January 18, 2023

Pruning: How to Bury a Ministry Program & Communicate Change – Episode 280 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

e280 how to bury a ministry program and communicate change

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Pruning: How to Slim Down Your Ministry in 2023 (Part 3)

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George Bernard Shaw once said that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it’s taken place.” When it comes to pruning ministries in your church, communication can be tricky to say the least. 

In the first two episodes of this series, we discussed the critical steps needed to kick off the pruning process and work towards health again. So, once you’ve built consensus on your team and gained clarity about what to prune, how should pastors and church leaders appropriately “bury a ministry” and communicate the change? 


In our consulting work throughout the last decade, we’ve helped countless churches engage this process of pruning from start to finish. In this episode, Amy and I will talk through some proven strategies to move forward in the pruning process with consideration and courage. 

We’ll also share practical steps to bury a ministry with grace and offer our best strategies for communicating programming changes within your church. Tune in as we discuss:

  • 5 key steps to bury a ministry program
  • 4 pieces of encouragement for the pruning process
  • 10 best practices for leading & communicating change
There will always be people who do not agree with the decision to bury a ministry—but sometimes in order to gain, you have to lose. Stay true to God, stay true to the vision, and the rest will fall into place. [episode 280] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet When a new strategy or new plan hits obstacles, the temptation is to go back to what “we used to do.” Stay committed to the hard decision. Once a ministry is buried, it’s time to move on and see what God has next. [episode 280] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Pruning is about stewardship. Ask yourself, “What’s the best stewardship of God’s limited resources to see the most life change?” [episode 280] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Even the healthiest of changes can be difficult for anyone who is on the receiving end. Keep your focus on the bigger picture. Will more people be reached in the end? If so, take courage and act. [episode 280] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet
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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.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. George Bernard Shaw once said that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it’s taken place.” When it comes to pruning ministries in your church, communication can be tricky to say the least. In this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy share some practical steps to take when you need to communicate programming changes within your church. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, we want to invite you to head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, each week you’re gonna get resources to go along with that week’s episode, including the Leader Conversation Guide, some bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Before we get to this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:56):

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 assistance 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.

Amy (02:13):

Well, earlier this month, we launched the 2023 Unstuck Church Get Healthy Again Challenge. And Tony, in the previous episodes of this series, you talked about the accountability piece, right? And knowing your vital signs and engaging the right exercises to get healthy. Last week though, you spent some focused time on shedding those extra ministry programs and events that may be causing churches to get stuck. Can you recap the pruning process that we discussed last week?

Tony (02:37):

Yeah. I do think it’s good for you to refer to this as a pruning process because each of these steps is critical to helping your church get healthy again. And we talked about three steps in this order. You have to build consensus among your leadership. Begin by finding agreement with your ministry leaders that your ministry programming is complex, and that it does need to become more focused. Secondly, we talked about clarifying what’s at the foundation of your ministry, and that included confirming your mission, determining who you’re trying to reach, establishing your reach strategy, and your spiritual formation path. And then number three, we talked about starting to talk with leaders about what might be pruned and that included letting ministry teams recommend program and event reductions first. Then evaluating the remaining programming and events from the perspective of the entire church. All of that before you prepare your pruning plan. And with everything you identify at either the ministry level or the all church level that is going to be considered for pruning, we talked about placing those programs in one of three categories. The stop immediately category. The pause and reevaluate at a future date. And Amy, that is such a brilliant strategy. I’ve seen so many churches that were hesitant about stopping something, but all they communicated is we’re gonna pause this ministry, this event, for a season. And it made it a lot easier kind of, without the emotions to evaluate, are we going to relaunch this ministry or not? And then the third category we talked about is the pause and relaunch category. But as we mentioned last week, you will want to use that pause and relaunch category sparingly. But there’s certainly a place for refreshing and relaunching ministry programs and events if they’re going to help you accomplish the mission that God’s called you to.

Amy (04:37):

Well, let’s pick up today’s conversation there. Once you’ve confirmed what you are going to stop doing, Tony, how should pastors and church leaders communicate those types of changes?

Tony (04:47):

Amy, several years ago, one of our mutual friends, Chad Hunt, who is also, he’s in ministry full-time, but he’s also a fellow ministry consultant at The Unstuck Group. Chad recommended a healthy process for ending ministry programs and events. And by the way, The Unstuck Group, it’s Chad’s side hustle. He is also the lead pastor of Victory Hill Church, which is near Bowling Green, Kentucky. And Chad, he’s served in ministry roles with churches for over 25 years now. So I guess you could say Chad’s an old guy like us, Amy. Oh, I’m sorry. Like me, Amy.

Amy (05:25):

Wait. Wait. Like you.

Tony (05:27):

Yes, that’s right. But all that to say, he has some personal experience helping people process the ending of ministry programs and events. And along those lines, Chad recommends you consider, let’s call these “end of life” steps to help people process ministry pruning changes in our churches. He calls the first step, the determination phase. And this is where we just kind of check the pulse, the ministry, or the event. And it goes back to something you mentioned last week, that the strategies that we’re using the ministries, the programs, the events that we’re engaging. Are we doing them just because we’ve always done them, or are they actually producing results? Are they producing life change? So he talks about, we need to make that determination. Then we need to make a pronouncement. So we just need to be honest. We need to call it what it is. And that may mean you have to communicate that the ministry or event is no longer producing the fruit that it once did. Then thirdly, we need to make arrangements. And Amy, you know, when someone passes away the immediate family members, they make the final funeral arrangements. And similarly, if we’re pruning a ministry program, where it’s appropriate, we need to invite those that were closest to the ministry or the event to be a part of planning that kind of end of life celebration. Then we actually celebrate the funeral. And there are some people who arrange private funerals for family only, and then others, they arrange public funerals for family and friends. And in this example, the team needs to decide what kind of funeral is needed. For example, a ministry that had high visibility in the church would probably require some sort of public statement, some announcement, or even celebration about the things that that ministry accomplished in the past. In other instances, perhaps it’s just behind the scenes with a smaller gathering, a smaller ministry team, that can be handled more privately with those that were closest to that smaller ministry. And then finally, Chad talks about, well, you have to have a burial. You need to write it in stone. In other words, once the ministry is buried, it’s written in stone, meaning we aren’t going back there. So once the ministry or the program event is buried, you just need to make it clear we’re not going to unbury something. This is an imperative because when a new strategy or a new plan hits those initial obstacles, the natural tendency and temptation for most churches is to go back to what we used to do. So it’s about determination, making the pronouncement, determining what are the arrangements gonna look like, celebrating the funeral, and then actually bearing whatever needs to be pruned.

Amy (08:52):

Even with all that intentionality around communicating and celebrating a ministry or program that you’re stopping, there’s still gonna be grief. I think that’s important to mention too. So how should a pastor respond to that?

Tony (09:04):

Yeah. Well, you know, Chad, again, in his pastoral ministries, has been through a lot of these experiences. And he mentioned that regardless of how well a ministry funeral is planned, there will always be a level of grief involved. There’s just no question about that, Amy. I just was at a recent celebration of somebody’s long life, and it was a great celebration, but there was grief involved as well. And this is especially true in this context of pruning ministries. If a ministry has been around for a lot of years and experienced a season in the past where it was booming and highly visible, there are some things that we just, we need to have consideration for the people that are experiencing that grief. And so, I would just say for pastors/leaders that are listening. First, you just, you need to have courage. You need to stay committed to these hard decisions. And I recognize these are hard decisions, but in many ways, you have to lose in order to gain. In other words, there will always be people who do not agree with leadership’s decision to bury a ministry. And as a result, some people will threaten to leave the church even. But it’s important to understand that in order to gain, sometimes you do have to lose. So don’t allow people to take you hostage. Sometimes losing programs does mean losing some people, but you just need to stay true. You need to stay committed to what God has for you and your church, the mission, the vision that he’s given you, and the rest will eventually fall into place. And then you do, you have to celebrate life. Chad shared it this way. One of the biggest mistakes he said that I’ve made is to treat a dead ministry like it was never important. It’s really common, he said, to hear people share meaningful memories at a funeral, and it seems to encourage and comfort the family who lost a loved one. You have to offer that opportunity for them to share, for them to celebrate. And likewise, it’s important to celebrate the wins of yesterday of a former ministry and allow those who were involved to share their stories as well. But he continued, “Once a ministry is buried, it is time to let it rest in peace, meaning it’s time to move on and see what God has next. And we need to determine what those living vibrant ministries are that can best use the resources that maybe we were once used for the ministries that we are now pruning.”

Amy (11:36):

Sure. I love that analogy. It’s so helpful. It might also be helpful to hear other pastors who have ended ministry programs or events. Tony, do you have any other strategies you can share?

Tony (11:46):

Well, Amy, yeah. I mean, I have a number of examples of other pastors and church leaders that we’ve served through the years. I mean, you and I together have been through so many examples of churches pruning ministries and programs. I was just reflecting the other day on some of the examples of churches that I’ve worked with that went through pruning Sunday school classes, pruning Christian Schools, pruning Sunday night services, pruning women’s bible studies, children’s choirs, men’s ministries, multi-site closures, community outreach events. Even Awana was pruned in one of the churches I was working with. Which, when that happened, I was reflecting. We have four kids. Our daughter, Abby, when she was very young, we were driving down the street and there was a church that was advertising their Awana program. And she saw the sign and she said, daddy, I thought Awana was illegal. She was thinking it said marijuana, but it said awana. But yeah. Anyways, even Awana was pruned. So let me try to hit as many of these strategies that I’ve seen in churches that have gone through pruning as many as I can get through. And hopefully this will be an encouragement to you when your church needs to stop a ministry or event. So, as one example. We saw one church that clearly defined expectations for measuring the success of ministries before the ministry started. So before they would launch an event, before they would start a new ministry, they would clearly define what’s the win? And when everyone is clear on what the win looks like from the very beginning, it then helps to remove the emotional impact of ending a ministry that may not be successful. Another idea we saw a church use when it came to pruning, they engaged key stakeholders early. So, you know, again, who are your leaders? Who are those influencers that most impact the kind of the vibe within the church when change is coming? And make sure that they’re included early in the conversation. Present the challenge to them early so that they can be involved in developing and then owning the solutions as well. Amy, I’ve learned sometimes the biggest, maybe antagonistic people in my life around certain issues, it was actually better for me to involve them early on in figuring out the solutions because then they were a part of making the solutions happen. They were a part of the change. A third idea I’ve seen for churches that are going through pruning is really don’t delay before or after initiating the change. The most common refrain I’ve heard from those who have done this before is that they should have acted sooner, and they should not have let the change process drag on as long as they did. So when you commit to pruning, do it. Don’t hesitate and make sure that that process moves forward rather quickly. Another idea, communicate openly and honestly, but do that with kindness. The communications need to be sequenced with the right people at the right time, hearing the right information. And in every one of those conversations, you do need to communicate the why behind the change. Why is it that we’re pruning? And commonly, my suspicion is the reason why you’re doing that is so that you can focus more people’s time, attention, resources on the things that are producing the most fruit in ministry. And then another idea, Amy, is just to begin with one-on-one conversations before meeting with groups of people. You want to give key individuals the opportunity to identify questions that need to be addressed and then allow them to speak into what the solutions might look like. And by doing that, by asking them who is going to be most impacted by the change that you’re about ready to make, that will give you then maybe some clues as to what needs to be addressed when you start to meet with groups of people and process with groups of people the change that’s about ready to happen.

Amy (16:10):

Yeah. I love those thoughts. Throughout all of this, Tony. It’s just you have to do a lot of thinking and a lot of planning going into stopping things.

Tony (16:20):

As we mentioned at the top of the podcast, our friends of 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 assistant 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.

Amy (17:04):

What are some other strategies you’ve seen pastors use when a church needs to stop a ministry or event?

Tony (17:09):

Yeah, so another example. Just replace what you’re ending with a better option, and make sure you’re clear about that from the beginning of the conversation about pruning a ministry or a program. I mean, what was the underlying value, as an example, behind the ministry or event that you’re stopping? It’s very possible that that value is still important to the ministry. It just needs to be revived with a new strategy or a new initiative to move that value forward for that value to get more engagement as far as the leadership and the ministry, your mission, is concerned. A second thing that we’ve seen: the top leader really does need to lead the change process. The senior or lead pastor has to be the primary leader anytime significant change is involved. The challenge, of course, is that the senior pastors, Amy, they’re often people pleasers. And because of that, they may not be inclined to take this on themselves, but really, as the leader of the ministry, you have to be the one to lead change. You can’t designate this to somebody else. Another, I mean, this is just good principles we’ve seen in other churches that have gone through pruning. You should recognize that this is a stewardship matter and ask yourself, what’s the best stewardship of God’s limited resources? And with limited money, volunteers, space communications focus, leadership, staff, what’s the wisest investment to see the most life change? Another best practice is to take a break rather than canceling immediately. I referred to this earlier. You know, whether it’s a Sunday evening service or that Awana program or a special event that you’ve done for several years, just push the pause button. Take a break to try test drive something new. You don’t have to commit to canceling it forever until people have the opportunity to see what a better future might look like. And then lastly, you do. You have to be courageous. And we’ve seen this every time a church has gone through a pruning process, especially the lead pastor, those senior leaders in the church, you have to be courageous. I mean, change, even the healthiest of changes, is difficult for anyone who is on the receiving end of that change. And because of that, you have to keep your focus on the bigger picture and just need to go back to the question, will more people be reached in the end if we make this change, if we engage this pruning process? And if the answer to that is yes, you need to take courage and you need to follow through and act. And Amy, I mean, these are all just good examples. This is all good coaching, but let me provide this an additional encouragement. The more you practice pruning while also test driving new strategies to accomplish your mission as a church, the easier it will be to do this over time. In other words, your leaders, your staff team, your congregation will become accustomed to these types of changes. They’ll grow accustomed to trying some things. And when they don’t produce the results we’re expecting, then we stop those and we try something else. And the more that you do this, the easier it’s going to be. And maybe the last encouragement is, you can do this. If you’re listening, if you’re a pastor, a church leader, you can do this. I’ve seen other pastors and church leaders do this. You can do this as well.

Amy (20:44):

Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (20:46):

Well, again, I do hope you’ll commit to joining the 2023 Get Healthy Again Challenge. Amy, I just confirmed this. We worked directly with exactly 100 churches throughout the US and other countries around the world in the last 12 months. And we helped all of those churches with ministry strategy and structure. And for many, that also included helping them through a pruning process. So if you need a coach or you need that accountability partner to succeed in this Get Healthy Again Challenge, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com.

Sean (21:24):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. 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. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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