A Time to Die: Church renewal depends on leadership, Baucom says
By Jim White Monday, March 01, 2010
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) — Jim Baucom, pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., has helped lead three established congregations to renewal and growth. He says doing the same thing in other churches, while not easy, is possible — with the combination of factors.
“I think it should be said that growing a church to relevance and vitality from near-death is an extremely rare incidence that requires a confluence of ‘favorable conditions,’” he said. What are those conditions?
Emphasizing that there is no magic formula, Baucom said he believes that certain transferable principles may guide a congregation in transition from hopelessness to new vision and new vitality. The transition begins with leadership.
A ‘change agent’
“A new leader is an absolute necessity, and that leader must be a change agent,” he said — noting that a change agent heightens the crisis in order to heal the system, much as chemotherapy temporarily sickens the patient but destroys the cancer. The pastoral change agent uses the crisis to implement necessary changes — small at first, then larger. These changes eventually create a cultural shift in the attitudes and expectations of the congregation.
“Once the church family becomes convinced that it can be effective again, and the first small waves of growth begin to generate excitement, something of a snowball effect is generated. Over time, the new growth overwhelms the old system as those who enter the ‘new church’ live out the new mission without the fear created by previous failures they never even knew. In other words, as new members are added, the church becomes the church they believe they joined.
Of course, he cautioned: “Inevitably, a few of the traditional members will leave the church.”
To move a congregation from self-absorption to having a missional focus and confidence in the future, the pastor must be “more committed to being relevant and effective than being universally liked,” Baucom said. “A portion of the traditional constituency of the declining church would rather see their church die than change (though they would never say so). Dramatically declining churches typically become unhealthy in ways most members cannot understand.” Churches that experience lengthy decline begin to panic about the future. They turn inward and develop a survival mentality that reduces the church’s ability to functional effectively, he said.
Decisions such churches make tend to meet the members’ needs but do little if anything to share the gospel with others. “Most leaders console and comfort such a system, engaging in hospice care that eases the suffering but limits the possibility of restored vigor,” Baucom contended.
Tremendous relational work is necessary to keep those who choose to remain on board. Although they may resist change initially, they are generally thrilled to see their church thrive and excited to be part of the journey when they witness successes.
“Some of those who remain may be unhappy with facets of the new church, but their voices are drowned out by the vast majority of people who are thrilled with the new direction, especially if they believe that the new thing is built on the foundation of the old,” Baucom advises. “For this to happen, the new leader must begin his or her work by helping the traditional church clearly define its core values and competencies. New ministries are created as extensions of old values, and in a very real sense the church simply does much better what it has done well in the past, casting itself into a new era to reach new generations.”
“In a real sense, the work of turning a church around is not one movement, but many smaller ‘shifts,’ each of which is ‘set’ by intentional periods of rest. The church moves forward, then rests; then moves again, then rests, again and again,” Baucom said.
At each stage of its growth, such a church pauses briefly to allow the change to gel. “To most, this feels like one constant and rapid push forward, but the leader instinctively freezes the system after each primary shift before prompting the congregation to initiate new changes. This is a careful balancing act,” Baucom cautioned. “If the leader moves too quickly, he or she will cut himself or herself away from the body. The most likely response to systemic change, by far, is to remove the change agent.
“If the leader pauses too long between change phases, the system becomes complacent and stuck, especially once the initial threat of congregational death has passed and the change platform has cooled,” he continued.
Baucom said many would-be change agents “become too patient or too exhausted and either leap from the change platform or lie down upon it. Either response short-circuits the change cycle and ends the turnaround.”
“I think it goes without saying that the change-agent must have a certain charisma and a degree of confidence tempered by humility and love for people,” Baucom said. “Over time, the congregation begins to trust the change agent implicitly IF the people believe that the leader has the church’s best interest at heart consistently, follows God unflinchingly, and loves the people unfailingly.”
Aware of own limitations
“Along the way, the leader must also draw around himself or herself gifted, selfless and spiritually mature leaders (or disciple such leaders himself or herself) who can implement the change he or she envisions. I say this, because the change agent is almost always a visionary communicator with limited ability to translate change into programs and ministries without the assistance of a platoon of gifted administrators and ministers. The leader must know his or her own limitations and interdependence with others in order to be effective long-term.”
Love for the church
“What made me uniquely qualified for turnaround was vision, energy, charisma, communication skills, and an intense love for people grounded in the traditional church. Because I loved the old thing and had a certain set of leadership skills, I could lead the turnaround,” he said. “I do not discount, even a little, what it means to be the son of a successful traditional-church pastor nurtured in the heart of great traditional churches any more than I do my enthusiasm for entrepreneurial creation of new things. In our context, the turnaround pastor must have both in equal measure.”
Another factor affecting the ability to turn around a declining church is the number of new, vibrant churches that have emerged in the area. The greater the number of exciting, effective, ministry-oriented churches in the area, the more difficult the turnaround will be.
“All that said,” Baucom concluded, “there is no joy like turnaround leadership, in my book. And there is no leader loved so much, trusted so thoroughly and embraced so quickly as the proven, successful change agent. Turnaround pastors become cemented into their church systems like no other leaders, save perhaps the founding pastors of new churches.”