The issue with the traditional church is that it tends toward the professionalizing of the clergy and minimizing the efforts of the congregation.  That is the great benefit of a bivocational pastor, who knows he can’t do the job alone.  The busier they are, the more they MUST rely on the volunteers.  However, once established, the congregation feels an obligation to fund the pastor, and gain full-time staffs. 

I know from experience the issues of doing ministry part time.  In one placement, doing ministry on a college campus, I needed to arrive physically on campus for interactions with the head chaplain, and to make reservations for meeting rooms.  Unfortunately, those offices were open 9am – 4pm, and I was working 8-5, and the 30-minute drive each way cut into my lunch hour.  After a year, I handed the position to another, having at least established the position and started the reputation on that camputs.

In another task, I was already working 50-60 hours a week at my paid employment.  Adding the 20-hour church duties created a physical exhaustion that pushed me to end my service there after 10 months, because I couldn’t realistically cancel my employment.

In one startup congregation, seeking to evangelize the Jewish community, the 6 key volunteers set the room and performed all the administrative tasks that let the congregation leader arrive shortly after work on Friday evenings and lead the service.  Because we were performing the tear-down afterward, he was able to converse with the visitors and build the congregation.  In a similar congregation in another city, most of the setup was by the leader and his teenaged children, and I was able to bring those ministry volunteer skills to that congregation.

Most congregations at least 5 years old will have an established rhythm, and by the time theyt reach their 35th year, it’s hard to instill change.  Even when planting a second congregation, the habits of the parent will often replicated in the child, moreso if the funding is blended. 

The problem is that long-time volunteers have seniority, and with seniority comes the assumption that the person will remain in that position.  There is an expectation that someone placed in one role will stay in that role.  We’ve found their niche.  In some churches, for someone to change roles is hurtful to to one they left and starts them again as a novice in the new role.  Therefore, the leadership tends to think of the volunteer as permanently placed.  Even if they resign, they are often seen as unqualified for a second position, because their experience is only in the original slot.

This is fine for a community church, where everyone there is permanent.  They – or even their parents – grew up in that church.  Everyone has a role assigned upon gradution from school.  But for the newcomer, for them to take a slot may mean displacing someone, unless that person died while in the position.  (“Mrs D has always taught that age, and no one else could do as well.”)

Even with a new congregation, there is jockying for leadership.  Unless the emerging leader is willing to relinquish that role after a time, only the initial crew will be eligible for those roles.  As the congregation grows from the original crew (normally 12 to 40 adults) to a sustainable size with new congregants, it’s unlikely to attract too many with leadership gifts, unless there is a pre-existing familial connection.

Many of the functions in a traditional congregation don’t exist in a startup.  They are limited in funding and staff, and will do the minimum essential tasks.  As the congregation grows, there is need for flexibilty.  Where at the dreaming phase, the leadership may have offered surveys regarding where to serve, this is often a one-time occurrence.  However, in a rapidly congregation or one with high turnover, there is a constant need for new staff.  These congregations have systems established to onboard new members and help them become acclimated to appropriate jobs.  It would do the startup to begin with this mentality. 

In one startup, several volunteered to fill critical openings, and were then locked into that slot and exccluded from other activities.  The church wasn’t yet large enough for many of the secondary functions.  That congregation had the additional limitation of full-time staff that considered their role as to follow the founders’ vision and keep it from moving off target.  Therefore they were slow to establish supports and not well positioned to accept suggestions from outside the core leadership.  Their position is still not set, their authority not cemented, and might see suggestions as jockying for positioning.

One concern, therefore, is burnout by leadership, which considers themselves uniquely qualified to do the tasks, and unwilling to share roles.  Another is the tendancy to permanently lock volunteers into what were seen as temporary roles, which limits social interactions in the congregation at the critical formation time.

Starting a new congregation is hard work.  It is tasking on all involved.  And it means those leading must have loose grip on positions even as they quickly staff up the pool of temporary and replacement volunteers.

“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:17-20

A healthy church produces good fruit

The sermon this morning used this text.  It was preached one way for the congregation, but the readers here are church leaders.  Church leaders worry about the size of the congregation, and whether those that do come are getting anything out of it.

I’m not saying bigger is better, or smaller is healthier.  There are healthy megachurches and dysfunctional small churches.  But size over time can give an indicator of other issues.

  • A church in a transient community – like a military town or near a college – can watch a significant portion of the membership leave each summer.  The health of the church becomes apparent quickly if incoming military don’t see value right away.
  • The number of children or teens in a church is an indicator of the future longevity of the church.  Unless it is situated in an age-restricted community, the lack of children means the size will decline over time.
  • The number of volunteers is a good indicator. We know active volunteers give more than passive attenders.  The ratio between volunteers and paid staff should show a large difference. Therefore a church will a low percent of volunteers will generally struggle for money.

The causes of poor church health tend to be rooted in one or more of the same factors:

  1. Doctrine preached and taught.  Dean Kelly’s “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” continues to be relevant.  Churches that teach the Bible – what it says and what it means in daily life – tend to have more active congregations, and more easily retain visitors.
  2. Volunteers are valued.  Volunteers are motivated not by money but by accomplishment. Most will continue as long as they feel they are making an impact either in the organization or toward the organization’s purpose.  When what they do is cancelled without a recognition of their sacrifice, they will be less likely to volunteer anywhere else, and often will quit attending.
  3. Outreach is community-focused, not manipulation to grow the church.  Most people today understand when they are being marketed.  But most will accept some demand on their time to gain a benefit they desire. (Stop by a church that’s doing a food give-away in a poor neighborhood. People will sit for an hour waiting for a handout.)
  4. Prayer is God-focused. Yes, we pray for the sick. But when the only prayer is about us, our needs, our wants, that’s missing the mark.  A healthy church prays both in worship and for it’s community.

Healthy churches don’t have to be big, but they do need to make an impact.




I was in a committee meeting for a social cause I’m starting, and oen of the members started talking about her church.  She’s part of one of the ministries that’s trying to do more than the church is comfortable doing.  I think she’s honoring the Gospel with the activity, but it’s at cross purposes with the overall strategy of the pastoral staff.  It’s fine to do so long as it doesn’t interfere or take attention away from what the they have planned to do.

So why doesn’t she get on their agenda and show the value?  Seems that church is run by paid staff and self-elected deacon board.  The only whole-church meetings are tightly scripted without option for questions in the open forum.  Votes are taking in the middle of the sermon, where peer pressure gains the assent from the majority comfortable to “sit and soak”.

The frustration for that one activity is poisoning her response to the rest of the church’s activities.  She’s not coming to church as often.  She’s more likely to miss the Sunday small group Bible study.  I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet she’s diverting at least some of her tithe to the outside ministry directly.

What can you do to first prevent this and second restore the one drifting away?

Start by having a culture of listening.  In my church, one of the largest in the area, the pastor makes an effort to circulate in the lobby after serices, and is one of the last to leave on Sunday.   He acts like the pastor of a church of 150 (rather than 3000).It doesn’t make the church less large, but makes it more personable.

Second, I feel that the job of a deacon includes listening to the congregation and hearing the grumblings, to deal with them before they get out of hand.  In one church, we had two strains of discontent circulating just under the surface.  Few knew of both, but they fed off the negative attitudes of the other.  When I discovered the first, adn then the second, I took action to hear the frustrations, and was able to diffuse the one, and then the second, and although the root problem (lack of a pastor) didn’t immediately go away, the congregational attitude shifted.

In most cases, it’s a misunderstanding, or someone didn’t get the word in time.  If you have active listening systems in place, those will be taken care of early before they discontent takes root and poisons the congregational atmosphere.

According to a Hartford Seminary study, churches that had been declining and have begun the turnaround have several key indicators in common:

1. more contemporary worship.  They see this as a cause, rather than an indicator of willingness to be adaptable.  I see it as the latter.  Many emergent congregations are moving to chants and hymns, which are not within the “contemporary christian” genre, and even some of the more popular worship songs within that genre are recast hymns.  It is not the use of drums and guitars, but a willingness to refresh the music to match the tastes and desires of the target audience.

2.  a strong sense of identity and mission – Dorothy Campbell writes of the need for a spiritual gate-keeper.  Maxwell writes of the need for a visioning leader.  Both indicate an organization that knows who it is and why it exists.  By regularly describing that identity and mission to all who attend, they are able to shape life solutions for what’s been called a “meaning-hungry culture.”

3.  do little things well – the attention to details matters.  Basic cleanliness and reduction of accumulated clutter adds a lot to the appearance of a vibrant church.  (3-year-old magazines on the give-away rack indicate a stale church.)

4.  recognizing volunteers  – the church is built on volunteers, but people get tired of doing the same thing over and over with no reward.  we hope God will one day say “well done” but we like to hear it from time to time here on earth. 

5.  contacting inactive members. Just because they don’t come to your church doesn’t mean they go somewhere else.  For some, they just drifted away.  For others, it’s a simple issue that needs addressing, or a disagreement with someone that no longer attends (or has died); with that issue resolved, they might be disposed to return and renew their activity.

This is not a definitive list.  There is a longer discussion in my book “From the Brink: Hope for Struggling Churches.”   But this is a good start.  Any congregation can do these with little or no injection of new cash, only a change in attitude.



What is the strength of your church?  What is its mission?  Who are the target audience?  Are you focused enough to check progress, or are you scattering random seed to the wind?  You have to plant the right seed in the right soil to gain the expected harvest.  Anything less will be a disappointment.

The “National Survey of Megachurch Attenders” has been released by Leadership Network ( and Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research ( Officially called “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches,” it says that megachurches (over 2000 attending consistently) are more likely to attract younger, unmarried, better educated and more affluent.  It also says they attract based on paid staff (pastor and worship team), and have higher rates of uninvolved attenders.

45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

By contrast, the small church is focused around family or community / neighborhood.  Your task, in leading a church through a turnaround, is to know what God has called your church to do and to whom you are to minister.  Start by assessing the community needs and the available resources already available within the congregation.

For example, if your neighborhood has widows or single mothers of young children, and your congregation has mechanics or handymen, you could provide

  • free labor
  • training for minor/routine repairs
  • advice on picking a professional

All 3 are valid expressions of love and concern, and get you into the community.  True, megachurches could do it better, but the survey suggests they won’t.  That’s for you.





In a new report from the Barna Group finds that nine out of every ten Americans (86%) describe themselves as “caring deeply about social injustice.”

We in the church want to think it’s our influence, but in reality it’s part of our God-given nature to help out.  Americans in general care about justice and fairness, and feel a desire to help fix the issue if they have it in their power to do so.

What the church can do is make opportunity to participate.  Rather than restrict who can help to “us only”, find a way for outsiders to help.  Of course you want insiders to lead and need for the newbies to follow guidelines, but maybe the taste of and place of service is all that’s needed to bring someone in.

When my daughter was young, I coached her church basketball team.  My assistant was another dad, not a church member, not strong in his faith.  He sat through each of 10 weekly devotionals and watched me show love and compassion on the court.  He started attending church regularly and soon was an active member of the congregation.

The church used to do a big Easter production.  It took a lot of people to pull it off.  Mike had been attending only services, floating in and slipping out.  But there was a need for more people in the parking lot, and one night of duty turned into regular service and a sense of belonging.

For myself, I was a teenager when I noticed the oldest members had trouble using the ancient church elevator.  I helped them on and off, pulling back the metal cage and holding the heavy door.  When one of the deacons complained about me being there, a more senior elder countered and let me continue that little service.  Small as it was, it was training me for a life of church involvement.

So look around.  My church is handing out food for Easter, using lots of new volunteers.  The greeting committee has doubled itself for that day to stand at the doors and smile, saying “thanks for coming” at both the walking in and the walking out.  How hard is that?

So go ahead.  Get creative.  Let the people serve.


From the Barna survey:

On social awareness, matters of lifestyle, and the desire for simplicity, the self-identities of born agains and others were very similar. Only two of the non-spiritual self-perceptions showed any difference, and those gaps were minimal: born again Christians were slightly more likely than others to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world (83% versus 74%, respectively) and slightly more likely to be fulfilling personal life calling (76% to 67%).

In the mail this month came 4 requests for contributions from a particular charity I used to contribute to regularly.  They ought to be dominating their niche, but continue to struggle for funds.

When I worked with them a couple of years ago, they were struggling to pay each month’s basic bills, and had lost competent field workers for non-payment of support funds.  I provided them strategies that ought to have doubled their income by now.  And I suggested ways to increase their volunteer pool such that they should have needed to operate their own lodging at the charity site to handle the stream of volunteers.

They have a unique selling position in how they operate at the point of impact, but their headquarters back-office is getting in the way of resounding success.

The prevailing mindset of the charity leadership reflects the training of the Director, who had been a marketing manager in the 90s.  Even today, except for the logo, their marketing looks so dated and generic it would be hard to distinguish from the other end-of-year mailouts I got.

I’d guess they will miss-read why I gave this week, and why I picked the particular envelope to use.  There were the standard weepy-eyed children pics in one, an urgent appeal for cash to make budget, a cheery newsletter, and a matching grant offer.  I sorted through the list and gave to the one that seemed to provide the most benefit to the organization.

I know these people.  I’m guessing they’ll look at the response rates and assume that it took a matching grant letter to pull a donation out of me.  They’ll do the analysis of the results and repeat the one that garnered the most response, and will repeat it several times in the coming year.

Trouble is, I had already decided to be generous to half a dozen charities instead of spending lavishly on my family, and they were in the list.  (If there had been an offer to support a particular cause or volunteer, I might have chosen that one instead!)  They didn’t ask for my opinion of the organization, what mattered to me about what they do, about what I might support in the future.  They don’t know what it will take me to go from $50 a year to $500 a year, or what it would take for me to move from occasional donor to again be an active volunteer.

They will continue to assume they know what will work, and that they continue to struggle because the market is saturated and the economy is bad.  They will believe their own research that supports their assumptions.

And they will stay a small, struggling charity.

You know the concept of the bystander effect.  That is the sociological term where a person in a group is less likely to get involved in an emergency situation or request for help than someone standing alone.  The research shows that people will watch a crime but not get involved, thinking they are not qualified or out of fear for their own safety.  Not until one of their number acts will anyone else move to get involved.  Usually it takes a direct personal appeal to a single individual (by name or with eye contact – even if randomly chosen) to get them to get involved. (more…)

 I met the leaders of a division of a certain volunteer organization. They do essentially the same as dozens of other community service organizations, but this group requires you be trained by them to do what others have been doing for decades. Then, if you want to participate in one of their trips, you have to go with one of their chapters, on their schedule. Many – myself included – would participate more, except my work schedule hasn’t let me match up with the trips sponsored by my local chapter. I asked if there was a way for me to find a trip to join up with a different local chapter, but they tell me they don’t have the structure or the people to handle non-standard requests, or to let you serve less than their standard one week’s service.

When I went to refresher training, this leader made an odd comment to the group, lamenting that only 20% of the ones they train actually go with them on one of their trips. When I asked him about his comment privately after the training, he claimed it was an example of the Pareto 80/20 rule, and there was no reason to expect anything different. He wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell him differently.


I was asked what causes churches to die.  Is it sloppy / liberal theology?   a lack of discipleship programs?  the lack of theological education?

One cause is evangelical sloth.  RR Reno claims that “Sloth and cowardice …slink away from the urgency of conviction. Both fear the sharp edge of demand and expectation. Both have a vested interest in cynicism, irony and outward conformity. These vices, not pride, now dominate our culture.” (1)(2)

The remedy is often the professionalization of the clergy, where we leave our spiritual disciplines to our surrogates to satisfy.  And if their own theology is sloppy, all the better to attract  a society of believers having shared slothful theology.

I’ve seen healthy churches led by barely-educated farmers whose only texts were a well-worn Bible and a commentary (the man in mind used KJV and Matthew Henry). 

 Churches struggle when the leadership keeps people from exercising their spiritual giftedness, they come to believe their service is not needed (anybody could do it), and will let other volunteer work crowd out church work (especially those clubs that mimic their giftedness).   When the pastor doesn’t allow for meaningful service, he doesn’t get any.  The people forget how to serve (or never learn) and quit trying.  Lay leaders leave to serve elsewhere, leaving the sitters, and staff start drifting away as well.

And since involved volunteers are more likely to give (and usually give 4 times as much), the budget also suffers.  The staff have to do more and more on less and less.   This causes the pastor to have to work even harder doing the “professional preacher” kinds of things.  I’ve seen churches thrive without a full-time pastor.  I’ve rarely seen a healthy church without  involved deacons in active service.

The turnaround begins when a leader insists on a return to core fundamentals – discipleship, prayer, outreach/evangelism and individuals caring for one another (instead of passing it off on the pastor).   It doesn’t have to be the pastor – this works well if the leader is a deacon – but a pastor is the one person who can stop it.

I’ve seen healthy churches led by barely-educated farmers whose only texts were a well-worn Bible and a commentary (the man in mind used KJV and Matthew Henry).  I’ve seen churches thrive without a full-time pastor.  I’ve rarely seen a healthy church without  involved deacons in active service.

1. Reno, RR The Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an age of Diminished Christianity, p8