Leading a Turnaround Church

Leading a Turnaround Church

by Dr. Donald E. Ross – Author and Presenter at the 2017 Summit

What is a Turnaround Church? Turnaround Churches experience a decline nearly impossible to reverse, but somehow they do. Most churches in similar situations simply go out of business. What are the critical aspects of a church and pastor that see terminal decline turned into growth?

Let’s begin by defining a turnaround church. A turnaround church has recognized that, due to consistent decline, within a generation it will be out of business. This church has courageously decided to face the truth and make a series of extremely difficult and painful decisions to reverse that trend.


I’d like to say that “Everything rises or falls on mission” but I think someone has already captured that sentiment. Regardless, mission is critical. Understanding that both the leader and the church are part of the mission of Christ gives the needed elements to embrace a turnaround.

Mission says, “This is not about me, it’s about Jesus”. When we understand that nearly 4,000 churches a year go out of business, and we are not planting nearly enough to replace them, we can understand that turning around declining churches as well as planting new ones is very much a part of Christ’s mission.

In many ways, the challenge of a turnaround church was written for us 2,000 years ago in Revelation, 3:1-3. The letter to the church of Sardis says:  “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

In a very real sense, a declining church may have had a reputation of being alive, but it is not alive now. It is on life support and needs help.

Both the pastor and church leaders need to work together to “strengthen what remains and is about to die.” This is hard work, but possible and needed, if the leaders and church are willing to pay the price to not only survive, but also learn to thrive.


This turnaround is usually led by a visionary leader, often brought in from outside the church’s current culture. The value of bringing in new leaders is that they are not stuck in the current thinking trends or bogged down by the church’s history. Continue reading

Jumpstart Your Ministry: Start With The Basics – A 2020 Resource

Turnaround 2020Successful Turnaround efforts in a local church will add new people to the fellowship. Some will be transfers from other churches. Many times those already committed to Christ and His church relocate to new communities while others may leave a church environment they view as uncomfortable or even toxic. Growth by transfer is important to conserve the overall impact of The Church. Nevertheless, when the church receives transfer members the local church grows but The Church does not.

Real Turnaround then must focus on conversion growth rather than transfer growth. Conversion growth means that those who come to personal faith in Christ will also come into the fellowship of the church that won them.

In the not too distant past, churches relied on the visibility of their buildings or on a simple advertising campaign to attract new participants. Bill Easum describes an early effort to attract people to church by borrowing a piece of earth moving equipment and pushing piles of dirt across the church lawn. The visibility of apparent construction activity helped gain a crowd. (See Go Big!). This was in a day, however, when people routinely went to church so the main goal was to gain recognition of location. An early mentor of mine pointed out three criteria for church growth: location, location, location! Many suburban housing developments in the 60s and 70s routinely allowed for a few lots to be sold to churches. The church growth strategy in those days was that people from the immediate locale of the building would simply show up because everybody went to church.

In the 21st century buildings do not win people, nor do programs guarantee church growth. For example, in recent generations young families would be attracted to church about the time the children entered public school. In those days an effective children’s program guaranteed the growth of a church since religious education was the driving motive in a family’s return to church.

In the 21st century neither programs nor buildings guarantee church growth.

Continue reading

Part 3 Mobilize Behind the Scenes

First Steps in Turnaround – Part 3 and 4. MOBILIZE


This is the third part in a series which comes from the 2016 Turnaround 2020 Plan Book. A full version of this plan book is available by download at www.Turnaround2020.net or by hard copy from Congregational Ministries, 573-785-7746.

A. Prayer Team


A wise pastor once observed “You can have a crowd and still not have a church.” Most church leaders would agree with that sage observation for they have realized from their own experiences that drawing a crowd is secondary to having a church.

Turnaround 2020 exists to equip local churches in best practices of social, religious and spiritual systems to help local churches set the stage for divine moments when the Lord of the Church demonstrates his powerful presence.

Before a church begins any turnaround activity, the first thing that should be done is build an Intercession Team. In fact, we believe so strongly in this that we do not encourage a church to engage in a turnaround project unless the project leaders have mobilized and are communicating regularly with at least 10 people who are covering the entire project in prayer.

B. 10 Steps to Follow in Mobilizing Your Intercession Team


for you as the leader, for your family and for all the various miracles God will have to do if the church is to turnaround to become healthy, vibrant, and growing.


Take the time to sit down and make a list of people who may fit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Who have said they will pray for you?
  • Who calls you and ask for prayer requests?
  • Who asks if you have had any answers to prayers?
  • Who do you know as a person of prayer?
  • Who has received ministry from you, who you really connected with? That is, you liked them, they liked you and “they carry you on their heart” (Phil 1:3-5, 7).


Personally communicate with them about how vital prayer is to your success. Continue reading

Seven elements of your new believers follow up system

Seven Elements of your New Believers Follow Up System

7 Elements of your New Believers Follow Up System

  1. Congratulations e-mail or text message within 24 hours.
  2. Printed letter from the Pastor.
  3. Church Brochure.
  4. New Believers Booklet
    (Include it with your pastor’s letter.)
    “Now That You’re a Christian” by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz is often used.
  5. New Believers Bible
    Include a coupon for it in your pastor’s letter. Make it available to be picked up the next Sunday after the letter is received.
  6. Baptism Brochure
    This should be customized to your church. Contact Congregational Ministries if you need a sample.
  7. Develop and Information Collection Process to gain all information needed for your church record keeping process. An information sheet as part of Class 101 may work well.

Remember: Having freshly redeemed people around the church does something to the church. Are you ready, in advance, for these gifts?

First Steps in Turnaround - Part 2: Organize

First Steps in Turnaround – Part 2. ORGANIZE


This is the second part in a series which comes from the 2016 Turnaround 2020 Plan Book. A full version of this plan book is available by download at www.Turnaround2020.net or by hard copy from Congregational Ministries, 573-785-7746.

A. Improve Your Worship Service

☐ What do we do well?
☐ What is confusing or threatening to guests?
☐ What is goofy and needs to be changed?
☐ What needs to be updated?
☐ Is there a growth barrier we are facing?
☐ Do we consider the first time visitor to be a guest?
☐ Is our worship dynamic small group or large group?

Since worship is THE entry point to almost every church these days, what we do in worship will set the stage for our success or failure to reach people. It is always nice to lead with your strength. So honestly ask yourself “What do we do well in our worship?” By asking that question you must also determine what you do not do so well or what you do poorly.

B. The Ministry of Record Keeping

First steps in evangelism, outreach, and turnaround begin with the behind the scenes ministry of good records. Record keeping strategies may be complex or simple. It really doesn’t matter as long as they are effective!

A quick look at the Bible illustrates the historical importance of numbers. There is even an Old Testament book called Numbers! The New Testament records the numbers of people who had lunch with Jesus—4,000 on one occasion; 5,000 on another—and even how they sat in groups of 50 (Luke 10:14).


Some of the most important numbers only rarely make a ‘public’ appearance. That is, they are generally not communicated openly. However, they remain very important. The leader of a growing congregation will undoubtedly be aware of them.

1. The Size of the Crowd.

“If everyone had been here.” This statement often consoles us on low attendance days or celebrates a full house that would have been beyond capacity if everyone had been present on a high attendance day.

The crowd is composed of those folks who attend at least once in a while. One convenient measure of the crowd is to identify those folks who attend at least once every 6-8 weeks.

Why is it so important to know the size of and the identity of the crowd? The size of the crowd indicates the potential the church has to grow and impact people. The identity of those who make up the crowd indicates who it is that we are most likely to win to faith in Christ and faithfulness to His church.

The size of the Crowd2. Total Weekly Participation.

In the Family Based Church everyone attends everything. These churches function like an extended family. They are generally smaller in size. It is not uncommon for activities to be cancelled if even a few cannot attend.

A Program Based Church will have a more developed and diverse program where no one attends everything but everyone attends something. Total weekly participation, then, is a measure of who attended at least one ministry activity in a given week. It is determined by a cross reference of attendance reports so that everyone who attends at least once in the week is counted but is only counted one time per week for the overall participation level.
3. Percentage of the Congregation Present for Five Years or Less.

“I’m on my third congregation!” reported the pastor of a middle sized church. Having been pastor there for nearly 20 years he had discovered first hand that church folks are mobile. They move away. They drop out. Others drop in. Every year there are funerals!

Other measures of tenure could be used. A very important one is the percentage of folks who have become part of the congregation since the current pastor arrived.

Each of these measure the likelihood of leading change and maintaining relevance. Change is most likely when enough newer folks with newer ideas come into leadership roles. The pastor is most likely to lead change when a large percentage of the congregation has come into the church since he began his ministry.

Numbers will not track themselves. Use of some church management software or the development of a spreadsheet will make the task easier. In the church of 200 or fewer a good notebook and clipboard will cover most of the bases. Volunteer office helpers can do much of the record keeping. Whatever system is used, however, must ring true to the old adage “We count people because people count!”

C. Prepare for Guests

☐ Develop a Standardized Welcome
☐ Use Communication cards or other non-threatening means to gain guest information
☐ Greeter Training
☐ Hospitality Teams
☐ Be User friendly: park in the back—move to the front—scoot to the middle
☐ Plan for Follow-up

Note: Remember, regardless of music performance or message deliverance, a person must be welcomed into the church in a friendly and helpful way or the first impression of the church will be a negative one, and it will be unlikely that the guest will ever return a second time.

1. Develop a Standardized Welcome

“Good morning. Welcome to __________ church today. It’s so good to see you here! We have an engaging worship experience planned and I trust you received a worship folder (or program or guide or bulletin) as you entered today. If you didn’t receive one please raise your hand and one of our greeters will bring you one.

Inside the worship folder you will find an order of service with some information about what we will be doing, a sermon guide so you will be able to take notes and a communication card. We ask that our regular attenders please print your names and e-mail addresses along with any updated information and prayer concerns. If you are our guests today please complete as much information as you feel comfortable sharing. I want to assure you that we will not embarrass you or use this information irresponsibly but we will attempt to provide you with more information about our church.

I know there are a number of fine churches in our community that you could be attending today and that there are any number of other activities that could have taken your time, so I want to say “Thanks” for sharing the day with us.

Would you please stand with me as we being our worship with a prayer? Then please remain standing as we will sing together.”

The Communication Card2. The Communication Card

The best communication cards will include

  • An obvious way to respond to become a Christian.
  • A customized means of response to the day’s worship service.
  • An opportunity to volunteer or sign up for special events.
  • An avenue to report prayer concerns and praise reports.

A collection process at the conclusion of the service, even if the offering has been collected earlier, will also enhance the response process.

3. Greeter Training

Greeters should be organized and trained. Greeters should be friendly, knowledgeable people who are placed at strategic locations to meet and greet those who attend the worship service. Churches that do not have parking teams may find benefit to placing greeters on the parking lot. See the book Fusion by Nelson Searcy for more information on greeters. Another handy, targeted resource may be found in Church Greeters 101: Putting the Pieces Together for an Effective Greeting Team and Ministry by Christopher Walker.

4. Hospitality and First Impressions Team

Will refreshments be served? If so who will provide, prepare, serve and clean? Perhaps hospitality features should be introduced on special days or once each month. First impressions helps us understand how to make maximum impact on the guests the Lord sends to us. A handy resource will be found in First Impressions (Revised): Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church by Mark L. Waltz.

5. Be User Friendly

View everything through the lens of the first-time, unchurched guest. Announcements and church language need to be minimized or eliminated if they confuse the first-time guest.

D. Plan for Follow Up

Follow-up is essential if we are to conserve the results of our outreach efforts. Since each guest is a gift from the Lord each one should be treated as a special person.

Six Steps to Make Worship More Inspiring

STEP 1: Start with the sermon.

Sermons that engage real life questions and issues with real life application help make worship more inspiring.

STEP 2: Involve more people.

Worship is not just a spectator event. Members of the congregation can be intentionally involved by planning for testimonies, encouraging a variety of special music, enlisting greeters and ushers, and arranging Scripture readers.

STEP 3: Visit other churches.

While every church is unique and no church should simply copy what another is doing, every church can learn from other churches what works in worship in their settings.

STEP 4: Look at the music.

Worship leaders are often surprised by how few hymns and songs are used when the list of music that is used is compiled over a year or so. While a steady diet of all new songs can be difficult, so can a steady diet of 10-12 hymns and gospel songs that are repeated throughout the year.

STEP 5: Use seasonal themes.

When the worship planner looks at the church year and the civil calendar and includes these elements in the worship service it becomes more inspirational since it connects to elements of life that are common to our culture.

STEP 6: Recognize time constraints.

Every local church will develop its own worship culture as to what is an appropriate length of time for most worship services. Worship that inspires will therefore be worship that is planned to fit within the accepted time frames of the participants.


First Steps in Turnaround – Part 1. RECOGNIZE


This is the first part in a series which comes from the 2016 Turnaround 2020 Plan Book. A full version of this plan book is available by download at www.Turnaround2020.net or by hard copy from Congregational Ministries, 573-785-7746.

What Is Your Church’s Redemptive Potential?

Suppose your church became all that the Lord intended it to become? What might result? What is the full redemptive potential of a local church? Is it measured by attendance, programs, life transformation or some other metric?

A variety of factors impact the redemptive potential of any local church. Some of them are simple and practical. For example, megachurches are always found in large population centers. Villages do not contain the level of population to produce a megachurch.

Other factors are more complex and elusive. Craig Groeschel wrote a few years ago about having “It” and while sometimes “It” can be identified, it is often more obvious when “It” is missing.

In our Turnaround 2020 strategy we first take stock of the current reality. By recognizing where we are, we should be better able to chart where the Lord will lead us as we endeavor to become all that He intends us to become.

A. Church Life Cycles

Churches, like the people who comprise them, move through cycles in their existence. Some of these cycles a church moves through are life cycles. People are born, grow to maturity, then they age and die. Churches, too, are born and grow to maturity. Churches age. Some churches complete their life cycle and others discover new periods of growth and development.

Learning where a church is on its life cycle helps church leaders develop appropriate strategies. Learning life cycle status often provides a sense of urgency for church leaders as they plan for new cycles of growth and development to avoid the life cycle of decline. Life cycle may be measured by attitudes, chronology and comfort zone.

Because the life cycle is not always as predictable and smooth as many may think, it is important to avoid alarm over short periods of plateau or decline. The best possible advice for any church is to remain vigilant. Once a problem is spotted, ensure that all possible measures are taken to reverse decline before it leads to drop out and death. Continue reading