As a church growth and funding consultant, I receive phone calls and emails weekly from desperate and dying churches, and the question that I refrain from asking each of them is, “Why did you wait so long to do something?”
Are you watching your church membership wither away? Just watching… a very long and drawn out death… slowly draining away the last bit of energy and resources. You may know the main problems causing decline… you may even know the solutions. But by delaying action, solutions now sometimes seem like big problems and problems like simple solutions. So instead of digging out… you avoid conflict, dig in on the causes, and hasten the death toll. The youngest are the first to fall off… babies, children, teens… and then the heartbroken and devastated families perish with them. Buildings begin to empty, banks move in and start to foreclose in record numbers, but still nothing changes. Sadly, this is the state of many mainstream Protestant churches in America!
In recent years, churches have steadily declined in health due to an overall trend toward declining attendance, aging membership, and a steady decrease in giving. A Barna study on “How to Increase Giving in Your Church” shows that as of 2010, more than 25% of churches have average weekly attendance of less than 50 and nearly 50% have less than 100 people in weekly services. More than 80% of congregations note that the current recession had a negative impact on finances. According to the real estate information company CoStar Group, church foreclosures increased fivefold from 2008 to 2011. Overall, only 3 to 5 percent of those who donate money to a church tithe (give 10 percent of) their incomes. Clearly, many American churches have floundered in their effort to stay relevant, solvent, and vital as communities shift culturally and struggle financially.
But, it can be different. It will take leaders who are willing to step far outside of their comfort zones and do things they have not done before. If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. So, are you ready for a new and different approach? Are you ready to stop being a spectator as your church slides further into the abyss and join with other leaders to impact a church turnaround? Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University, says that just as humans are prone toward sin so are churches prone to naturally drift from God. It is only through a constant, conscious, and continuous effort that churches will continue to move forward. Churches not moving forward are sliding backward.
Churches can begin to effect a turnaround by implementing a series of strategies and addressing the core issues causing decline. Most churches wait far too long before acknowledging the difficulties and trying to make changes. On average, 63% of declining churches are in moderate to severe crisis for over three years before they begin a turnaround effort. At that point they already have seen a significant decline in giving, attendance, membership and likely lack the human and financial resources to muster a significant campaign. Fortunately, there are a series of incremental low-budget steps that congregations can take to change direction.
To effect change, a church will first need to redefine reality for the congregation. This involves honest conversation about the current state of the church, of attendance numbers, current giving, new members, and other factors. Often pastors resist this conversation as an indictment on their leadership, but this is clearly counterproductive. Leadership needs to take proactive action to get a complete and clear picture of the current state of affairs before any efforts to make changes occur.
A leadership team can then use this clarified picture to create a sense of urgency within the congregation. The congregation is much more likely to support dramatic efforts and big changes if there is an understanding that the need to change is urgent. Create a broad understanding that there is an urgent need for change. But, at the same time, do not create such a bleak picture that members lose hope that a recovery is possible. Members need to know that the church can and will revitalize.
Often a church will start a turnaround while still leaving ineffective structures and staff in place. With the understanding of the need for urgent changes, it is important to make a complete and honest assessment of the entire church as an organization that leads to decision points. This will likely lead to making difficult decisions such as letting go of staff, removing volunteers, closing programs, redirecting funds, or even asking the pastor to step down. Pray for a renewed vision, make hard choices, make big moves, do new things. Remember, if nothing changes, nothing changes.
With internal actions underway and big changes made, the congregation can now turn the focus to the community, to outside the church walls, as a means of making a turnaround. Focus on the needs of the greater community and how you can meet these needs. If you don’t know the needs of the community, have a community needs assessment conducted so that you are not guessing at what is needed. If funds are too limited to offer services to meet identified needs, then look for ways to partner with other organizations. Turnaround churches find that these partnerships can make the church look busy even if programs are limited. While not ideal, appearing to be a vibrant and active faith community is at least a step in the right direction. If you continue to act like a revitalized church eventually you, your church members, and the entire community will come to believe this as well.
Lastly, a turnaround is often most influenced when we start something new. A new worship service, new classes, a new ministry area. Promote this newness through press releases to local newspapers and through social media. Often these new activities can be implemented at a very low cost and with mostly volunteer efforts to start. Combined with outreach efforts and community partnerships, it will be clear that something is happening and more people will want to be a part of this something.
Are you ready to change the vitality of your church?
Dr. Jeffrey J. Rodman, a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) and Certified Grants Specialist (CGS), and has focused the last 15 years on grant writing, fundraising, and funding development for church, Christian ministries, and other nonprofit organizations. Dr. Rodman holds a bachelor in Counseling, a master degree in education, and a doctorate in religion. Dr. Rodman founded Here-4-You Consulting in 2000 and has worked with over 200 ministries from across the United States and over a dozen other countries. He has secured nearly $100 million in funding from every imaginable type of funding source and has an average 10 to 1 Return On Investment (ROI)… meaning that on average NPOs secure $10 in funding for every $1 they invest in services.
Here-4-You Consulting & Grant Writing
Dr. Jeffrey J. Rodman, CFRE, CGS
President & CEO