I am increasingly focusing my time and attention on discerning what is the primary leadership skill needed among pastors for this season of the Protestant church in America. While it is dangerous to paint with too broad a brush, it appears to me that pastors of established churches (as opposed to church plants) that are not mega-churches face a very similar scenario. Their churches are almost inevitably in decline. This is especially true if they compare their growth/decline to the growth/decline of the community around them.

Thus, the essential skillset needed as a leader can be described as that of a turnaround leader.

Unfortunately, training as a turnaround specialist is a relatively unexplored concept in theological training, and very few ministers enter the ministry with those talents cultivated and honed. Most of us have had to learn on the job, as the season of church growth has given way to widespread decline.

There is, however, a growing body of work available related to turnaround skills in the corporate arena, and we can learn a great deal from them as we navigate these uncharted waters. Translating ideas from one world to another is always risky, but there is merit to understanding how others have stopped the decline of an organization and brought fresh vitality, energy and direction to people who thought their future was bleak.

Scan the web for articles about the psychology of turnaround leadership, and be prepared for a lengthy reading session. After reading dozens of them, what emerges for me are some core principles that seem to have relevance for ministers in churches facing decline and longing for turnaround.

Turnaround pastors provide Vision and Passion.  Declining congregations often have lost sight of their primary reason(s) for being and are dejected, dispirited, and depressed. A turnaround pastor sees something in them and in their setting and their DNA that, if properly nurtured, can become the fire that generates energy and passion for the future. Jesus saw something in his disciples and others that he encountered that others simply could not see. He looked beyond their failure (Peter) and their liabilities (tax collectors) and invited them to imagine a future that was more than they could fathom or imagine. That ability to see what others cannot see is a key trait of a turnaround leader.

Turnaround pastors bring ways of creating dialogue, respect and collaboration. When congregations are in a season of decline, the congregational culture begins to descend into a season marked by secrecy, scapegoating, isolation, turf-protection and passivity. Staff members and key leaders desperately need a catalytic leader who can make the covert overt and bring to life a culture where conversation and dialogue is normative. Fostering respect and a willingness to genuinely collaborate is one of the most essential tasks a turnaround leader must cultivate. Finding scriptural support for speaking truth to one another and building a team that values diversity is actually fairly easy. It was the way Jesus assembled his discipleship team, and the way the early church was able to leverage the skills of a disparate band of followers into the greatest missionary force the world has ever seen.

Turnaround pastors are not afraid to engage and manage conflict. Normalizing conflict as an inevitable and necessary part of being a high-functioning team (both lay and clergy) is a key ingredient in any turnaround. Inviting honesty that is couched in respect and a shared commitment to live in community requires a leader who can manage his or her own emotions and remain calm in the midst of the anxiety of others. The most effective turnaround pastors I know have learned to lean into conflict and see it as a friend when it is used to move a congregation closer to the dream God has for them. See how Jesus reacted in John 6 when his followers grew disenchanted with him trajectory and began to question him.

Turnaround pastors exude and live out of a spirit of confidence. This confidence is rooted in their conviction that God is going to provide for and guide the church that humbles itself and submits to Divine guidance. This confidence is not in the human skills of the pastor, but in the Spirit that inspires and sustains the people of God on our best days.

Turnaround ministry is now the norm for the vast majority of American clergy. It is rooted in our belief that God has more in store for the church than we can see or imagine. It requires a diligent retraining for most of us, and a willingness to speak the truth to a congregation in as loving a way as possible. When our efforts and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are joined together to bring the reign of God to bear upon our city or community, amazing things can happen.

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.