The more I work with churches struggling to find a way to move off the plateau or reverse decline, the more the statement "it's all about leadership" rings true. Many churches are drifting in a fog with no clarity of mission, vision or values, like a ship without a rudder. My mentor Robert Fritz says, "Without leadership, organizations inevitably drift to mediocrity." Often, church leaders are unwilling to make tough decisions because they value harmony, and they are unwilling to lose people by taking unpopular stands. This has resulted in a situation where the vast majority of denominational churches are on plateau or in decline. In the Lutheran tribe (ELCA) 90% of the existing churches have not been able to add a single person to their average worship attendance in five years.

What do I mean: Leadership?

As a layperson, I’ve too often heard Jesus characterized by meekness and turning the other cheek. As I study the scripture, the picture I get of Jesus is quite different. I never see Jesus turn away from confronting wrong thinking or action. I never see him value harmony over truth-telling. I never see him worry about losing support of longtime church leaders because he takes a stand.

Just the opposite, Jesus continually raised the bar on the expectations of his followers. He led in ways that shattered the status quo wherever he went. He made very clear the cost of discipleship, and he saw many turn away when they understood the commitment required. Jesus was explicit in his call that we be disciples, make disciples, and feed the sheep. Why is discipleship not at the core of the culture of our churches? Why do we continue to count as members anyone who has contributed or communed in two years? Why do we prize harmony and not making waves? It seems like a slow drift over decades, so gradual no one seemed to see where the drift was leading.

Hoping for Transformation?

Transformation will only happen in our churches when a core group of leaders makes a personal commitment to living as disciples and modeling the servant leadership style taught to us by Jesus. Unfortunately, many of our pastors do not have the gift of leadership, and are not equipped  to disciple others. Our seminaries neither select for leadership traits nor do they focus on creating discipleship communities.

Pastors, can you find one leader in your church who is hearing the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper spiritual walk? Invest time and energy mentoring that person into a deeper walk, and you will see results multiply. John Kotter, in his book “Leading Change,” lays out the ten steps to effectively managing change in organizations. First, you build a sense of urgency. Second, you create a guiding coalition. Third, you develop a vision and strategy. Without laying this foundation, you may cause conflict, but you won't create lasting change.

To build a sense of urgency, one must paint a clear picture of reality, and how far we have strayed from our Biblical roots. Be the prophet in your midst. Hold up a mirror and show the people of God how far our membership model has strayed from first century discipleship. When you articulate a clear picture of reality of your starting point, and juxtapose that with a concise vision that describes a preferred future, you can create a powerful dynamic called Structural Tension. This is a key concept in visioning.

To create a guiding coalition, you must find those people who share two traits: They are leaders, people whose opinion matters to your flock, and they are hearing the call of the Spirit to grow in their relationship with Christ. Dave Daubert likes to say, "Trying to change an organization by yourself is suicide. Two people trying is Lovers' Leap. Three people works until one gets discouraged and leaves, then you are back to Lovers' Leap. It takes four people committed to lead sustainable change."

Most likely, this leadership group is not your Church Council. Since few denominational churches select Council based on spiritual leadership, they will not easily hear and respond to the call to discipleship. Gather those leaders who hear the call into regular fellowship and study in a small discipleship group setting. Work with them to discern their gifts, and learn from them the skills of leadership if that is not your strong suit.

As you develop this guiding coalition, plant the vision of discipleship. Work to create within this team a true expression of the Body of Christ in your midst. With that team, you can create a vision and strategy that will transform your church. Without a core group of leaders who buy into the vision of discipleship, it just won’t happen. So, what are you doing to develop leaders in your church? How much do you budget for leadership development? Have you created a leadership pipeline? What does the pathway to spiritual maturity look like in your setting. Have you created one? Do your people clearly see it?

So, as Bill Easum says, the place to start with transformation is Spiritual Leadership. Starting anywhere else will not produce the results the Spirit is calling forth. It’s all about leadership.

Additional Reading on the topic:

3DM: a taste of discipleship. This is the best operating model of discipleship I have seen.

Discover who you are with LifeKeys. This tool helps people discern their gifts, abilities, passions and values, leading to discernment of calling.

The Body of Christ as Ministry Team. Learn about collaborative leadership.

Reveal Spiritual Life Survey. Want to map a path to spiritual maturity. Take this survey, and use the results to help point people towards discipleship.

Successful Visioning in Churches. What does a successful visioning process look like? See this piece.

Core Theory of Success. Building healthy relationships is at the core of healthy community.