How to Slim Down Your Ministry in 2023
The beginning of a new year means new goals, dreams, and resolutions. For many of us, this is a time when we evaluate our health, goals, and habits, and think about what we would like to change.
This new year, The Unstuck Group wants to help you get your church as healthy as it’s ever been, too! That’s why this week Amy and I are kicking off a new series and a challenge for churches: the “2023 Unstuck Church Get Healthy Again Challenge.”
PRUNING: GET HEALTHY AGAIN IN 2023
A new year brings the chance of change and a fresh start. We want to help you assess your health as a church—and then establish some new year’s resolutions to be a healthier version of your church this year. To start, we’ll talk about the things that need to be stopped or shed in order to get healthy.
Listen in as Amy and I unpack:
- Establishing our “before” reality
- 4 key steps for getting healthy again
- Why we have to prune to get and stay healthy
- The 3 characteristics of Biblical pruning
This Episode is Sponsored by BELAY:
Poorly managed church finances can hurt a pastor’s ability to lead church members and reach the local community. To help you figure out where to start, BELAY is offering its resource, 4 Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches, to our listeners for free to help you identify the four biggest things that wreck churches when it comes to their finances—and what you can do to avoid them. To learn more, visit belaysolutions.com.
Other Episodes in this Series
- Pruning: How Do We Know What to Stop? – Episode 279
- Pruning: How to Bury a Ministry Program & Communicate Change – Episode 280
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Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. The beginning of a new year means new goals, dreams, and resolutions. And in 2023, The Unstuck Group wants to help you get your church as healthy as it’s ever been. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy are kicking off a new series and a challenge for churches at the start of 2023. Before we get into this week’s episode, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, the Leader Conversation Guide, bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we get into this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.
No matter what organization you lead, finances are paramount to your success. And church finances aren’t any different. Poorly managed church finances can hurt a pastor’s ability to lead church members and to reach the local community. After all, very little will wreck the movement of God more than weak financial policies and workflows. Thankfully, it’s much easier to make changes now before your church is in the headlines than to try to reestablish those relationships after you’ve been through a costly financial misstep. And that’s where our friends at Belay can help. Belay, a modern church staffing organization with fractional US-based accounting and virtual assistant services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. To help you figure out where to start, Belay is offering its resource “Four Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches” to our listeners for free to help you identify the four biggest things we see wreck churches when it comes to their finances and what you can do to avoid them. Just text unstuck, that’s u-n-s-t-u-c-k to 55123 to get back to growing your church with Belay.
Well, hey, Tony, it’s good to be back after the holidays. Did you have a good season?
I did, yes. All kinds of good family time. I didn’t have to listen to as much Christmas music as usual, so that’s always a win for me over the holiday seasons.
Yeah, our radio station here in Minnesota started playing Christmas music, I believe, in October 24/7. So I’m always ready for that to end, but it’s January now. And you know, there’s not a lot that I love about January, living here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, but I do like the fresh mindset every year of just starting a new year. You know, it’s a time for fresh starts. There’s New Year’s resolutions. You can make new choices. And I know for many of us, this is a time when we evaluate our goals, right? And our habits, and we think about what we might like to change. And most of those changes, at least in my household, tend to be around health and wellbeing, and of course, our physical health, right? Our pace. Our rhythms. What’s most important. And it’s all about being a healthier person, right? So I think, Tony, that’s what we’re gonna help churches do over these next few weeks.
Yeah, that’s right, Amy. We wanna help you assess your health as a church and then establish some New Year’s resolutions to be healthier, to be a healthier version of the church in this coming year. And I’ve heard from several of you about this commitment to get back into shape in 2023, and it’s probably because some of you have looked in the mirror recently and determined maybe there are some things that need to be shed, some new muscles that need to be activated and some new habits that’ll point you toward a healthier path forward. In fact, I recently read a quote by James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, and he said, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” And I think that’s true of our churches as well. Every action you take as you lead your church is a vote for the type of church you wish to become. So as you assess where your ministry is at the start of this new year, maybe some of these are signaling some unhealthy patterns. For example, maybe you are carrying a few more events on your ministry calendar, and that’s slowing you down. Or maybe you have too many ministry programs that are competing for people’s time and attention and financial resources, volunteers and leaders and so on. And maybe it’s time to shed some of those extra pounds, if you will. Maybe the financial constraints of being overstaffed and under volunteered are finally starting to catch up with you. And because of that, you can’t run as fast as you used to. Or maybe you have too many people who have a voice and a vote in decision making. And you have so many people talking about ministry in board meetings and committee meetings and other leadership meetings that you can’t find enough leaders and volunteers to actually do the work of God. Well, with that in mind, we’re going to start the 2023 Unstuck Church Get Healthy Again Challenge. Amy, this is gonna be a lot of fun.
I think it will.
Yeah. Before you do anything though, let’s establish our “before” reality. You might even consider taking some before pictures. Take pictures of those things that remind you that these changes need to be made. And then get a good read on your church vital signs. It’s kind of like when you go to your annual physical. Doctors take some blood. They look at some data points to establish where you are currently. So they’re trying to find out where you’re healthy and where you might be sick. For me, a couple years back, I was at a healthy weight, but my cholesterol told a different story, Amy, and looking at your numbers, because that will help you establish your goal for your physical health. This is also important for ministry health. And so when we make some of the changes that we’re talking about, hopefully by monitoring those health metrics on the other side of these changes, we can look back at the improvements we’ve made in our health as a ministry as well.
Tony, I can’t wait to see those before and after pictures.
In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about the things that need to be stopped or shed in order to get healthy. But before we get to that, what should a get healthy again plan look like, Tony?
Yeah. So, I’m gonna make this four easy steps to getting healthy. This kind of sounds like something you would see in an infomercial on television about this time of year. But we’re gonna talk about four easy steps to getting healthy again for our ministries. And by the way, it’s in this order. So the first is we actually need an accountability partner for this. We need someone who is not on our church team, and maybe that might include as an example, a pastor or a church leader at another church, or maybe it’s a business leader in your community. I might recommend The Unstuck Group. I mean, we can provide that for you as well, but you need someone who is objective and not emotionally attached to your current health condition. And we need this person to help you create a plan and then stick to your plan. You won’t follow through if you don’t have someone holding you accountable for the commitment that you’ve made to get healthy again. So that’s the first: find an accountability partner. The second easy step is to know your vital signs. And I referred to this a bit earlier. We need to know how many salvations and adult and student baptisms are we seeing in our ministry currently? What’s our worship attendance? How are people engaging in generosity by giving to the ministry of our church? How many people are connecting in groups and serving? How many new people are we reaching as a ministry? And as I just mentioned, you need to have a clear before picture. You can’t just start a new health plan without ever knowing what your starting numbers are. So how will you know that your 2023 health plans are actually working? And what if they are working? Without that knowledge, you can’t celebrate and reinforce those healthy habits. The third easy step, Amy, is to engage the right exercises to build your core muscles. I mean, for some of you, measuring and monitoring your vital signs may actually be one of those exercises that we have to start. But for others, you may need to focus on and strengthen those core muscles. They may include exercises to confirm who you’re focused on reaching, clarifying your reach strategy, defining your spiritual formation strategy, building a team that models the behaviors that you’re trying to shape in your church’s culture and confirming your priorities for the next 12 months. And by the way, if you want a little bit of extra help on that, you can go back and listen to our October podcast series, episodes 265 through 268, where we talked about all of those exercises to help you build new muscles. And then lastly, since this week’s podcast is focused on what you need to stop doing or shed, you’re going to have to embrace pruning. So churches, you know, they’re just notoriously bad about adding ministries. That’s not a bad thing. And adding programs. That may not be a bad thing. And adding events, I mean, that may not be a bad thing, but here’s what’s bad. It’s when we add ministries, programs and events, and we never stop doing anything. Some churches are so over programmed and so over event-ed that they may need more than a simple pruning. They may need a prune juicing, if you know what I mean, Amy.
I do know what you mean. Yes.
Okay. All right. So if you continue to add more and more and never prune, then you’re going to get unhealthy. And stuck churches have more ministries. Stuck churches have more events. Stuck churches have more staff. Stuck churches have more people in meetings rather than engaging the mission. And if we always add but never prune, we’re just not gonna get into shape, and our ministry will not be healthy.
And Tony, I’m optimistic about this pruning because I think almost every church going through the pandemic had to stop things. And I think they had a new reality coming out of that that probably was better than before. So I’m optimistic. But let me review those four easy steps to get healthy again, before we dive into our next conversation. Find an accountability partner. Number two, know your current vital signs. Three, engage the right exercises to build your core muscles. And four, embrace pruning. So we’re gonna spend the next few weeks really focused on that fourth step, Tony, pruning. And does it surprise you that churches are so hesitant or maybe even opposed to practicing pruning?
Yeah, Amy, as you know, I primarily work with churches, but I do have the opportunity from time to time to provide consulting and coaching to business leaders. And here’s what’s crazy. In healthy businesses I’ve served, they practice many biblical principles, and sometimes without even realizing it. But at the same time, many stuck churches I engage with are unwilling to embrace those same biblical principles. And pruning is certainly one example of that. We see this principle described in many passages in the Bible. But let me highlight a couple. First, let’s take a look at what happens when pruning isn’t practiced. This is Isaiah 5:6. And in Isaiah it says this, “I will make it a wild place where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed. A place overgrown with briars and thorns.” It’s describing the picture of what happens when pruning doesn’t happen. And when we don’t practice pruning, eventually the briars and the thorns take over. And businesses get this. And that’s why they routinely prune. If they don’t, they know that their business will lose focus. The business will be overgrown with multitudes of products and services. They’ll experience vision creep, and they’re going to continue to hold on to underperforming people on their team. And that lack of focus will ultimately impact the business’s bottom line. Now, at the same time, the Bible explains what proactive pruning looks like. John 15:2 is a great example of this. And in that verse, it suggests that “he cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” And sometimes churches I serve are experiencing plateau and decline, and they will explain this away as a season of pruning. Well, you know, Amy, in a handful of rare instances, pruning has been a factor that has led to a temporary plateau or a decline. But I would say more oftentimes than not, the church is experiencing plateau and decline because of several factors, including the fact that they have not pruned.
They’re actually experiencing instead just it’s unhealthy decline.
Well, help us out there. What’s the difference, Tony, between pruning and unhealthy decline?
Yeah. So let’s go back to John 15:2 again. Again, this is a picture of proactive pruning. And the verse shared, “he cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so that they will produce even more.” And so, specifically biblical pruning has these three characteristics. First, the pruning is intentional. It begins with “he cuts.” Someone is intentionally cutting off branches. Intentionally the size of the plant is being reduced. But it’s because the gardener has intentionally cut off those branches. So if you’re experiencing decline as a church, but it’s not the result of intentional action you’ve taken, that’s not pruning. It’s just decline. And it’s probably unhealthy decline. The second principle we see here is that pruning involves both cutting back what’s unhealthy and what’s healthy. For the pruning to be effective, we have to cut back the dead and unhealthy branches. But we almost always have to also cut back the good things that might prevent us from experiencing the most fruit. And churches rarely are willing to cut back the good ministries that are producing some fruit, even though they could be preventing the church from maximizing its potential health and impact. And then the third principle is that pruning eventually does produce more fruit. And every healthy organization knows that the power of pruning or getting focused in the short run will produce long-term results. But if your church is plateaued or declining and that extends from months to years without new fruit, new health, you haven’t experienced pruning, again, you’re probably just stuck. And that’s likely from unhealthy decline.
You know, as you’re talking, it brings me back to my summer run when I garden, Tony. And for anyone out there who grows tomatoes, what, and it happens in cucumbers and others, but tomatoes throw out these sucker branches all the time and you know, it hurts. You never like to prune because you love to grow things. Right? But those sucker branches, man, by August you have tomato plants that are so overgrown and tipping over. And it just gave me a picture. I think in some churches there’s little sucker branches that just start to grow and if you don’t nip ’em right at the beginning, actively, intentionally, you can see how it gets overgrown. But anyways, Tony, you mentioned…
And, yeah, Amy, on that note, I think what those sucker branches look like in churches, it’s an individual in the church that God gives a vision to do something so that their life will have an impact on others. And by the way, that’s a good thing. But what I’ve shared with pastors and other church leaders is we have to say yes and empower that person to go pursue whatever God’s telling them to do. But just because God’s given a person a call to a specific ministry doesn’t mean that he’s given the church a call to that same ministry.
Yeah. It’s amazing how many people think whatever that calling or vision is, it has to be run through and under the leadership of the church. Where really, just go do it. Just go be the body of Christ. And go where God’s calling you.
Yep. That’s right.
Well, you mentioned that healthy businesses practice pruning. What does pruning look like in that context, Tony?
Yeah. So I’ve seen healthy businesses prune in three specific ways. First, they routinely prune their long-term vision. They drop aspects of that vision that may produce some results, but prevent the business from maximizing its returns. So the mission of the business doesn’t change. There’s ongoing agreement for the why that the business exists. What periodically gets pruned though is where the business is going in the future. And healthy businesses maintain a big, clear and focused vision, and sometimes part of that vision gets pruned. Secondly, healthy businesses make it a practice of pruning products and services. They’ll eliminate products or services that either don’t produce an appropriate profit margin, or they’ll eliminate profitable offerings that pull from the products or services that generate the highest return. So if they can’t become best in class with a specific product or service, they’ll drop it to focus on those offerings that will produce the greatest returns. And then additionally here, healthy businesses routinely prune their team, their staff. It’s not that these staff don’t produce results or they aren’t good people, it’s just that the business knows that not all staff members who got them where they are will be able to grow with the business in the future. So sometimes businesses have to release good people in order to build great teams. It’s really part of the pruning principle that all healthy businesses seem to practice.
As we mentioned at the top of the podcast, our friends at Belay are offering a free copy of their resource “Four Costly Financial Mistakes for Churches.” And that’s exclusive to our podcast listeners today. Belay’s modern church staffing solutions have been helping busy church leaders delegate important financial details for over a decade. Their fractional US-based contractors provide accounting and virtual assistance services to level up your church through the power of delegation. Just text “unstuck”, that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123 to claim this exclusive offer and get back to growing your church with Belay.
Tony, if this is a biblical principle, why don’t all churches practice this, especially the churches that are stuck? What do you think those main reasons are?
Yeah, Amy, I think in many cases it’s primarily because of fear. Pastors and other church leaders are afraid to prune because they know that people in their churches like portions of the vision, the ministry programs or the people that may need to be pruned. So even if the pruning will ultimately help the overall health of the church produce more fruit in the long run, leaders are unwilling to do it because of the fear of how people will respond. They fear that people will leave the church and that giving will decline. And you know what? They’re right. Pruning in the church, if done right, will always cause some people to leave the church and with them will go the money that those people would contribute. It’s always going to happen. That’s actually, that’s a money back guarantee. Or you could could say that’s a money leaving guarantee. But if you prune, both people and money will leave. Some of those people will be good people and some of that giving will be good money, but it will always happen. You can’t practice biblical pruning and not cut back vision, ministry programs or people. And when you do that, you will always lose some good people and some good money in the short run. And that’s the key. But here’s what I can promise you. It’s not possible to grow a healthy church and ignore core biblical principles, including the practice of pruning. Healthy, thriving churches have learned that periodically you have to prune. And if pastors and church leaders prune using the model that we see in scripture, your ministry will bear more fruit in the long run. Your church will get healthy again. So let me be more specific. In The Unstuck Church, I write about three lifecycle phases of churches, churches that are in plateau or decline. And those phases include churches that are in maintenance, preservation, and life support. And what I’ve learned after serving hundreds of churches is that it’s impossible for a church to move from long-term plateau and decline to experiencing sustained health and growth without going through an intentional pruning process. In other words, healthy churches will not maximize the fruit that they could bear without practicing the biblical principle of pruning. And at the same time, I know that pruning is difficult. It takes leadership. It takes courage, but it’s something we have to do to produce fruit and to produce long-term health in our ministries.
Oh, well, that was a great start on this topic of pruning. Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up this first episode today?
I’m hoping that over the next three weeks here of this podcast, church leaders can take action on the unhealthy areas in their church. And I’m praying for courage and humility to lean in on the things that need to be changed. And I hope pastors sense that urgency, that this is the time to act. Going back to James Clear, who I quoted at the beginning of the podcast, here’s another quote that I love. He said, “If you’d like to do something bold with your life, you will have to choose to do something bold on a specific day. There’s no perfect day. There is no right time. But for the trajectory to change, there has to be one day when you simply make the choice.” So pastors, if you’d like to do something bold through your church, you will have to choose to do something bold on a specific day. And there’s no perfect day, there’s no right time. But for the trajectory to change, there has to be one day when you simply make the choice.
Well, thanks for joining us on the first podcast of the New Year. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team, and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.