4 Ways to Turn Around a Shrinking Church

I recently wrote a post over on the Breeze blog that received good feedback.  I thought you might find it helpful.  Here it is:

Our church had experienced steady growth for over twenty years. Year after year attendance and giving grew respectably. Until it didn’t.

Last fall, we faced decline for the first time ever. It was shocking. Attendance was down. Giving was down. It freaked us out.

For us, steady growth had become an expectation and something we didn’t necessarily have to fight for. Decline? This was new territory. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there right now.

I’m happy to report that we took a long look in the mirror, faced our challenges and we’re back on a trajectory of growth. Our attendance, giving and engagement are up this fall. How did we do it? I think it comes down to 4 big ideas.


This fall the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over 100 years. The entire nation was pulled into the drama.

The Cubs were down 3 games to 1 to the Cleveland Indians. Statistically, they were all but dead. But, there is something about champions that sets them apart from the competition. They are tenacious. They never give up. They never stop fighting because they never stop believing that they can win. I call this quality grit.

You might be thinking that grit doesn’t belong in church. I disagree. I believe grit is foundational for every successful organization. You just have to have that tenacious with a never-gonna-give-up kind of chip on your shoulder.

I’ll never forget the attitude of our leadership last fall. The numbers were alarming. Less people were coming, less people were giving, we were aging. We were a church in decline.

Our leadership could have said:

“Well. It happens to every church. It’s been a good run.”

Our senior pastor could have said:

“It’s been a solid 33 years. I guess it’s time to hang it up.”

But, our leaders have grit. They rose to the challenge, faced reality and battled.

When your church is in decline, the most important factor in whether or not you will turn around, is whether or not your leadership has the grit necessary to face reality and battle.


Not long after discovering that we were declining, our leadership scheduled a three day off-site. What was the purpose of the off-site? To come up with the game-changing idea to turn things around? To plan the new service that would bring everyone back?

Nope. We set aside three days to remember who we are.

When things aren’t going well, our first reaction is often to do something to fix the problem.

  • “Millennials aren’t coming to our church? Ok. Let’s start a college and career ministry.”
  • “Parents want a youth group? Let’s build a student center.”
  • “People are leaving for the church down the street? Let’s start a contemporary service.”

I would argue that responding to a problem with activity is usually the wrong reaction. Why? Because activity, without strategy, is just noise.

Activity, without strategy, is just noise.

Our approach was to clarify who God has called us to be as a church.

We didn’t add activity, in fact we put a hold on adding activity. Instead, we sought to return to what had made us successful in the past. We clarified our vision. Then, and only then, did we create strategy around our vision. We have a saying:

Compelling vision. Comprehensive strategy. Relentless implementation.

The solution to decline isn’t more… it’s less.

A “less” that is more focused and strategic. If your church is experiencing a season of decline, I would encourage you return to vision and clarify who you believe God is calling you to be as a church. After clarifying your vision, focus on strategies that help achieve your vision.


Here’s the thing: ideas are nice. But, we all know that we need more than just ideas. We need action—decisive action. Change requires doing difficult things. Through the process of clarifying our vision, we discovered that there were programs that needed to end. They weren’t bad programs. They just didn’t help us achieve our vision.

Here’s what’s difficult: People love those programs. If you cut those programs, people will get angry. People will leave. Those people support the church financially. Now what?

I believe that turn around requires vision-driven, decisive action. Not everyone will be onboard with your vision and that’s ok. God has gifted each local church with a unique vision. Our responsibility, as leaders, is to follow that vision, even if it means graciously disappointing people.

Part of the equation for our turn around has been tough decisions that required actions that weren’t always appreciated. My suspicion is that your turn around will be the same. A clarified vision is of no use, unless it is followed by vision-driven, decisive action.

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Parent Resource Video: Combating Pornography

If there’s one thing I want my kids to avoid it’s pornography.  I pray about this constantly and, if you are a parent, I bet you do too.  Here’s a resource video we put together on combating pornography.

Lifeline Parents | Combating Pornography from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.

Where I Get Inspired

I have a confession.  I’m not much of an original thinker.  Gasp!  I know.  Recently, our church leadership team took part in a 3 day strategic off-site.  One of exercises we went through was something called the Thinking Wavelength.  This revealed that I’m not an “theorist.”  I don’t invent ideas.  Rather, I’m a “finder”, which means I’m good at discovering brilliant ideas and well…stealing them.  If the Thinking Wavelength sounds interesting, check out this link.

So, why am I telling you this?  Good question!  I think a lot of ministry leaders are “finders.”  We know a good idea when we run into it.  We easily understand what will work in our context and what won’t.  But, we probably aren’t going to invent the ideas ourselves.  This means we need places where we can find the great ideas.  We need environments where we can collaborate and explore new ideas and fresh perspectives.  For me, the best place to do this has been the Orange Conference.

Every year that I attend the Orange Conference, I come away with a fresh ideas.  Honestly, this conference, and the organization behind it, reThink, have probably influenced me as a ministry leader more than anything else.  If you haven’t been to the Orange Conference, this is the year!  You should totally check it out!  Registration begins this week and the price is greatly reduced.  If you’re still not convinced, check out this video:

OC16 Promo video for OC17 site from Orange on Vimeo.

If you want to hear more about the Orange Conference, send me an email or leave a comment.   I’d love to tell you all about it.  And, if you want to give it a shot, I’ll be there!  We should totally hang out!.

How to Move People Who Don’t Want to Move

I love Bill Hybel’s definition of leadership:

“Moving people from here to there.”

It really is that simple isn’t it? Here’s where we are. There is where God is calling us to move. Let’s go!

If it’s that simple, why is it so hard?!? Leadership is challenging when people don’t want to move. One of the greatest frustrations of leadership is motivating people to move when they resist.

We’ve all been there. You’re incredibly excited about a vision that God has given you for your ministry or church and when you share that vision, the people who follow you resist. COME ON!

So, how do you move people who don’t want to move? This is the stuff of real leadership. I have a few ideas that might help.


If I don’t trust you then I will never trust your ideas. This is so true isn’t it? You can’t expect to move people from here to there unless they trust you as a leader. This means that your first step in creating change is building relationships.

I’ve never forgotten the advice one of my college professors gave me:

“Don’t make any major changes to the ministry you lead during the first year of your leadership.”

In other words, you have to earn the trust of the people you lead before you try to take them from here to there.

If you are contemplating asking your people to move, then you must first build trust. If they trust you, they are likely to embrace your ideas.


Change hurts. Even if you’re like me and you thrive on the energy of progress and movement, change is painful. It means something has to be left behind. It means a program has to die. It means embracing the unknown. Change hurts.

As the leader, you instinctively believe that there is better than here. But, here’s the thing: your people probably don’t. They are comfortable. And, until they believe that there is better than here, they will resist your attempts to move them because change hurts.

One of your most important tasks as a leader is to paint a compelling picture of why “there” is worth it. Don’t take it for granted that they get it. Take the time to paint the picture. Spend time with your key stakeholders and convince them that staying here will actually be worse than the pain of moving there.


You’ve probably heard of the concept of love languages. Years ago, Gary Chapman wrote a book describing the relational love languages every one of us has. He was, and is, spot on

I happen to believe that there’s such a thing as leadership languages. I think this concept is helpful when the person you are trying to motivate and move has authority over you, for example, your boss, your board members, or your church elders. What I’m trying to say is that each person has a unique leadership language and if you want to motivate that person, you’d do well to speak their language. Here are a few examples:

1. The Language of Data

My boss speaks the leadership language of data. He is motivated by cold, hard facts.


If I want to convince him of the merits of an idea, I know that I better come with actual data, not feelings or beliefs.
Here’s as a successful proposal for someone who speaks the language of data:

I believe we need to move our student ministry from Wednesday night to Sunday night and here’s why: After surveying parents, 30% of our students don’t attend regularly because of scheduling conflicts on Wednesday night. If we moved to Sundays, this 30% would likely start attending regularly.

Here’s an unsuccessful proposal with someone who speaks the language of data:

I’ve been doing a lot of praying and I think we need to move the student ministry to Wednesday nights.

Nope. If you want to motivate a person who speaks data, then you need to pray about it AND compile accurate information that supports your idea.


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Getting Unstuck

Have you noticed that there are a lot of churches out there living in the past?  I’m obviously not talking about your church!  But, hypothetically speaking, how do you get unstuck?  How do you move forward?  I have a few ideas…

Ask Around

For me, getting unstuck is always related to new and fresh ideas. One of the ways I get new ideas is by asking other ministry leaders one simple question:

What’s one idea that’s really worked for you this year?

Not every idea that is shared is a good one and not every idea that worked in church X will work in your context. However, some of the best practices in our ministry came from innovations from other churches.

If you need to get unstuck, consider setting up a few lunch or coffee meeting with ministry leaders in your area and ask them this one simple question.


Often, when a church becomes stale, it is because the leaders of that church have lost touch with their passions. When this happens, it’s time for the leaders to return to their passions or mine for new ones. Here are three questions to help you rediscover your passions:

  1. What breaks your heart?
  2. What keeps you up at night?
  3. If resources were not an issue what would you do?

Spending an afternoon pouring over these questions can help remind you what you are passionate about. Perhaps you will discover that what’s keeping you up at night is a missing demographic in your congregation. Or perhaps it’s breaking your heart that there isn’t a vibrant student ministry in your church. Or maybe, there is a school or neighborhood in your city that, if resources weren’t an issue, you would love for your congregation to partner with.

Rediscovered passions are fuel for vision and a compelling vision has the power to lead a church out of a season of being stuck.


If this has been helpful, click here to read the entire post.

3 Strategies for Resolving Conflict

f there is one thing that regularly cripples effective teams, it’s conflict.

We’ve all seen this.

There’s an incredibly talented football team that is a preseason pick to win it all but the team underperforms when it matters because the players can’t get along.

There’s a seasoned and skilled executive team that go nuclear because of relational strife.

There’s a growing church that loses momentum because the executive pastor and the teaching pastor can’t seem to get on the same page.

We’ll all seen it and we’ve all been a part of it. The thing is, we can’t avoid conflict. We live and lead in a fallen world. The question is not, how do we avoid conflict, but rather, how do we navigate conflict in our leadership teams?

I have three strategies that have worked well on my team.

1. Prepare for Conflict with Relationships

Here’s an obvious but important truth: I handle conflict differently with people I love and people I, well… don’t love.

You know what I mean because you do the same thing. With people we love, we tend to be more patient, more understanding, more empathetic and more honest. With people we don’t like or don’t know, we tend to assume the worst.

Because of this, the most important strategy for navigating conflict is to build strong relationships in your team. If your team cares about each other, they will be more honest, more trusting and more understanding. If your team doesn’t care about each other. Well, you are in trouble.

How do you build relationships? I have two ideas:

1. Relational Meetings

Start every team meeting with a relational component. It’s important that your team share about their personal lives and their stories. This will build trust and understanding. Do it regularly and often. Relationships take time.

2. Team Retreats

Start incorporating team retreats into your schedule. Why is this important? First, because we all act more like our authentic selves when our guard is down. Getting away from the regular schedule and responsibilities, finding a different space (like someone’s house or cottage), sharing a meal and hanging out in a disarming environment can do wonders for a team.

On our last retreat, we did little, other than eat together and answer three relational questions:

  1. What was the most important moment of your childhood?
  2. What was the most important moment of your teenage years?
  3. What has been the most important moment of your adult life?

It’s hard to explain the value of your team laughing and crying together. It builds a powerful sense of togetherness.

Secondly, shared experiences is a powerfully binding. Your team needs a few, “Remember when we…?” Shared memories, especially if they are funny or emotional, have the power to bind a team together.

Team retreats can become shared experiences. Go ahead and schedule one. You won’t regret it. If you don’t know what to do, go ahead and use my three questions.

Relationships pave the way for healthy conflict resolution. If I know your story, your passions and your quirks, I am much more likely to respond to you with maturity and grace when we disagree.

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4 Tips For Becoming More Effecient

Do you know what we all hate?


Let’s be honest. We do. Traffic backups? We hate them because they are inefficient.

Waiting for WAY too long in line at a restaurant. We hate it. Why? It’s inefficient.

Waiting 5 minutes for our outdated laptop to power up? We hate that! Why? Because, it’s inefficient.

Do you know what we love? Efficiency. It saves us time, money and energy.

There is no place that we should be more intolerant of inefficiency than our churches. Our staff, programs and processes are all being funded by the sacrificial generosity of church attenders who are under the assumption that their gifts are going to the highest possible good. As my boss often says to me when I propose spending money:

“How do I justify this idea to my 80-year-old mother who gives beyond her means to support this church?”

Ok. Extreme example. And yet, I think we all agree that our churches should be leading the way in efficiency.

So, how do we become more efficient? Well, that is a ginormous question so let’s narrow the scope to how we and our employees spend the most valuable of resources: our time. I have 4 ideas that have worked well in improving time efficiency in our church.

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Orange Tour!!!

I gotta tell you about something I’m excited about.  The Orange Tour is coming!  If you’re involved in student ministry or children’s ministry, this event is fantastic.  I always leave energized. Here’s a link with info and tour dates and stops.

If you’re curious, the theme for this year’s Tour is Monday is Coming.  Here’s a little blurb:

So WHAT IF what you do every Sunday could matter more if you remember what really matters to most people on Monday?
WHAT IF success is less about who comes this Sunday and more about what happens on Monday?
WHAT IF your ministry began to rethink every message, every environment, every program and every relationship through this one idea?

I experienced some of this content at the Orange Conference in Atlanta in April and loved it.  If you still don’t believe me, just check out this video…

One last thing:  If you’re planning to come to Detroit Tour stop…I’ll be there with most of my team.  See ya there!

Staff Meetings That Aren’t the Worst

If you’re like most people, you probably think church staff meetings are the worst. They are boring. They are pointless. They are a waste of time.

I used to think so too…until I ran into some good ones.

Now, I’ve completely changed my opinion of meetings. They don’t have to be a dreaded consumer of time.  They don’t even have to be a “necessary evil”. In fact, they can be incredibly helpful and even engaging.

How do you transform a meeting from “the worst” to something positive?

While I haven’t mastered every aspect of leading great ministry meetings, I have learned a few helpful tips.

Step one is structuring the meeting correctly. Here are 4 ways to help structure a great meeting.

1. What Kind of Meeting is This?

Most meetings suffer from a kind of multiple personalities disorder. In other words, we often try to make a meeting do too many things at once. A great meeting has a specific goal.

The first way to structure a great meeting is to define the purpose of the meeting. Here are some options:

The Check-In Meeting

During the summer months, my team has a check-in meeting every day. It lasts a maximum of 15 minutes and each person is responsible to share 3 things:

  1. This is what I’m working on
  2. This is what I need everyone to know
  3. This is what I need from the team

The purpose of this meeting is simply to get on the same page and run in the same direction.

The Review Meeting

Another meeting that my team often engages is the review meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to evaluate an event, program or trip. We’re providing feedback.

In this meeting, we often utilize a tool called “4 Helpful Lists”:

  1. What was Right?
  2. What was Wrong?
  3. What was Missing?
  4. What was Confusing?

This tool directs our conversation and feedback. Once everyone has provided input we create an “action steps” list to move the conversation forward.

The Strategic Meeting

A third type of meeting is the strategic meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to make a decision.

For my team, this often ends up feeling more like a debate than a meeting. It is often passionate, loud and intense. In my opinion, this is a good thing because it means the team is being honest.

It’s important to note that the strategic meeting doesn’t mean that the decision in question will be made democratically in the meeting because it often lands on the leader to make a tough decision. However, this meeting ensures that everyone on the team is heard.

All of these meetings are necessary and important. My point is simply this: do your best to communicate what type of meeting you are calling because then people will know how to prepare and act.

Combining different meetings is usually counterproductive.

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