that are beyond their control (like a global pandemic, for example) rather than investing time and energy into solutions.
Any of that sound familiar?
In Part 1 of this series on how the pandemic is accelerating change in churches that were already in decline, we talked about how to recognize that your church is in Maintenance Phase, and next steps you can take—even during this strange time—to lead your church towards health again.
This week, we’re diving into Preservation phase, and sharing some specific changes churches need to make—and that pastors need to personally lead—if they find themselves here during this season.
In this conversation, Amy and I discuss…
- Alarming—but not surprising—stats on church decline and how the current pandemic is accelerating the negative trend
- The specific changes churches need to make if they find themselves in Preservation, especially during this season
- Why you have to hire—or empower—a new approach to leadership
- The essential role of the lead pastor in leading this change, and the 4 steps of the change cycle you can begin to lead people through
- 5 attributes we see in declining churches that are actually in your control
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- The Unstuck Church Assessment
- The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health
- LEADER, then STRATEGY, then STRUCTURE | Episode 151
- Accelerating Change: Maintenance Phase | Episode 155
- Accelerating Change: Life Support Phase | Episode 157
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over time, if leaders aren’t careful, churches can begin to find themselves focused on preserving the past. They end up looking back at once was, hoping those same strategies will bring the church back to health once again. But you can’t preserve the past and expect to go to a new place of health in the future. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue series on how churches can clearly assess where they are today and begin to plan a new way forward. But before you listen today, make sure you subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including the leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony last week we launched a new series of episodes focused on the accelerating change that churches are confronting in the season. And for those who didn’t hear last week’s episode, can you just catch us up to speed a little bit?
Yeah, we started talking about the trends that were happening, even pre-COVID, as it relates to faith and church attendance. And we compared those to the trends over the last couple of months, and among the key stats we’ve talked about, the first from Pew Research Center from last year, church attendance among Builders, 61% are regular church attendees at least once a month. And we were talking about how that declines pretty dramatically through the generations. Our generation, Gen X, 46%, down to our kids’ generation, Millennials at 35%. On top of that, last month Gallup reported that a third of practicing Christians have stopped attending online church, but more critically millennials, only 30% of practicing millennial Christians are still attending church online. 8% found another church, a full 50% have stopped attending altogether and all of this, Amy, as I alluded to last week, it’s alarming, but kind of not surprising. And as I did share last week, what we’ve experienced over the last five months, it’s not going to reverse the trends that we were experiencing before the pandemic. It’s only going to accelerate these trends that churches are experiencing. So, that’s kinda where we picked up the conversation last week.
Great. Well with that, as an introduction, I pointed out last week that the principles you wrote in your book, The Unstuck Church, I think are even more applicable to what churches are experiencing today. You wrote the book a few years ago, but the challenges that lead churches to get stuck seem to be magnified in our current circumstances. So because of that, I want to focus on the churches that get stuck on the declining side of the church life cycle. And last week we spent a lot of time talking about churches stuck in that maintenance phase. But this week I’d like to unpack your thoughts around churches that get stuck in preservation. So with that, what are some of the characteristics of these churches?
First of all, last week, I mentioned more than 15,000 churches have taken our free Unstuck Church Assessment. And over 85% identified as being on the declining side of the church life cycle, and of those churches, 8% landed in preservation, which is where we’re focusing on our conversation today. And if my math is correct, that means there are close to 30,000 churches across the country that are stuck in this phase of the life cycle. And again, we don’t have time to detail all the characteristics of churches that are stuck in preservation, but let me highlight the attributes that I think are most challenging given our current situation. The first being around the priority focus of these churches in preservation, because what we see oftentimes is they’re really focused on keeping people from leaving their church. And there’s very little focus on reaching new people outside their church. Second characteristics, there’s a strong desire to return to the good old days. For some churches, that may have been a decade ago. For some churches and preservation, it was many decades ago. And obviously that doesn’t work in our current situation. The strategies that worked in the good old days are not going to work in our current situation. We need a new ministry strategy to reach people in our new normal. So…
Yeah, not to interrupt, Tony, but just as you talk about preservation, I think maybe that’s where every church has been at some point in the last few months, when you talk about let’s keep people from leaving, very little focus on reaching new people and a strong desire to get back to the good old days. Like, doesn’t that describe just about every church that you know, we’re connected with?
Yeah. Now that you say it, you’re right. I want to go back to the good old days now that you mention it.
I do too. It just makes me think about, we’ve talked about this in the masterclass and some other places, but I was so inspired by our senior pastor as he walked through John 20 and 21, and I just couldn’t help but pick up the parallel with this digital thing, when it comes to what Jesus says in John 21, he said, you know, the disciples were fishing and weren’t catching any fish. And he just simply says, throw your nets on the right hand side of the boat, and the disciples do, and then they have more fish there that they could even pull in. And I just thought everybody we’re trying to reach is on the right hand side of the boat. And we have to find new ways to fish, right? It’s going to require some new strategies and some new ways because they’ve been fishing the left side for a long time, and those strategies have stopped working.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And so this is an example where for churches, if you’re stuck in preservation, I know there’s a strong pull to go backwards, but we do, we have to start fishing on the other side of the boat. Another characteristic we see, and these are kind of related here, another characteristic is that decision making tends to get bogged down in multiple committees and divisive, larger church boards. It’s interesting, every time we’ve done research on churches that are stuck compared to churches that are healthy, stuck churches have twice as many committees and the size of their board is usually twice as large as those of healthy churches. And because of that, decision making gets more complicated, and it almost becomes impossible in times where strategy ministry needs to change to actually implement those changes. Another characteristic of churches in preservation is there’s financial decline. And oftentimes this leads to ministries trying to protect their turf rather than investing in ministry initiatives that are going to grow God’s kingdom. We’re all kind of fighting for limited resources. And so that’s a challenge for churches in this phase. And then finally, what we often see is that leadership tends to dwell on the problems. So they’ll start blaming those problems on things that are beyond their control, like for example, the global pandemic. So the reason our church is stuck is because of the pandemic rather than investing time and energy on the solution side. So, those are some of the characteristics that I identified in the book that seemed really applicable to what we’re facing today as well, Amy.
Well, we’ll get into some specific changes churches need to make if they find themselves in preservation, especially in this season, but your key thought related to what these churches need to do sounds like it’s a significant pivot to me.
Yeah. And that’s because it’s significant. The reality is if churches in preservation want to return to sustained health, they have to hire or empower a new approach to leadership to implement a fresh vision and a turnaround strategy. And that’s big, it’s big because you’re essentially having to give up leadership to get to embrace new leadership. And so this is challenging.
Yeah. Well, we actually talked about that a few weeks ago. We had to get the leader before strategy, right? On a recent podcast.
Yeah. So we were talking, as it relates specifically to digital ministry strategy, but here, when we’re talking about a church in preservation, it’s going to go way beyond that. So the challenge, for example, of churches reaching young adults, a would be to hire a young pastor for that church. But many times what we see in churches that are stuck in preservation is they might hire that younger pastor hoping to reach younger adults, but they don’t empower that pastor to implement a fresh vision and new ministry strategy. And they think they’re going to reach younger adults because they have a younger pastor, but they don’t allow that new pastor to make any changes. And by the way, we’ve never seen that work. It just, it just doesn’t work. So, you know, Andy Stanley in The Unstuck Church book included this line, and I think this is, it’s just spot on, “Your church is perfectly designed to get the results that you’re currently getting.” So if you like being in preservation as a church, the good news is you don’t have to change anything, but if you want different results, you need to empower new leadership and support their efforts to implement a new ministry strategy. And I get it. It’s not easy. It takes courageous leadership. It will lead to some people leaving your church. And in a season when you’ve been focused on keeping people from leaving your church, that can sound, you know, insurmountable as a next step. But that’s why it’s so hard for churches to get unstuck once they enter this preservation season.
By the way, for those who listened last week and identified in maintenance, that’s why it’s so important to do the work now, because it’s a paradigm shift when you’re in preservation and much harder to get back out of.
Yeah, that’s right.
Well, in your book, you described five changes churches need to make if they find themselves in the preservation phase. And again, we have time to cover a couple of those changes today. So what’s the first one of those that you’d like to unpack?
Yeah. So this may be obvious, but the pastor has to lead this change. The youth pastor can’t lead the change, though they probably want to. The executive pastor can’t lead this change though, that person will be instrumental in helping to shape strategy and an action plan to accomplish the change. And the reality, in the context of the church, the board as an entire group of people can’t lead the change either, though they can help identify and empower the pastor that will lead this change. The lead pastor has to lead this change. And that’s what makes us so hard is that in many cases, pastors in this leadership role, you got into ministry because you wanted to help people. And many times the changes that are required, for a season at least, is going to feel like you’re causing pain for people, but it’s the type of change that’s going to be required for your church to get healthy again. And so this is the challenge. You can’t keep everyone happy and experience the change that’s going to produce health. It’s just impossible to do that. And you’re probably even experiencing this, in this current season we’re going through because I mean, every pastor is wrestling with part of their congregation who want to get back together, to be in person. They don’t want any restrictions. They just want to come back to worship together. And at the same time, there’s a portion of your church that they’re recognizing the need to protect those around them, including family members. And so they’re very cautious and not wanting to get back together and you know full well any decision you make is going to be challenging for our part of your congregation. And that’s just one aspect of your future as a church. There are multiple different areas for churches that are in preservation, where change is going to be required in order for them to move forward. The other challenge here is that tradition is just powerful. When a church has experienced success in the past, and every church, I mean every church can look back to a season where ministry was just moving forward in a positive way and lives were being transformed. The good news was being spread. People were giving their lives to Jesus. Every church has that in their background at some place, but around that traditions form, and tradition can be very powerful, and it makes it very difficult, especially once churches land in preservation, to move forward with the change that’s required to return to sustain health. And because of that, in the book, we talk about four cycles of change that are required. And in the case of the church, what we’re talking about are really four steps that a lead pastor needs to engage to help move the church forward. So Amy, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to kind of walk through these four steps.
No, I think that’s really good, but let me just say for those of you who are not historically in preservation, I just, playing back to our comment a few minutes ago, Tony, these may actually apply to almost every church right now because we have probably stepped into some preservation habits over COVID season. Yeah, so why don’t you run through the cycles.
Yeah. So the first cycle of change includes creating urgency. So this change cycle begins when the leader, in this case, the lead pastor, demonstrates the need for change. In other words, you need to create urgency by explaining why the change is necessary to execute and why it can’t wait. And this is where we’ve talked about how important it is to articulate why the pain of the change is nowhere near as significant as the pain of staying where you are. You have to help people understand why this change is going to cause some pain, but it’s nowhere like the pain we’re going to experience if we don’t change. That’s the first step. The second step in the change cycle is to cast vision for where you need to go next. And so this is a time for the change to be communicated to all levels of the organization. And by the way, there’s a sequence for that. You want to get your key leaders engaged in what this vision of the church is going to look like first, and then think about those leaders, volunteer leaders, and those that are connected in your congregation at a higher level next, and then your congregation as a whole. So there’s a right sequence for this, but you have to communicate that vision and you have to connect whatever changes you’re making to the mission and the vision of your church. So you have to help people understand this is why we’re making these changes. The third step in the change cycle then is to actually implement the change. And this is when leaders actually become leaders, because until this point, change has just been a conversation, but now it’s about implementation. It’s actually following through. And in these moments, fear can become very loud. You’re thinking, who’s going to disagree? Who’s going to get angry? Who’s going to leave? So this is when leadership requires great courage, but this part of the process is essential, obviously, for change to actually take root. And then the final step in the change cycle is to celebrate those early wins. Slow change is rarely positive change, Amy. And we think sometimes by going slower, that we’re going to get more people on board. You have to communicate change with the right people in the right sequence, but you have to move through this process. And part of that will be identifying and communicating and celebrating early wins in all of this. And those early wins will help build morale. And they’re going to take away some of the power of the critics that are trying to push back against the change that you’re trying to make.
You think they’ll be critics?
There will definitely be critics when you’re implementing changes. You know, most leaders are guilty of thinking that if they lead really, really well, then everyone’s going to stick with them. But the reality says you’re going to lose people after each phase, each step in this change cycle. You’re probably going to lose some folks. And when a major change is being required, like for example, let’s talk about a commitment to a digital ministry strategy or shifting worship experiences to attract younger adults, or maybe it’s a change to invest in children’s ministry to reach young families or whatever it might look like. When you’re making a major change, some people are inevitably going to leave. This is just a natural part of the process, and it really pushes up against again, what we said that key focus is for churches preservation. They’re trying to hold so tightly to anybody that remains and stays connected with their church. If you’re going to get back to sustained health, though, you have to push against that natural urge. You have to move forward with confidence. You actually have to implement the change, recognizing you’re going to continue to lose people until you get back to a place of health as a church.
Yeah. And just a little upside, cause you know how I’m wired, you’re also going to keep some people. You’re also going to keep some people. And the ones that you keep are going to be on mission with you, and they’re going to be aligned, you know, at least 80% with your vision. That’s why they’re there. And you’re going to have a solid core to lead with. So, so the leader, and in this case the pastor, has to lead the change, but what’s the second change churches have to make to move out of preservation and return to sustained health?
Again, this one, Amy, probably sounds pretty obvious, but it’s key. You can’t ignore problems and expect them to go away. Again, one of the common characteristics of churches in preservation mode is that they tend to blame the church’s problems on things that are beyond their control. So as examples, they’ll blame young people for leaving the church, or they’ll blame the church down the street that they’re stealing our members, or they’ll blame their denomination for restrictions that limit how they can engage ministry, or they’ll blame the culture around us because culture is changing and that’s negatively impacting the church, or in the current season, they’ll blame the pandemic. None of that does any good because all of those things are beyond our control. Instead we need to get clear about what we can control, and I’m going to link every one of these next five common attributes that we see in churches that are in decline to the things that we can control as churches. So these are five attributes that we see in churches that are in decline. Number one, they lack a focused, compelling vision for the future. Again, why do we exist? Where are we going in the future? You can control this because you can clarify your purpose and you can clarify your vision for the future. So let’s take control of that. Here’s the second attribute. They have an inward focus and you can change that. You have control over that because you can clarify your ministry strategy to reach people who are outside the church and outside the faith. The third attribute of churches in decline that we find is they don’t have a clear discipleship path. Again, you can control this. You can clarify how you’re going to encourage people to become more like Jesus. What are the next steps towards Jesus that you’re encouraging them to take? Fourth attribute of churches in decline is that they’re complex. And if there isn’t a time to take care of this, I don’t know when you’re going to get it because we’re hearing from all kinds of churches that they’ve been forced to simplify in this season. And so you have control over this. You can clarify how you’re going to invest your time and people resources. Get more focused. Use this time to simplify. And then the fifth attribute that we commonly see in churches that are in decline is that they don’t have strong leadership. Again, you can do something about this. You can clarify your decision rights. And if you don’t know what that’s about, go back and listen to the episode three or four episodes ago, Amy walked through how we engage clear decision rights in our churches. You can do that so that your leaders are really empowered to lead. So you can consider each of these, think about them as warning lights for your churches. If one turns on, that should get your attention. If more than one is flashing, you have a problem. If all of them lit up, you’re in crisis right now, but you can address every one of these. Here’s the challenge. Most churches who find themselves in the stage of the church life cycle are focusing on preserving what they’ve always done in the past. And that’s how the stage gets their name. If the warning lights start to go off, you have to address them. So I’ve shared Amy and actually wrote about this in The Unstuck Church book. I’m not really a car buff, but I appreciate driving good, quality cars. The only problem is I’ve been in ministry for way too long. And so I drive quality cars, but they’re usually very old quality cards. And my favorite car that I ever had was an Audi. And I don’t know, some of the listeners may have driven Audis in the past. They’re great cars, but they’re kind of notorious, at least the older models, the check engine light was on all the time. And they were years ago, it was a challenge. I don’t know if it is as much anymore, but because it was a foreign automobile, finding somebody that could repair them, take care of the check engine light was a challenge. I found a mechanic though, that was not too far from where we lived. This was when we lived in Indiana, and the check engine light would go on, I’d drive it to my mechanic friend. My mechanic friend would work his magic, and the check engine light would be off for awhile. And then it would turn back on, and I’d take it back to my mechanic. And you know, this was just getting frustrating. So eventually the check engine light came on again, and I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but I was just frustrated with the cycle. And so I walked into the garage, I found electrical tape. I cut off a piece of black electrical tape. I covered the check engine light, and that fixed my problem.
How old were you when you did that?
That fixed the problem though, Amy, for two weeks and then the car wouldn’t start, and I had to have it towed to my mechanic friend. And this time he said, Mr. Morgan, I’m sorry to tell you, but in order to turn the check engine light off this time, it’s going to cost you several thousands of dollars. And so the point of the story is number one, I’m stupid mechanically. But secondly, that you just can’t cover the warning signs that are happening in your car or in your churches. You actually have to address them. And if you don’t, the warning signs will start to multiply and eventually the car won’t start. So when the warning light starts to turn on, churches often try to cover up those warnings rather than dealing with the problems. They’re hoping that they’ll just go away and that’s when leaders need to step up and take the next steps to lead change. You actually have to do things differently to get different results.
That’s right. All right, well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah, Amy, I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years. We’ve worked with hundreds of churches now, and here’s what I know to be true. Stuck churches don’t drift back to health. Change needs to happen. And that’s what we do at The Unstuck Group. We help churches lead through that type of change. And the good news is, even though we’re not traveling, we’re working with dozens of churches using our virtual process to help churches figure out what does our strategy need to look like? And what does the structure need to look like going forward? And we have a 90-day process to help church kind of assess where they are, plan for the future, and then build a structure to support where they’re going in the future. And then after that 90 days, there’s a monthly coaching process to help pastors, either senior pastors or executive pastors, navigate this change. So if we can help you, we would love to do that. Reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com. Let us know how we can help you. And we want to encourage you and walk alongside you as you’re helping your churches return to sustained health.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, at The Unstuck Group we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. If that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. If this podcast has been helpful for you, we would love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode to finish out our series. Until then, have a great week.