Many UMC pastors are preparing to wrap up their time at their current churches, and head off to another appointment and season of ministry. I’m not the most experienced pastor out there, so I stole the outline of someone more gifted than I am, Ron Edmonson, and have added a little bit to it.
Here are five more things you need to know about revitalizing churches:
Recognize the sense of loss with the changes
There is always grief with change. Don’t lose sight of that. No matter how good the change may be, no matter how necessary it was, every change brings about some grief in your congregation. The very thing you removed or changed was the very thing that helped someone come to Christ in the first place decades ago. As the pastor, you need to honor that loss.
It’s worth noting that it doesn’t mean you don’t go through with the changes. You may still need to move the pulpit, or change the service times, or introduce more contemporary songs. Be mindful that each change is likely costing someone in your congregation something important.
Don’t neglect the past for the future
Rediscover the effective methods, don’t reinvent them – Someone planted your church. It may have been two centuries ago, but somewhere in your church’s heritage and history is the same missional DNA you’re looking to recapture now. There were golden years for your church at some point.
Go back to the best period in time for the church and look for what connected them to God and what made them feel great. Maybe they had a fantastic children’s ministry that lead to a boom in young families in church. Maybe the church had adopted a village in another country and helped build up that village. What ever it is, there is a history you can tap in to that can connect the congregation with the revitalization.
What are the bold moves of faith that will be celebrated 50 years from now? – Someone, a long time ago, took a bold leap of faith and reinvigorated the church you’re pastoring. I can remember the fight that my youth pastor had with the congregation I grew up in to start a contemporary worship service nearly twenty years ago – a fight I’ve had in both of my churches. My home church took a hard step forward decades ago, and has maintained some healthy growth, while many other churches are still decades behind. Your congregation needs someone (maybe you, or maybe someone else) to lead a bold step of faith that can help the congregation grow not just next year, but for decades.
Make the hard decisions – you can’t shy away from conflict
People do strange things in grief. They get sad and don’t come to church anymore. Or maybe they try to deal with you and trade for favors with you. Maybe they don’t think the situation is as dire as it really is. Whatever their reaction to grief is, you need to be prepared for that emotional energy to be directed at you. You may become the scapegoat or punching bag for someone in the church. People may even try to use their attendance and giving as leverage against you. One of the core truths of revitalization is this: some decisions you make will determine who is in church on Sunday.
As the pastor, you have to make hard, difficult decisions. They will hurt. They will cost you favor and friends. But they are the right decisions that need to be made – not just for the church, but also for you as a leader.
Don’t let a few critics determine your self worth
No matter what you do, you’ll have critics. You’ll be ‘Schrodinger’s Pastor’, both simultaneously changing too much and not changing enough. You can’t allow a handful of voices, no matter how loudly they shout, determine how well you feel you’re doing. I’ve learned that whenever “lot’s of people” are talking, it’s probably 5-6 people who keep talking to other people.
One of the hardest realities about church revitalization is the fact that no matter how many supporters you have, they will always sound quieter than your critics. But you need to trust that if God has called you to the ministry of revitalization, you’ll have more supporters than critics.
Have a long-term approach
One of the hardest things to prepare for in revitalization is the length of commitment. You’re taking on the challenge of changing at culture that formed over years and decades. That means that you’re not going to be able to unpack and untangle that in a few months. You need to commit to the long-term mindset of seeing the changes through to the end. And this is easier to say than do.
In order to build trusting relationships, you need to commit to the congregation to stick around and help them finish the projects you start. Start small, like building a website or Facebook page, and work your way into bigger projects. This helps you build credibility and trust.
Love the people, even when you don’t love the church
There will be days when you want to walk away from the church. The work will be too tedious, the support will be lacking, and the doubt will begin creeping in. You’ll wonder if the work is worth it. Those are the moments when you’ll begin to look at other churches and think the grass is greener in their yard. You’ll play the ‘If only…’ game (‘If only I had their resources/staff/location/etc. I could do real ministry”). That church you’re coveting (and you are) has problems too.
I’m reminded of a challenging but honest quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “A pastor should never complain about [their] congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.”
You will not always want to be in ministry, particularly in revitalizing an older congregation. But you have answered that call, and God has entrusted the spiritual lives of those men and women.
Refuel often, protect your soul
This is probably the most crucial piece of advice you need to hear: You need to take care of yourself. You’re going to spend every week pouring yourself out for people. And many days you’ll feel empty. If you’re not careful, you’ll start staying empty. You can’t count on your congregation to keep you balanced – they have their own concerns.
One of the most important things you as a pastor can do is to mark out your priorities and order your day around them. And we’re talking fundamental things: God, Family, Self, Church. Carve out a regular Sabbath and protect it. Find a hobby and invest in it. Learn what spiritual practices you need to reconnect with God, and protect those.
I typically take Friday as a Sabbath, where I will write or do some woodworking. I connect to God either through deeply introspective spiritual practices like ordered prayer and incense, or intensely expressive hard rock music (RED and Demon Hunter for example). I share these with you as examples. It took me years to learn these things, and I’m not letting go.
There you go. Some more tips that should help you start off your next appointment strong, and with a clearer picture of what God could have in store for you in the future.
I love y’all, and there’s nothing you can do about it.