Part 3 – How the Pandemic Is Accelerating Decline in Churches That Were Already on the Declining Side of the Typical Church Lifecycle
From our research with 15,000+ churches through the free Unstuck Church Assessment, more than 85% self-identified as being on the declining side of the typical church life cycle before this crisis began. And more discouraging—17% landed in “life support,” the last stop before a church closes its doors permanently.
Those churches are most susceptible to closing during normal circumstances, but in situations like we’re experiencing now? Things go bad even faster.
I suspect the number of churches in the Life Support phase will actually grow significantly in the coming weeks and months based on what all of us are wrestling with during the pandemic.
That said, there are some key characteristics that I wrote about in The Unstuck Church that can help you identify the warning signs your church is rapidly heading in this direction.
For instance, by this point, a church is typically bleeding both people and money. They’re constantly operating in crisis mode. There is routinely just one key family or a key donor keeping the doors open.
Broken systems and broken ministry strategies tend to hasten the decline that’s being experienced in the ministry.
But the BIG characteristic that you should watch out for is related to priority focus. This is what we see time and again:
They want to reach new people using old strategies and old methods.
And as you can imagine, that really doesn’t work.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we talked about how to recognize that your church is in Maintenance Phase or Preservation 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 Life Support phase. The last stop before a church closes its doors permanently. This one is no fun to talk about, in general, but we have actually had the privilege to walk with some churches through a turn around of this magnitude and have seen how God can work even when the prospect looks bleak.
In this conversation, Amy and I discuss…
- How to recognize the early warning signs your church is sliding towards Life Support
- 3 options for churches who find themselves in Life Support now, and how to evaluate which one is the right next step for your church
- What it takes to “relaunch,” and how we’ve seen it work in several real churches
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Accelerating Change: Maintenance Phase | Episode 155
- Accelerating Change: Preservation Phase | Episode 156
- The Unstuck Church Assessment
- The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health
- How Healthy Churches Take the Lead in the Merger | Episode 154
- How Joining Churches Take the Follower Role in a Successful Merger | Episode 155
- Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, Expanded + Updated Edition
- Merger Consulting
Get a clear perspective and clarify the future for a new ministry, together.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Have you ever wondered if your church is dying? Most churches never consider the possibility until it’s too late. Identifying whether your church is on life support is the easy part. Returning that church to health again can be especially difficult. But there is hope for dying churches if leaders are able to persevere through the change. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy wrap up our series on accelerating change with a discussion on how to identify if your church is dying and practical steps you can begin to take to return to health. Before you listen today though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Every week you’re going to get one email with resources to go along with this week’s episode, our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive, and sometimes 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, before we dive into this final episode of the series on accelerating change, could you just catch us up to speed on where we’ve been?
Yeah, Amy. In the first podcast episode in this series, we started by talking about the trends that were happening pre-COVID, as it relates to faith and church attendance. And then we started to compare those to the trends over the last couple of months, and needless to say the pre-COVID data wasn’t promising when it comes to those patterns around faith and church attendance. And it’s not exactly improving in recent months as a result of what we’ve experienced. And as I’ve mentioned in recent weeks in these episodes, what we’ve gone through over these last five months is probably not going to reverse the trends that we were seeing pre-COVID. It’s only going to accelerate the changes that churches were experiencing before the pandemic. So that’s what the conversation’s been about these last few episodes.
Yeah, in the beginning of this series, I pointed out that the principles that you wrote in your book, The Unstuck Church, they just seem even more applicable to what churches are experiencing today. Churches seem to be stuck in this season, and more and more churches seem to be exhibiting the characteristics of a church on the declining side of the life cycle. And so over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about churches that get stuck in the maintenance phase, the preservation phase, and this week, I’d like to unpack your thoughts around churches that get stuck in life support. What are some of the characteristics of these churches, Tony?
Yeah, I can’t wait, Amy, till we can get back to talking about the churches on the left side of the life cycle. Yeah. So regarding the churches in life support, you know, of the more than 15,000 churches that have taken The Unstuck Church Assessment, free online assessment by the way, if you haven’t done that already for your church, I would encourage you to do that. But of those churches, over 85% identified themselves as being on the declining side of the life cycle. And then of those churches, 17% landed in life support. And that, if that’s correct, then that may mean that there’s close to 60,000 churches across the country that are stuck in this phase of the church life cycle. And those churches, they’re most susceptible to closing in normal circumstances, hence the name life support. That’s why I used that when I was writing the book, The Unstuck Church, but in situations like we’re experiencing in recent months, I’m very concerned for these churches. And I suspect the number of churches in life support will actually grow significantly in the coming weeks and months based on what all of us are wrestling with during the season of the pandemic. That said, there are some key characteristics that I wrote about in The Unstuck Church, as it relates to churches that are in life support. So these are maybe some of the warning signs to be watching for. The first, by the time the church gets through all the phases of the life cycle and lands here. By this point, they’re typically bleeding both people and money. So they’re constantly operating in crisis mode as a result of that. And now we add the global pandemic to the mix. It’s definitely a church that’s dealing with crisis. A second characteristic, there routinely is just a key family or a key donor that’s keeping the doors open. And I guess if you look at it, that’s a good thing that there’s that person or family that is committed to the ongoing viability of the church. But honestly many times that key donor or that key family is actually creating some of the barriers too to what needs to happen for the church to reach a return to health. A third characteristic, it’s just broken systems and broken ministry strategies. And unfortunately, those broken systems and strategies tend to hasten the decline that’s being experienced in the ministry. But here’s the big characteristic. It’s around the priority focus. And by this point, the priority focus, it’s, and we see this time and time again, we want to reach people using old strategies and old methods. And as you can imagine, Amy, that really doesn’t work. The other factor here is there’s just financial crisis, and it’s usually then the primary trigger for a church recognizing we are finally in life support. And I wish it wasn’t the financial crisis that brings this recognition. I would have hoped that it would actually be a recognition that the ministry is not having the impact that it had in the past. But unfortunately, usually the trigger when churches reach out to us and they recognize that they’re in life support, it’s because finally the financial crisis has hit.
You know, it’s that priority focus on trying to reach people with old methods that actually stands out to me, especially in this season. Cause it, I mean, it almost demands that churches pivot and try some new ministry strategy.
Yeah. Amy, that’s very true. And I described it this way in The Unstuck Church book. Once a church ends up here, they either close their doors or they experience a relaunch. And many churches, and this is unfortunate, but many churches would choose to die rather than experience a rebirth. It’s that attachment to the past that leads to churches, ultimately experiencing a demise. And unfortunately traditions win over life transformation and, you know, I wish that weren’t true. But we see this happen too many times. And even in this season, we’re seeing churches double down. We were having the same conversation already this morning. We’re seeing churches double down on the way they’ve always done church. And that’s why we mentioned during the last couple of episodes, you really do have to be willing to embrace the necessary changes before your church lands in life support. Because if you wait until this phase, the changes are huge. I mean, it’s going to require big change in order to get back to health, and you almost have to become a completely different church if you ever hoped to return to sustain health as a ministry.
Yeah. Well, in your book, you described three changes that churches need to make if they find themselves in the life support phase. And I think we’ve got time to cover probably one of those changes today. Which one do you want to unpack?
So Amy here’s where that brings us then. If your church is in life support, uh, then you really only have two options. First, you can proceed as you have been. And if you do, the odds are pretty good that you’re going to continue to get the same results. And because of that, it’s very likely that your church will eventually die and close its doors, or the second option is that you do something that helps your church experience a new beginning. And so you need to start a brand new life cycle as a church. And, in the book I wrote about three options for you to move from a church that’s on life support to actually experiencing a relaunch and going back to start. And the first one is, this is going to sound crazy, but you have to fire yourselves. And this is what I mean by that. You could actually, if you find yourself in this position, you could pull your leadership together and try this exercise together. Imagine as a team that your entire leadership team has been removed and a new team is going to take over leading the ministry of your church. Now, before you go pack your boxes and move everything out, take a moment to write down the key issues that you’ve never tackled as a church. And talk about the changes that you wanted to make, but were too difficult to make. Basically we want you to help set the new leadership team up, so that they have understanding of what’s working, what’s broken and what’s missing. And then you need to communicate these new initiatives that need to be tackled and the things that the ministry needs to stop doing so that you can give focus to these new initiatives. And once the departing team has confirmed that new direction, then I want you to become that new leadership team. So you get to take over, you get to start over, but this time I want you to follow through with everything you just agreed to do when you were out of a job. And the reason this exercise is so helpful is that it helps remove all of the emotions that are connected with what really are the core issues and the new initiatives that need to be embraced as a ministry. It also eliminates the investment in ministries or strategies that you’ve engaged in the past that weren’t working. So you can just wipe the slate clean. And as a new leadership team, you won’t have those attachments because you’re starting fresh and that’s really what needs to happen for the church, in this case, under this option, to experience a brand new start, a brand new launch.
Yeah, I’ve actually seen this work, Tony. It’s not a perfect overlay, but I worked with a church that was absolutely entrenched in the past, especially the congregation. And while they maybe said they wanted new people to join the church. Honestly, they wanted the church to stay the same. They didn’t want to have anything changed and a lot of deep pockets at this church. And so when you mentioned sometimes those key donors can actually be a barrier. This church was definitely experiencing this, but you know, God got ahold of their lead pastor. And I actually think, Tony, it was through a podcast you did with Carey Neuhoff years ago. And as the two of you were talking about what a stuck church looks like that pastor just said, that’s us. And so God did the work in that leader first and really started to stir that change that needed to happen. And it’s a long story, but the new leadership team for this church was the lead pastor and four key lay leaders that really caught that vision. And they just heard from the Lord that there are so many people that God had placed around their church that they weren’t reaching and the way they were doing church right now, they never would. With the old methods, they would never reach them. And this small team led through some of the biggest changes I’ve ever seen a church lead through, and there were wounds and there were hurt. I was kinda laughing as you were using the term rebirth, you know, to relaunch something. Cause they had birthing pains. For sure. It was not pleasant as they went through it. And I’m sure the lead pastor, actually I know the lead pastor wanted to throw the towel in at times. But they did it. They did it. And I’m sure it felt thankless at times because when you disrupt something like this, your critics come out, but you know what? Here, three, four years later the legacy is there. There are people in their community that now know Jesus that didn’t know him five years ago. And it’s because of the tenacity and the commitment to the mission, the mission that God gave the church, that made this happen. And honestly the trajectory of hundreds of lives have been changed.
Yeah, Amy, in that church, as they were going through all of this change and the rebirth, was there disagreement about what the church should do going forward?
Yeah. And when you actually get back to the core mission of the church, they realized they had a fundamental flaw in understanding what the mission of the church was. And so going through those conversations to understand why the church exists was a key component as they were working through that for sure.
And I’m guessing they lost some people as they started to make these changes. Is that true?
They did. And not only did they lose them, but they lost them loudly. Meaning there was a lot of people upset and left the church. A few came back, but honestly, I mean, having people leave the church isn’t a bad thing. There are a lot of options for people who want a stuck, dying church. They’re just out there. And so when new people came in, though, the momentum was able to shift towards, it was confirming the things that they were doing were the right things, even though it didn’t always sound like it.
Yeah. So, and that’s the good news is talking about the left side. The fun part of the life cycle is if you go through this hard work and you actually experience a rebirth, then you get to experience all of the momentum that goes with that, the life change that goes with that, just the growth and kingdom impact. All of that’s fun. I mean, I’ve been a part of a couple of church teams, personally, where I got to experience those seasons of launch and momentum growth and just seeing the lives that are impacted. And there’s nothing like it when you’re on mission with God and seeing lives changed. There’s just nothing like it. But these churches that are in life support, it’s hard work. I mean, it’s just hard work to go through that rebirthing process, but it can happen. And that church that you described is one great example of that.
Okay. Well, related to relaunching a new life cycle, you mentioned that there’s three options for churches in life support. The first was fire yourselves and then rehire yourselves with a new mission and vision, and more importantly, a new approach to ministry. What are the other two options?
So the second option is to hire a new leader. And so, when you do this, though, you have to give that person appropriate authority to initiate changes, and more likely than not, it’s going to be difficult for a team that’s been part of the ministry for years to make the changes required to generate a new start. So you may very well need a new leader from outside the church to help you experience the new launch. The key here, though, is when you hire the new leader, you have to give up control. You need that new leader to help you define a new start, to revisit the mission as you just described, to define new direction, to embrace new strategies to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish, and to help you begin to move forward so that you’re, again, not trying to redo, repurpose old methods to reach new people, but recognizing we need new methods, new strategy to reach new people. But let me tell you, Amy, this, it sounds easy. We’re just going to hire a new pastor and let that person lead. But again, this is very, very challenging for churches that land in life support. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with churches that they recognize they were aging. The church was in decline. So they thought the win is we’re going to hire a young pastor to take over, but they don’t let that young pastor do anything different than the church had done in the past. And just having a younger pastor is not going to help you move out of life support. When you hire a younger pastor, then you have to empower that pastor to actually lead through the change that’s required so that your church can experience a rebirth. Again, it’s a relaunch, it’s really a brand new church, and it’s just, it’s difficult for churches to give that up.
Yeah. Not to keep bringing in examples. And I don’t know how you felt of the coaching that we’ve been doing through this whole COVID crisis, but it’s been some of the most energizing coaching for me. And to hear stories of churches that are so, is it the term atypical from what we’re hearing from a lot of churches? They’re gaining ground, it’s been absolutely amazing. And one church I’m working with, this is their story. This pastor was actually hired under a lead pastor, and he quickly figured out that this guy was just kind of on his way out and everything just needed to be maintenanced until this guy could move out. And the church leadership recognized we don’t want to die. We don’t want this church and its ministry to die. And so they offered him the lead pastor role as this guy exited out. And he was very clear. If you hire me, if I take this role, which I don’t think I’m going to, but if I do, here’s the terms of my agreement. And it really laid into these things of, I need to have authority and decision making ability, it’s a new strategy. It’s, you know, new vision, and those lay leaders agreed to that. And I’ll tell you what? This church, albeit small, it is taking ground that churches two, three, four times its size are not because of this new commitment to this launch phase, you know, the left side of the phase of the life cycle in trying new things and having tremendous agility in a time of a lot of change.
Yeah, it’s funny. We’ve had a number of churches take The Unstuck Church Assessment. Of course, like I said, over 15,000 now, and some churches have gotten back their results, and it’s an older church. I mean, just as far as if you were to look at the date of when the church started, it may have been decades ago. But you’ll see some of these churches, they actually test out if you will, on the assessment in the launch phase, in the very first phase of the life cycle. And it’s actually a very accurate assessment of where these churches are because they are launching it’s as if they’re launching new ministry all over again. And the good news is, you know, some of what they’re trying to is really working. Some of it isn’t, but they’re seeing results that they’ve never, it’s been a long time since they’ve experienced them. So it is very possible to experience a rebirth and a relaunch. So the third option, and actually this is something we’ve talked about in recent weeks too on the podcast is to give the keys to your church to another church. You know, at some point this conversation really needs to happen around the stewardship of God’s resources. And if your church owns its facilities, you actually have an asset that the right church could use for kingdom impact. And either they could relaunch the ministry in that location, or there’s an asset there. They could sell the property and reinvest those resources into ministry initiatives that could have a great kingdom impact. And either way it would be better for those churches to take advantage of the resources so that they’re used in a way that continues to produce fruit. And so, you know, this is, for the church, like I said, these are difficult changes. Either the first one of firing yourself and kind of going back to square one with what’s our mission? Where’s God calling us to go? What are the new ministry strategies we have to embrace? That’s challenging. That’s very hard. The second option we talked about, hiring a new pastor and actually empowering that pastor, that leader, to initiate the changes that are required. That’s also hard. So if you get to a point where you recognize you’re on life support, and you’re not really willing to go through the heartache that might be involved in one of those first two options, at least consider how you could take the assets you have and see those reinvested. And so if you’re interested in learning more about what it might look like for your church to merge with a healthier, larger church, go back and listen to episodes 154 and 155 of the podcast. I had conversations with Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird about their new book. It’s called Better Together. It’s all about church mergers. And you’ll get to read about the perspective of both the healthy churches that are looking for opportunities to merge with other churches so that they can continue to steward the resources they have to make a greater kingdom impact. But then the other thing is you can hear about the churches that are joining other churches through mergers because they recognize that other church is doing something that is really seeing the mission that God’s called us to carry out in the church. And this is an opportunity for us to come alongside and bring our resources, bring our people, our buildings, our finances to support something that’s working. And so that is a good opportunity for you. Or you can just read the book Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. Again, the book is by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird. Jim is actually a part of our team here at The Unstuck Group and has been working with churches for decades to help them through these types of mergers. And then, if you want some more help in this effort too, you could also check out what we do at The Unstuck Group by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/church-mergers. And it describes the process that we go through to walk along with churches that are either leading in that relationship, so they’re kind of taking in another church, or the process that we go through to help churches merge with a healthier church. So, that’ll explain the opportunities that are available there, but those are the three options, Amy. I don’t know what other options there are to help a church experience new life and experience that rebirth so that they can start a brand new life cycle.
Yeah, really good. All right. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up? Not only today’s conversation, but the whole conversation we’ve been having around accelerating change.
Yeah. So, what we’re experiencing in the accelerating of change that’s happening in our culture. It’s also in happening in our churches. And what I know is this, stuck churches just don’t drift back to health. There needs to be change in order for the church to experience health again. And that’s actually what we help churches do at The Unstuck Group. We’ve been talking about some of those examples even in our conversation today. I mean, just in the last months, we’ve been working with 50-some churches, and we’ve continued to serve them in recent months to figure out ways that their ministry needs to change in order for their churches to continue to experience health and to reach people for Jesus. And so, if you are interested in that, we’d love to work with you as well and talk to you about, it’s a 90-day process to help you assess where you are, plan for the future, make any shifts to structure that need to happen in order to support this new strategy. And then we move into monthly coaching with you as a leader so that we can walk with you as you’re navigating these changes. And if you’re interested in learning more about that, you can check out theunstuckgroup.com and let us know. You can contact us by phone, email, fill out a form, chat with us. Our team is ready there to serve you, but we want to talk with you about some of the opportunities where we can come alongside you and help you lead through the changes that are required so that your church can experience relaunch and rebirth as well.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If this podcast has been helpful for you, we’d 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. And as always, you can learn more about how we’re helping purchase get unstuck by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.