What if I told you the Wizard wasn't so magical at first?
John Wooden's first 15 years at UCLA had a combined record of 285-125. Sounds respectable right? It's a winning percentage of 69.5%. But over the next 12 years, his record was 335-22, winning 93.8% of their games, 88 in a row, 10 national championships, and finishing undefeated 4 times.
Pretty astounding isn't it?
Here's my hot take: if John Wooden was coaching today, he'd have been fired by year 5.
We'd never have gotten the Pyramid of Success, we'd never connect the names Walton & Alcindor. And for all of us who grew up Louisville fans, we'd never have hired a UCLA assistant named Denny Crum.
The question I keep thinking about is, how many churches and pastors miss out on immeasurable blessings because they didn't stay the course? UCLA patiently built a dynasty, famously by Coach Wooden first showing players how to tie their shoes and put on socks. But when we live in the microwave culture, if you don't turn things around within a couple years you're a failure (look at the body count of coaches left in the SEC with Saban).
I'm incredibly indebted to my friend Sam Rainer and the work of the Revitalize Network. I'm looking forward to being a part of their conference next year and learning from pastors and leaders in other churches looking to make the turnaround. My belief is that most pastors in struggling churches aren't content to simply exist.
Turnaround Churches are Led by Pastors Who Stay - Let's be honest, pastoring is hard. It's harder when it doesn't seem like anything is working. It's harder when giving is down, when attendance numbers aren't what "they used to be," and it's hard when you wonder if your family or your sanity can take it much longer. But a church that's going to make the turn is going to have to be led by someone who will stay. I'm not saying a lifetime. But when people say it takes 4-5 years to even start to make significant inroads, you can't be surprised churches are in the decline when pastors bolt every 3 years.
Turnaround Churches are Fed the Word Faithfully - When asked about the Reformation, Martin Luther's response was "The Word did the work!" The same thing happens in a church that makes the turn. They've been fed, regularly, the Word. They're fed faithfully, consistently, and joyfully. Their worldview is shaped and formed by the Bible. Their faith is informed. Their souls are encouraged. Their witness is emboldened. Sermonettes can't do that. It's like a diet of cotton candy. Sounds nice but it won't nourish. Hey pastor, keep plodding.
Turnaround Churches are Committed to Outreach - Churches who want to make the turn are committed to reaching out into their community. When churches and pastors take an adversarial approach to their community (an "Us vs. Them" mentality) they shouldn't be surprised that their witness is dim. Outreach is more than knocking on doors or having an event on campus. It's built through relationships. Pastors, do you know the principals at the schools near you? Do you know the names of the business owners around your church? For all of us, do we have friendships with lost people?
Turnaround Churches are Willing to Change - Change is hard. We have Disney passes and we see the angry comments people make when a ride is closed or a new pavilion is put in. Familiarity breeds nostalgia. It happens in the church too. But churches that are unwilling to change are signing their own death certificate. It might take a few years (or longer if they have money in the bank), but the death rattle is there. Every church must be willing to change. Not the message. Not the Gospel. But we must be willing to change. David Kinnaman asked a question that's never left me: "Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?"
Turnaround Churches are Guided by Prayer - Churches who want to turn the corner can't simply have prayer as an obligatory part of their services, it has to be something that's part of your DNA. If you want to know the health of your church's prayer life, think about what's mentioned at your prayer meetings. What gets shared more, health requests or mission requests? We should certainly pray for the sick and for the wounded to be healed. But when we spend all our time praying to keep the saints out of heaven, we're missing something. Prayer must guide every step of a church's process, and be so ingrained in its DNA that even guests get a sense something is going on. Does your leadership team spend time in prayer? What about in your worship services? What about in your own life?
Turnaround Churches Emphasize Development > Hiring - Hiring someone to do something is really easy. Just give them a job description and sign the check. When there's a need, we can farm it out. Whether it's musicians or nursery workers or even ministry leaders, we're missing out when we answer needs with a paycheck. Development looks different though. It's where we are working with people to put them in positions of service and leadership as a part of their Christian ministry and devotion. Instead of hiring out your children's workers, why not develop a handful of volunteers who can not only serve but own a ministry? Churches who make the turn may have to attach a vocational commitment to a role as it grows, but we shouldn't look at that as our first choice.
Turnaround Churches are Built to Last - Sadly, at UCLA the followers of Wooden haven't found as much success. Even the one coach who won a championship was pushed out the door. Coaches who won a majority of their games were fired. One was reported to get death threats. For all the good that Wooden did, it wasn't built to last. The same thing happens in our churches when everything gets dependent on us or on a small group. When something happens, the train comes off the rails. I think a lot of this is connected to the first, that pastors who fail to stick around leave behind them unfinished business that will never get completed. Hey churches, if your pastor were to get called away tomorrow or hit by a bus before Sunday, would things continue? Or would they revert back to the way they were?
What have you seen in churches that turn the corner?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.