When the Church Needs a Doctor

Bill Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health and keynote speaker at this year's annual National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA) conference in Houston, Texas, July 10-14, talks about what it means to be a healthy church and what to do when the church is sick.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see churches struggling with right now?

Well, the metrics are discouraging for most established churches, and anybody who's paying attention knows that the trajectory for the church in general is not real great. Everybody is talking about downsizing their staff. United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Evangelical Free—doesn't matter. Everyone is downsizing. So, what that means is, local congregations who have been, in effect, farm teams of the denominations and have relied on the denomination to do their identity and mission work, now need to decide everything on their own, from curriculum to strategic initiatives. It used to come from the top down, but it no longer does.

Is that because of downsizing at the top level of the denominations?

It is that, and the fact that we discovered that what works in Nashville, or Wheaton, or wherever, doesn't necessarily work in our neighborhood. The homogeneous model dictates that every Methodist church is going to be studying the same material, every Baptist church, every Church of God, whatever—it doesn't work. So every congregation has had to learn how to study curriculum, and many of them are writing their own now. Where churches never had to make a decision about what curriculum to teach, now they've got to decide every quarter what their groups will study. And even deeper than that, What's our leadership model going to be? Is it going to be Saddleback? Andy Stanley? Now every church is operating independently, and our experience is, most congregations are distinctly unprepared for that. And if they're not careful, volunteers and lay leaders will often turn to clergy and just throw up their hands and say, "Look, you just tell us who we're supposed to be, and how we're supposed to do it." Occasionally you get someone who can do that with integrity, but many times you get someone who doesn't know any more about it than you do. They've just been to the latest leadership summit, or the latest denominational meeting, and they picked up a book, or an idea, and they'll try it, and you get this kind of whipsaw effect in the congregation, where they end up enduring seasons of fads versus something that really has a sustainability, is biblically grounded, and makes sense.

A lot of our conflict calls are from congregations who have tried the "flavor of the month," whether it be leadership style or material or worship or methodology, and have ended up in a civil war.

When you get a call like that, how do you help the congregation work through that conflict?

First, you separate the fighters—send them to their corners. And you pray that there's not too much blood on the floor. Then we ask three basic questions:

  • Where'd you come from?
  • Why are you here?
  • Where are you going?

The way you come out of conflict and learn something is the same way you come out of a divorce. If you divorce your spouse, and all you can do is blame the spouse, and you get remarried right away, you're going to become what we call a serial marriage person. So if a congregation dismisses their pastor or music leader, for example, and never stops to ask, "What did we do to deserve this? What do we need to learn about ourselves?" then the chances are, they'll be replicating this experience in a matter of months or a few short years. So our guidance would be, "I'm sorry you got divorced, let's work on you. Let's talk about you. I know you want to talk about your ex, but let's talk about you." For a congregation this means, let's take a look at who we really are. Who is God intending us to be, and what's our DNA? We know what it looked like in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but what does it look like to be a church alive and vibrant and on a mission in 2015? And that's a fun conversation; that gets to be really energizing.

Is there hope for congregations to turn things around when they're in this kind of conflict and decline?

Absolutely. Now, it's the hardest work of all, because usually what it means for a congregation to really adapt to the 2015 to 2020 window is a restructuring of who they are, and often, a kind of dramatic shift in their understanding of how they're going to do church. And many of them can't pull it off. Four thousand churches a year close in the U.S., so we're preparing to give workshops around the country on setting up church mergers. That's the way a lot of them are going. The ones that resist and say, "We really don't want to be relevant and adapt to the new setting," are going to find themselves facing some hard choices. The ones that do—and it doesn't guarantee you're going to have numerical success and your metrics will jump off the page—will have a kind of vibrancy and a passion-driven model that has a future. Churches may be smaller, but the future is going to be more about a deeper walk rather than just burgeoning numbers.

From a church management perspective, what other challenges do you see churches confronting?

Pastors talk about the tension of living between management and vision. We try to help them see that it's not an either-or; it's a both-and. You can't have this expansive vision without resources, or facilities, or money to implement it, and you can't envision in a vacuum. A healthy model is to manage that polarity with intention.

We've landed on the four C's of healthy churches and their practices:

  • Clarity of mission and vision, which is the most preeminent one;
  • Managing congregational conflict in a healthy and redemptive way;
  • Communication; and,
  • Building a faith community.

I see congregations regularly who have to manage costly facilities that are too big and were built in an era when people came. They also have staff models that were products of the post-World War II model; they have an attractional staff model, and they're trying to be a missional church. One of the great transitions for congregations is to rethink and redream the staffing model.

Does that mean relying more on lay leaders and volunteers instead of clergy?

Absolutely. No congregation is going to be successful in the 21st century who doesn't practice and believe and teach a shared ministry model—that this is a collaborative effort between laity and clergy. And the old dualism—professional vs. amateur— is not biblical, and it probably is not sustainable. First Corinthians 12 is going to become where we go—where we talk about a body with multiple parts, and no, the staff is not the body. We're not going to let the staff do all the heavy lifting.

For "sick" churches, how do you help establish a pathway to health?

[It's] not just borrowing corporate models and trying to force-fit them into a congregational setting. There are 10,000 different strategic planning models out there, but what we try to do is help a congregation, in effect, use spiritual discernment and design their own, and own it, rather than try to import it from anybody—Willow Creek, Saddleback, Happy Valley, Jim Collins. All those are wonderful people who do great things, but what does it look like for your local church to actually do something that's going to be dynamic and used, and not put on a shelf and ignored six months after it's finished.

How do you help congregations think through this process?

Rather than ask, "How did Jim Collins do it?" or "How did Stephen Covey do it?" or "How does anybody else do it?" I want to help churches ask, "How does Jesus do it?" He was trying to lead a group of people into a place they'd never been, and take on traditions and icons and relics and everything else, and he pulled it off. So, what did he do? And, specifically, what did he do as a leader? What were his habits? This is not a paint-by-number kind of deal. I won't say, "If you just do these seven steps, you'll have a wonderful, dynamic, and clear mission vision for the future." But as you watch Jesus walk across pages of the Gospels, he does some things that, if we would model those, we would avoid some of these traps that we get ourselves into.

For more help turning around a struggling church, check out How to Turn Around a Church, a training resource from our sister site, BuildingChurchLeaders.com.

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