Brewing a Church Turnaround (Part 1)

Leading a turnaround in a local church is incredibly difficult. Over ninety percent of Church of God congregations in Indiana are either plateaued or declining, and that means most pastors who are reading this are faced with the challenge of a turnaround. Older parishioners remember the glory days when the church was growing, when souls were being saved, when facilities for ministry were being built and when the church was a difference maker in the local community. But those days are in the past; so much has changed in the world since then, and so much has changed in how we do church. Chances are your church is struggling. The church is not what it was. How did it get this way? What do you do? How do you lead a turnaround? How can you lead a church whose best days are in the future, not in the past? You can’t go back and replicate the past, because things are different now. It’s a different world in which you are called to minister; and although the gospel is timeless, the methods are changing in how we communicate the truth of Christ to the world. Leading a turnaround in a local church is daunting to say the least.

Maybe you can relate to the heart cry of this leader who wrote to his staff and said:
“If you’re really honest with yourself, as I have tried to be with myself, along the way…there has been something we have lost. And it’s no one’s fault and there’s no punishment or blame. We are what we are—but the question is: What are we going to do about it and how are we going to fix it?”

That quote could have easily been from a broken hearted pastor trying to rally his congregation and staff to honestly look at the state of the church in an attempt to lead a turnaround. In truth, those words come not from a pastor, but from Howard Schultz, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Starbucks. Howard Schultz tells the story of how he turned his company around in his book “Onward.” There are incredible similarities in how Schultz led a corporate turnaround for Starbucks and leading a turnaround in a local church.

The best years were in the past
Prior to 2007, Starbucks had the golden touch. If you were fortunate enough to buy Starbuck’s stock in the 1990’s, you would have made a fortune. They were opening stores at record pace; and many times, they would open a store within sight of an existing store—and both stores would do well! Then everything changed; sales were sluggish; the Starbucks experience wasn’t what it used to be. Were the good times gone for good? Would Starbucks end up like Krispy Kreme?

Every church that is plateaued or in decline can identify a point in their past as their zenith; the church had vision; it had a catalytic leader; souls were being saved; the only problems, it seemed, were problems of growth. Everyone knows that something has changed; something has gone wrong. We aren’t in the glory days anymore. We aren’t making disciples like we used to. What we are experiencing today is a far cry from what the church experienced in the past.

What we are doing is not working
Like Starbucks, it wasn’t a single bad decision that brought us to this place. It wasn’t simply bad tactics. And you can’t blame the situation on bad people. Starbucks didn’t try to lose sales. They didn’t try to lower the price of their stock. They had very smart people that were doing the best they could. It just wasn’t working.

A local church that has plateaued or declined is not trying to get smaller. It’s trying to be faithful; but for some reason, it is struggling to be fruitful. Schultz found the damage to Starbucks was “slow and quiet”; it was incremental “like a single loose thread that unravels a sweater inch by inch.” Churches that were once thriving do not decline or fall into a plateau overnight; it happens gradually over time. It’s not the result of one bad decision, but a series of small decisions. It happens when we become complacent and comfortable. It happens when we forget our mission of making more and better disciples.

The world is changing
Starbucks faced a global recession. The stock market plummeted, the housing bubble burst, financial markets were in free-fall, and unemployment was soaring. The economic playing field had radically changed. Who was going to pay four to six dollars for a coffee, even one that was lovingly “handcrafted”? Also for the first time, Starbucks was facing serious competition from the likes of Dunkin Donuts and even McDonalds. Starbucks needed to take a hard look at itself and face some difficult decisions.

The local church also faces a world that is radically different from the world of its glory days. Americans don’t attend church like they did twenty to thirty years ago. Unlike in the past, Americans don’t have a compulsion to attend church. To draw them, a local church has to be compelling and relevant. We live in a culture that communicates by way of media with instant access to power of the Internet. The world has changed radically, and it continues to change rapidly. Churches are faced with the dilemma of doing what they have always done and getting declining, mediocre results, or facing the hard choice of doing something different to get different results.

Passion is essential
According to Howard Schultz, “Entrepreneurs must love what they do to such a degree that doing it is worth sacrifice and, at times, pain. But doing anything else, we think, would be unimaginable.” Read that quote again and substitute the word “pastors” for the word “entrepreneurs”. To lead a church—to really lead a church—you have to love what you do; you have to love the church of Jesus Christ; you have to love the local church; and you have to embrace and love your calling by Christ to be a pastor of His church. Doing anything else would be “unimaginable”.

If you are among the ninety plus percent of church pastors trying to lead a turnaround, what do you do about it? Howard Schultz led a turnaround at Starbucks so that its best days are currently being realized with plans to continue its rise in the future. The approach and strategies Schultz employed speak to the challenges of turning around a local church.
Howard Schultz didn’t go it alone to turn Starbucks around; he partnered with consultants and brought in other voices to help set new direction. As a pastor, whether your church is struggling or making progress, you also don’t have to go it alone; Indiana Ministries can help through consultation and coaching. Stay tuned, in the post I’ll take some lessons gleaned from “Onward” and identify some key moves your church can make.


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