Ask This, Not That (Part 3)
Out of the 15,000+ churches that have taken our Unstuck Church Assessment, about 85% self-assessed as being on the declining side of the lifecycle. So if you find yourself in one of these phases, you’re not alone.
The fact of the matter is that no business, organization, or church drifts into health. But if we’re not careful, it’s incredibly easy to drift into decline.
ASK THIS, NOT THAT
In Part 1 of our series, we explored the growing side of the church lifecycle: launch, momentum growth, and strategic growth. In Part 2, we defined the pinnacle of the lifecycle, sustained health, and explained why even churches in this phase need to be focused on change.
This week, in Part 3, Amy and I are discussing the declining side of the lifecycle: maintenance, preservation, and life support. We’ll break down the characteristics of each of these phases, explain why churches often find themselves here, and give next steps for getting back to health.
It’s not easy to move out of these phases and back to sustained health, but it is possible. Join us as we walk through:
- A key step for getting out of maintenance phase
- 6 best practices for renewing your vision
- The 4 cycles of implementing change
- 3 paths for leading your church from life support back to launch
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of the Ask This, Not That Series
- A Comprehensive Guide to the Church Lifecycle
- Unstuck Church Assessment
- Our Church is Stuck in Maintenance. What’s Next?
- Our Church is Stuck in Preservation. What’s Next?
- Our Church is on Life Support. What’s Next?
Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Are you currently leading in a church that’s declining in health in some way? If so, you’re part of more than 85% of churches that are in decline, and more often than not pastors and leaders can see the decline but the church as a whole thinks things are just fine. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue exploring the typical church life cycle with a conversation about the churches in decline and some practical steps that they can take to move back towards health and growth. As you’re listening today, don’t miss the opportunity to join Tony and Amy for a virtual coffee hour on August 13th. All you need to do to join them is leave us a review on Apple Podcast. Take a screenshot of your review and tweet it to us @theunstuckgroup or @tonymorganlive using the #unstuckchurch. You can also email us a picture of a review to Jordan@theunstuckgroup.com. Anyone who sends us the review will get an exclusive invitation to join them for this virtual coffee hour on August 13th. Also, don’t forget to grab this week’s podcast show notes at theunstuckgroup.com/slashpodcast. Now let’s jump into today’s conversation with Tony and Amy.
Tony, for the last two weeks we’ve been focusing on the typical life cycle that we’ve seen in churches and that you wrote about in your book, The Unstuck Church. Well, each week we’re highlighting the questions church leaders normally ask at each stage of the life cycle, as well as the questions that they really should be asking today. We’re going to focus our conversation on helping the pastors who find themselves on the declining side of the life cycle. In fact, we found that of the more than 15,000 churches who have taken The Unstuck Church Assessment, about 85% of them self-assessed as being on the declining side. So listeners, if you’re listening and your church finds itself in one of these phases, you’re not alone. And if you’re not sure by the way where your church is, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/lifecycle, and you can take a free assessment there today. But Tony, before we get to the questions, could you just describe the three phrases that make up the declining side of the life cycle?
Well, of course. So first of all, we label these three phases on the declining side of the life cycle maintenance, preservation and life support. So let me just take these one at a time, beginning with maintenance. First I just want to acknowledge, and you mentioned it, I mean 85% of churches, self-assess that they’re on the declining side, and the vast majority of those churches identify that they’re in the maintenance season in the life cycle. I think it’s well over 60% of churches have indicated this is where they are, but no church tries to get here intentionally. This is not their intent, but this is where most of the churches and up. And I think part of the challenge is there are some things about churches in this season of the life cycle that appear to be very healthy. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual for there still to be some growth, it’s just slower growth, or they’ve begun to plateau, but they’re not in significant decline yet. The other thing is, and we’ve talked about this previously. It’s not unusual for churches to be financially healthy and strong in the season, but there are also some red flags. So, again, not intentionally, but over time, beginning to focus more on the people that are already connected to the church rather than those outside the faith and outside the church. There’s a lot of focus on sustaining systems and structures rather than focusing on new, fresh vision and direction for the church. And then also the methods begin to supersede the mission of the church overall. So that’s maintenance. Preservation, goodness, by the time churches land in this phase, it can be become honestly very difficult to turn things around. This is the very first time that churches really begin to experience that combination of both declining attendance and declining giving. So this is when churches begin to really notice something’s not right. The methods become sacred cows in this phase of the life cycle, and people become concerned about the decline and the solution to try to connect with those that have left with the church. So it’s interesting, Amy, in this season, there’s more focus on trying to get people that have left the church to come back than there is on trying to reach new people. And then the final phase is called life support. And once a church is here, gosh, there are few options that are left. I mean, we’ll talk about those few options in a moment, but this is when churches are really struggling to keep their doors open. And so it’s not uncommon to see in this season, traditions are very much valued over life transformation. People’s personal preferences are what keep the ministry from accomplishing the mission that God’s called them to. And the end game here is eventually attendance dissipates and money runs out. And so the church has really forced to close its doors.
Well, Tony, I know this is the side of the life cycle that’s maybe the least fun to talk about, but this is the side where most churches find themselves in their own self-assessment. So like we’ve done the previous two weeks, let’s go through each phase and talk about the questions pastors are asking and what they should be asking. So let’s start with maintenance. In maintenance, what are the questions for the maintenance phase?
Yeah, so the questions that pastors are often asking in this phase, it’s just really about how do I keep people in the church happy so that we can maintain what we have? That’s the question, of course, that will eventually lead to decline in churches as well. So the question pastors should be asking is where are we going? So churches in the maintenance phase of the life cycle, they really do need a renewed sense of vision and direction for the future. Because of that, they need to pause, get refocused and remove any complexity that can keep them from moving the vision forward. So here’s the key step that you should take if you’re one of those 60% plus churches that find themselves in the maintenance phase of the life cycle, you need to renew the vision. Your mission, of course, explains why your church exists. The vision, however, clarifies where the church is going into the future. And it’s important to remember that the mission of the church, it will rarely, if ever, change. You may change how you talk about mission, but the mission itself is not going to change. The vision, on the other hand, needs to be refreshed every few years or so. And for a church that has plateaued and started down that right side of the life cycle, this is a critical first step to returning back to health. The church’s financial position can make this more challenging. We call this the giving lag. So churches often still feel safe because money hasn’t stopped coming in, even as attendance has slowed or declined. In fact, per capita giving can actually be the highest when a church is in decline. As the church matures, there’s often a higher percentage of people who are mature in their faith. And there aren’t as many people who are considering the claims of Christ. Because of that, there are very few new believers. And as a result of that, Amy, this is why giving continues to remain strong even though the church has started to experience some decline.
So you’re saying, because giving is high pastors might still not think about renewing the vision yet. I think another reason why they don’t is because don’t you think it’s challenging for some pastors? I mean, in other words, their regular job as pastors and teachers, it’s just a consuming job. It consumes their time and energy. And not to mention just being the leader of the church, but pausing to define a vision can be hard, right?
Yeah. Certainly. You’re absolutely right, Amy, but it’s critical that pastors choose to change before the emergency kicks in. In other ways, the way we’ve described it is when you get to maintenance, there will be changes that are required to get back to sustained health, but the changes that are required when a church lands in the maintenance life cycle are really almost insignificant compared to the changes that are required if your church ends up in preservation or life support. So because of that, maybe this would be helpful for pastors that are in the maintenance phase of the life cycle. First, don’t go at it alone. This is your opportunity to involve, I would say, a dozen or so strategically-minded leaders in the process. This may be a combination of staff leaders and lay leaders. I just had the same type of conversation just yesterday with a church team. Again, combination of staff and lay leaders considering where do we go next? And you’re going to benefit from that collaborative process. So don’t feel like you need to do this yourself. Secondly, don’t try to develop a vision with the entire congregation having a voice. Another way of saying this is you can’t survey your way to vision. God’s leaders should develop the vision for God’s church. So you’ll never get consensus for the future if everyone has a voice in that future. And believe me, we’ve had churches try to do it that way, and it doesn’t work. And then maybe a third thought here, once you have the building blocks of vision in place, engage other leaders, both staff and lay leaders, in developing the action plans. So in other words, we have a vision for where we’re going in the future. Now we can invite other leaders, other teammates, into the process to figure out how do we carry out the vision? What are the next steps that we need to engage? What are some of those key initiatives that we need to focus on today to see that longer term vision become reality?
That’s so helpful. I think many pastors, Tony, feel like they need to go up the mountain and come back with the plan, but that’s not the best practices that we see. What are the other best practices you see when it comes to actually rolling out and casting a new vision?
Yeah. You know, Amy, you just said it in passing. It’s like going up the mountain and coming back with a plan. I mean, that is an Old Testament view of leadership. The leadership in the New Testament, it’s based on, I think, the model of the body of Christ, where we’re all coming with our unique giftedness and wiring and experiences and personalities, and we’re coming together as the body to accomplish the mission God’s given us. And that also impacts, I think, how we should be viewing our leadership role as well. So again, we’ve said it many times, pastors, you don’t need to do this by yourself. There’s a team of people that God has brought together to help guide these types of conversations in your churches as well. All right. Now, what was the question you asked me?
Just when they have to actually roll out and cast the new vision, any best practices there?
Yeah. So, communicate the new vision with your key stakeholders first. So you want to begin with folks like your staff team, your leadership teams, your elders. Then share it with your volunteer leaders before you communicate it to the entire congregation. So think about the appropriate sequencing. We want our key leaders to hear future vision before the congregation does. Secondly, use the renewed vision as an opportunity to rally people. You want to use this opportunity to rally their prayers, their time, their financial resources. And here’s the great thing we’ve seen time and time again. People will give if you give them a chance to join the cause. They will give their prayers. They will give their time. They will give their financial resources. And then the last thing I’d say is this. Don’t be surprised when a renewed vision causes some people to leave your church. In other words, when you have a clear, bold vision for the future, you will certainly turn some people away. The way I’ve described it is this, when you have clear vision, it will rally a lot of people, but it will also repel some people. And that’s actually a good thing because when you start to see a few people saying, you know, if that’s where the church is going, I don’t think this is the church for me. That means you actually have a clear, bold vision for where the church is going in the future.
And the truth is in maintenance phase, regardless if you choose to continue down the life cycle or make a change to get back to sustained health, you will lose people. In some sense, you’re choosing who you’ll lose. All right. Well, you mentioned earlier that if churches don’t take these intentional steps in the maintenance phase to move back to the growing side of the life cycle, over time, they will find themselves in the preservation phase of the life cycle. So tell us more about what the preservation phase looks like and the key questions that pastor should be asking.
Yeah, Amy, we’ve seen that by the time church’s reached the preservation phase, it’s really very difficult to turn things around. For some churches, this will be the first time they begin to experience both that decline in attendance and giving. And they’re recognizing, I mean, it’s right in front of them, how we’re engaging our ministry as a church just isn’t working. And so, because of that, typically the question leaders are asking in this phase is how do I keep people from leaving my church? How do I keep them from leaving? And I say leaders because these churches don’t always have a senior pastor or executive pastor making long-term decisions. It’s not uncommon that churches in preservation have a board or council that’s kind of stepped in to make these kinds of ministry decisions. So whether it’s a senior pastor or a board, though, the question that they should be asking is are we prepared to lead significant and likely difficult change? Here’s a principle that churches need to embrace. You can’t keep everyone happy and experience the change that produces health. And I know. Tradition is very powerful. We’ve talked about this in recent episodes. When a church has experienced success in the past, the motivation for change can be low or even non-existent. Most leaders are guilty of thinking if they lead really, really well, then everyone will stick with them. But the reality says you’re going to lose some people after each phase of implementing change.
Yeah, this is really a hard phase, but it can be done. It can be done, right? There’s a lot of change that needs to be initiated and led through well, though. So Tony, what are your thoughts on the steps that these leaders need to prepare themselves to navigate through?
Yeah, Amy, really, this is one of those instances where I’m not trying to sell The Unstuck Church book, but you kind of need to pick up the book because I go through a lot of explanation of the changes that are required when you get to the preservation phase and then how to lead through that change process. But let me quickly kind of explain the different phases of the change process that you need to engage. First, you need to create urgency. The change cycle begins when the leader demonstrates the need for change, and you really need to create urgency by explaining why the change is necessary to execute and why it can’t wait. So you almost have to explain why the pain of staying where we are is actually going to be more harmful in the long run than the pain of the change that we need to engage. The second step in this process is to cast vision. And we talked about this a moment ago, but this is the time for the change to be communicated so that everybody understands the direction that we’re heading. And you need to connect whatever changes you’re making to the mission and vision of the church. In other words, it’s not just change for change sake. We need to change because this is what we’re about as a church. And this is where God’s calling us into the future. The third step is to actually implement the change. And this is when leaders,
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.
I know. This is when leaders actually become leaders, because until this point, change has just been a conversation, but now it’s time for implementation. And in these moments, I mean, I just, I’ve been through it. I know many other churches have been through it. In these moments when we actually start to implement the change, fear can become very loud because we’re concerned with who’s going to disagree with this? Who’s going to get angry? Who’s going to leave? And so this is when leadership courage needs to kick in. It’s absolutely required. And then the fourth step is to look for and celebrate the early wins. Slow change, it’s rarely positive change. So sharing quick wins will build morale and will take away some of the power that the critics might have if you try to go slowly and you don’t look for those early wins to celebrate with your congregation.
You know, Tony, I worked with the church a few years ago that was in this preservation stage. And honestly, they were probably already dipping into life support. I mean, they were very stuck, but they had the money, and they could have lived in life support honestly for a long time. But the lead pastor actually heard you on a Carey Neuhoff podcast, read the book, as well as For A New Generation and engaged the steps you mentioned above. And just for a little bit of perspective, when you talked about create the urgency, cast the vision, you know, 75% of the congregation were 61 years of age or older. 50% where 71 years of age or older. The church was averaging 15 funerals a year, but there were zero weddings, zero baptisms, zero decisions to follow Jesus. And that actually put them in the bottom 1% of all churches, that low reaching number there. However, as you said, their per capita giving was in the top 10% of all churches. And as this pastor cast vision, she leaned on the quote from your book that said, “It’s possible to do the work of God without doing the work that God has called you to.” And the bright spot in this church’s journey is that the majority of the church followed this pastor’s lead. And two years into that change journey, they started to see some amazing results. I was looking back at my email to get the numbers, but I believe they had tripled their Easter attendance three years into this process. They were reaching new people. They were baptizing people. There were first-time decisions for Jesus. And so just an amazing journey, but it was a painful journey. And I kinda hate to end the story with a downer, but there was this committed core that did not celebrate these changes. And I think that’s why the church was actually in life support, where every preservation phase church is headed by the way. But this core did not celebrate the mission. They wanted their old church back. They wanted their methods back, and they wanted to give money and have the church the way that they wanted church. And eventually this pastor was actually run out, but she left knowing that she gave it her all and she left it on the field to get this church heading in the other direction. And so I hate ending there, but just to illustrate it can be done. And it is very difficult.
I hate ending there too, as well, but it’s a clear reminder that tradition is very powerful and the motivation for change can be low or even non-existent in churches that find themselves in that preservation phase. But this is why we want to hope the church will experience an interruption in this season, when they’re in the declining side of the life cycle, as soon as because the earlier you experienced that interruption, the easier the changes will be.
Yeah, that’s right. Well, that brings us to the final phase of the life cycle. And this is the one that’s the least fun to talk about. It’s called life support, and Tony, what questions do we likely find leaders asking in life support? And is there anything that a church can do once they find themselves here?
Yeah. So really the question that we most oftentimes hear is how do we reach new people? Which may sound a little bit surprising. And it’s because by this point, so many people have left and they’ve tried to get people to come back, but no one’s coming back. And so they’re trying to figure out how do we keep the doors open? And the only way to do that is to reach new people. That’s really a survival question by this point. They know they need to reach new people or die. The challenge is that most often the strategy to reach new people is to use the same old methods they’ve always used. And we know from experience that doing what we’ve always done doesn’t lead to different results. So the question we need to be asking though, is why do we exist? And I know, Amy, this sounds so simple, and it’s so basic, but we have to clarify, once again, the why and embrace a new mission before moving forward with the what and the how. So in revisiting your mission, you need to go back to two key challenges that Jesus gave us in the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” You can’t go wrong if you design your church’s mission around loving God and loving others. And if you can rally enough people around that mission, you have a foundation in place for the necessary changes that must follow for the church to return to health. So if your next step as a church is to relaunch and begin a new life cycle, here are really, I think, the only three options you have for moving forward as a church and moving from life support to a new launch or relaunch. The first option is to fire yourselves. In other words, and I’ve seen teams do this, it’s almost as if they write that pink slip for themselves as leaders. They step back and they try to assess if we were communicating to a new team of leaders, this is what you need to do to turn things around, this is what you need to do to get back on mission. I would go through a process as a leadership team where you fired yourselves of actually trying to map out and communicate to this new leadership team what you would encourage them to do to get back on mission and to have a fresh start. And so that’s the first option, fire yourselves. Figure out what you would do to communicate to the new leadership team, and then hire yourselves back, but actually follow through with the changes you’ve talked about. So that’s option one. Option two is to hire a new pastor, to hire a new leader and give that person appropriate authority to actually initiate changes. It’s most likely going to be difficult for a team that’s been involved in church for years to make the necessary changes to create that new start. But you need to empower that new pastor, that new leader, to make those changes. The current staff and lay leadership team needs to give the new leader the freedom to start a new direction. And one good way to begin moving in this direction, I think, is rather than the current leadership to guide the hiring process for the new pastor, rather than doing that, I would encourage you to hire an executive search firm to help you with this because they can help you get beyond your current thinking to consider the type of leader that’s going to be required to help your church move through the necessary change that’s required. And honestly, it’s going to take a unique leader that’s willing to do that. And so because of that, you need to get some outside help. So that’s the second option. Hire a new pastor. And then the third option is to give the keys to another church. You know, at this point, a conversation needs to happen around the stewardship of God’s resources. And if your church owns its facilities, you have an asset that the right church could use for kingdom impact. So either they could relaunch ministry in that location or they could sell the property and re-invest the resources in ministry initiatives. Either way, it would be much better for those resources to be used in a way that’s actually producing kingdom impact. So what got the church to life support will not make it healthy again. And that’s why it’s all about becoming new again, at this point. It really is time for God to begin a new work.
Tony, that’s really challenging, but I think very helpful for the pastors and leaders who are in a church on the declining side of the life cycle. Any final thoughts Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. If you’re not sure where your church sits today in the life cycle, make sure that you do take that free Unstuck Church Assessment. And if you’ve taken it before, we’ve seen that the pandemic has had an effect on many churches, and where the churches are currently in the life cycle. So before you start making plans for what’s next, make sure you know where you are now. The assessment only takes about 15 minutes to complete, and you can go to theunstuckgroup.com/lifecycle to get started right now. And if you need help understanding the right next step for your church, based on where you are in the life cycle, please reach out to us. It’s easy to connect with our team. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/start and tell us about your church. And we’ll reach out with some potential next steps that you can be taking. We’d love to be a part of your church’s story of getting to sustain health and impacting your community for Jesus.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to reserve your spot at the upcoming coffee hour with Tony and Amy on August 13th. You can do that by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts and then tweeting us a picture of your review @theunstuckgroup or @tonymorganlive using the #unstuckchurch. At The Unstuck Group, we work every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need in your church, we would love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.