When I was young, my aunt purchased a brand new car. I didn’t have a car yet, so even though it wasn’t red and it had 4 doors instead of 2, I thought it was really cool. And because she had a car and I didn’t, she by default was cool, too.
Everything was cool until she forgot to change the oil. Truth be told, she never changed the oil. From the day she drove the car off the lot to the day it died (which was much, much sooner than it should have), that car never experienced a single oil change. Routine maintenance wasn’t her strong suit. And most of us are just like her. We put off going to the doctor for our annual visit, we postpone going to the dentist for our 6-month check up, and yes we put off routine maintenance on our automobiles.
We just keep going until it hurts enough that we are forced to stop and go in for a check-up.
Unfortunately most church leadership teams operate the same way. They put off routine check ups and maintenance until it’s too late and decline starts to set in. What if there were early warning signs (flashing lights on the dashboard) that helped indicate that trouble was ahead? In my experience coaching church leaders and consulting with churches across the country I’ve seen the following 10 indicators of an impending decline over and over again.
1. High Staff Turnover
When a church has trouble keeping staff, the church is in trouble. Some attrition is natural over time as the church grows, the staffing structures adjust, leaders hit lids, or vision shifts. But when turnover shifts from being a season to being the norm there is a cultural problem at play.
2. Fuzzy Vision
Without a doubt the single most life-threatening indicator that a church is in trouble is a lack of clarity. Clarity provides a church with the power to make decisions efficiently and align the organizational components of the church to move forward. If you don’t know where you’re going, and can’t state it clearly, you’ve got no chance to get there.
When the church is growing, it’s exciting! Staff members are hired, ministries are started, buildings are built and people are meeting Jesus! But it’s not as exciting when all of that growth and fun naturally lead to complexity. Growth naturally leads to complexity and complexity slows everything down.
4. Inward Focus
I’ve said this many times before: The most dangerous place a church can be in its life cycle is when the ministry they are doing is having a big impact with insiders (people who already know Jesus and are inside the church) but a low impact with outsiders (people who don’t know Jesus yet). It’s dangerous because it’s comfortable. It feels like things are going well and you have momentum because people are happy, they’re regularly attending, and they seem to be “all in” with what you’re doing. But if you aren’t reaching new people, your church or ministry is already moving towards unhealthiness and decline.
5. Defending the Past
When a church is busy defending the past instead of building the future, it is headed for decline. When a church becomes risk-averse and starts making choices based on who they are going to keep as opposed to who they are going to reach, the church is in trouble. The real danger in playing defense is that it becomes a cultural mindset that actually stands in opposition to the Gospel. You see, the Gospel was never meant to be, nor does it need to be defended. It’s intended to be unleashed.
6. No Strategic Plan
Strategy answers the question, “How are we going to get there?” It’s planning for tomorrow today. Little is more demoralizing to a church staff team than a bunch of empty inspirational talk that never materializes into real courageous action.
7. Leadership Void
There are a lot of challenges facing the modern church, but perhaps the greatest challenge is a leadership challenge. The modern church is simply an anti-leadership organization. It doesn’t attract, develop or keep leaders. Leaders by their very nature are change agents. Because the unstated goal of most churches is to preserve the past, church leaders often times find themselves fighting the family instead of fighting the enemy.
8. No Spiritual Maturity Pathway
I’ve observed that some churches are stuck or declining not because they have a difficult time attracting or introducing new people to Jesus but because they have no plan in place to move people towards spiritual maturity, or the plan they’re working is broken.
9. Policy Trumps People
Policies shrink the box of creativity. They set the standard for how we do what we do every time we do it. Policies tell everybody in the organization what they can’t do. Leaders are solutions-oriented, not excuse or problem-oriented. A church with a lot of policies will consistently find it difficult to attract and keep good leaders. It’s very possible to policy your way right into decline.
10. Volunteer Scarcity
One of the things we’ve learned through our research at The Unstuck Group is that the average church in America is mobilizing somewhere around 43% of their adult and student population in volunteer opportunities. The reason it is so critical for churches to address this and take steps to move their culture in the right direction is because volunteering is discipleship. It’s not about filling roles and getting ministry done through people. It’s not about what we want from people, but rather what we want for people. It is discipleship. Because volunteering and living an others-first life is the very essence of what it means to live like Jesus.
It would probably be worth some time discussing this list with the Senior Leadership Team at your church and evaluating where your church measures up in each of these 10 areas of health.
What can we do about it? Engage the The Unstuck Group in a Ministry Health Assessment. Discover islands of strength to build on and areas of opportunity to work on before they become serious and decline sets in.