In the absence of leadership, organizations inevitably drift to mediocrity. Robert Fritz

I entered into my first church leadership role in 1982. I was keen to figure out why some churches thrive while others struggle. As I entered into the work of the church, I began reading and studying, examining the variables. I found that very few other lay people had the time or energy to study this issue.

Slowly, I began to realize that most of the work I was doing as a lay leader wasn’t inspiring or uplifting. Our church had a typical denominational structure, with a church council elected to lead the church alongside the pastors. By the late 1980s I began to see a serious leadership void within the church. Vernon Luckey, the pastor who had led me to Christ and baptized me, had become a close friend and confidant. I loved him dearly, but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t step up into true leadership: casting a vision, challenging us to grow spiritually and holding us accountable for creating a healthy Christian community.

Vernon, like so many of his peers, did not see himself as a leader. He left the leadership to the laity. And, with a structure of three-year council terms and one-year rotations as president, no one could set a long-range vision in place and tend to its accomplishment. As a result, the church remained on a plateau for years.

I had begun to master the skills of management, and I was learning leadership in the marketplace. I yearned to apply that learning to my church. I began to read books and magazines, researching what caused churches to thrive. I could see that many growing churches had moved to contemporary worship, moving away from pipe organs and classical hymns.

As an unchurched child of the ‘60s, I had never felt moved by the liturgical Lutheran worship. Contemporary worship appealed to me. But most of the leaders were older people who had grown up in the church, and to them, the liturgical worship was one of the things that defined us as Lutherans.  It became apparent to me that people had a hard time separating form from substance, and a change in worship form threatened our Lutheran identity.

Vernon Luckey left the church in 1990 for another call. His co-pastor, Dee Donnelly, stepped in as senior pastor. Dee was a pioneer of the Lutheran tribe, one of the first women ordained as a pastor. It had been her dream to become a senior pastor, and at Apostles, she realized that dream. Dee was another pastor who had been formed to be a chaplain, and she didn’t see her role as leader. She practiced conflict avoidance, since keeping people happy had become the cultural norm after conflict split the church in the mid-‘70s. Twenty years later, we were sweeping any simmering conflict under the rug, maintaining a facade of unity.

Dee was much more formal and traditional than Vernon had been. Vernon was doing a form of contemporary worship before anyone knew what it was. Under Dee, the pendulum swung back to a more traditional setting, and we stayed on our plateau at around 200 in worship. I knew we were in trouble when the congregation decided a $300,000 pipe organ would be a good investment in bringing in new members.

I first met Rev. Dr. Ted Coleman in the early '90s, when he arrived as associate pastor at Apostles. Ted was a wonderful teacher and a blessing to our church. Besides his PhD from Duke Divinity School, Ted also had a masters in Library Science and had amassed the largest collection of contemporary Christian books I've ever seen outside a library. It consumed his entire basement, in neat rows of shelves all numbered and ordered and catalogued.

Over the years, Ted and I became close friends. Ted introduced me to books about church health and growth. He taught me what it takes to keep a church relevant and thriving year after year. At the same time, his lack of equipping in leadership made it hard for him to put legs under his ideas. So, I mentored him into management and leadership. For the decade of the '90s, we were friends who mentored each other to our mutual benefit.

Ted helped me see the structural conflicts inherent in our organizational structure. Ted was given responsibility for evangelism, drawing new people into the life of the church. Dee was responsible for worship. We kept getting feedback from visitors that they wanted more varied expressions of worship. Ted helped me see how limited he was in doing evangelism if he could not make some changes to the worship service to make it relevant to a new generation. He took the blame when we didn’t grow, but he wasn’t empowered to change the system to accommodate growth.

I later came to see the basic structural conflict in the church, and in our individual Christian walk: I want to change, but I want to stay the same.

One of the things that kept Apostles stuck was the lack of any expectations that you had to be a spiritual leader to be a formal leader on the church council. I have since found that in many plateaued and declining churches, the only criteria for being in a leadership role is a pulse. Church leaders don’t have to be committed to a spiritual journey, discipleship or the tithe -- they just have to be able to fog a mirror with their breath. How can a church be Spirit-led if their leadership is not?

TAKE A MOMENT  In what ways does your church structure encourage or impede healthy change in your church? Do you have expectations of your formal leaders that they also be spiritual leaders? How do you discern the people God is calling forth into leadership? What would it look like to be a Spirit-led church?

The more I read and studied under Ted’s guidance, the more I could see that significant change would be needed for us to regain health and restore our ability to draw people into relationship with Christ at Apostles. I helped Ted process his frustration at being unable to convince Dee that healthy change was worth the risk of disturbing the peaceful facade of a “nice” church.

I took the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment a couple of years ago. This assessment helps people identify their natural talents. One of my top five strengths was the ability to think strategically.

Here is Gallup's description of the term:

Strategic: The Strategic theme enables you to sort through the clutter and find the best route. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity. Mindful of these patterns, you play out alternative scenarios, always asking, “What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?” This recurring question helps you see around the next corner. There you can evaluate accurately the potential obstacles. Guided by where you see each path leading, you start to make selections. You discard the paths that lead nowhere. You discard the paths that lead straight into resistance. You discard the paths that lead into a fog of confusion. You cull and make selections until you arrive at the chosen path—your strategy. Armed with your strategy, you strike forward. This is your Strategic theme at work: 'What if?' Select. Strike.

Being a part of the leadership at Apostles for most of the '80s and '90s, I became concerned about some long-term trends. The church had been on a plateau in worship for a decade. Membership had dropped as inactive members were removed. Operating expenses just kept rising. As I explored where the trends were headed, I could see that we were not sustainable.

At the time, I wondered why things that were apparent to me weren't always clear to others. It was frustrating to have eyes to see but not be able to help others see. Slowly, an idea settled over me -- that this ability to think strategically was a gift from God, and that each of us is gifted differently.

TAKE A MOMENT  Where are the trend lines pointing in your church?  Are you growing in worship attendance?  On a plateau or in decline? Church leadership inevitably makes a church more healthy or less healthy. Are things getting better, staying the same, or getting worse? Why?

In 1995, I was part of a team that started a contemporary worship service aimed at attracting younger families to Apostles. The old guard, the senior pastor among them, disapproved of the new worship style, and the music director and choir were none too happy to have a new service wedged in on Sunday morning.

The church didn't have a clear vision in place, and conflict and discontent were bubbling under the surface. The senior pastor valued harmony above all else, avoiding conflict and disagreements. I volunteered to facilitate a visioning process to help set a course for the future. A dozen leaders spent six months in 1996 working as a team to articulate a clear vision. In the fall of 1996, we got unanimous support as the council and congregation adopted a new vision statement:

By the year 2000, Apostles will serve as a model in reaching out to the emerging generation through relevant, innovative Worship, Learning and Service. We will accompany each other on our Spiritual Journey, touching and changing lives by helping find purpose and meaning through Christ.

This statement meets the definition I hold of vision as an outcome, not a process. However, as we've established, clarifying a vision is only the first step. If you don't seek a clear understanding of your current reality, the vision is meaningless. How can you chart a course toward your preferred future if you don't know your starting point?

My friend Mike Foss puts it this way. “You want to build a bridge from point A, your current reality, to point B, your vision. Most people fail to achieve their vision because they misdiagnose point A. They start building the bridge about twenty yards out into the river.”

That was true at Apostles. The leadership thought we were much closer to achieving the vision than we really were. Speaking honestly about our current reality would burst the bubble. I’ve found that plateaued and declining churches are almost innoculated against seeing reality clearly.

As the visioning process wrapped up in the fall of 1996, I was embarking on my EMBA program. To make time for school, I took a two-year hiatus from my leadership roles at the church. We had created a vision, and the Council had approved three-year plans for each committee to move us towards the vision, but I was stepping back as the leadership implemented the vision.

The first red flag appeared when the annual budget was rolled out, and it was identical to the previous year's budget, plus five percent. There hadn't been any real attempt to align resources with the new vision.  How could innovation happen when we were just funding the status quo?

The leadership asked each ministry to develop goals supporting the new vision, but we reverted back to funding what we were already doing. What’s the old saw: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. After reviewing the goals set by each committee, the church leaders decided the biggest obstacle to reaching our vision was our building. It's always easier to look outside of ourselves for the problem. No one was ready to admit that we might be the problem.

Next thing I knew, a fund drive was underway for a building expansion. The plan coalesced around a new education wing, and a $1.9M building campaign began.

Now I was really starting to worry.  Adding the debt and operating expenses of a larger facility to the budget meant that if we didn't grow the congregation, a financial train wreck was coming. Yet we weren't doing anything to change the culture or attract new members. Younger leaders began to get frustrated with the lack of alignment between our budget and staff and the vision we were espousing. These young families began to peel off and leave the church.

When I saw the bright young leaders we had drawn with our Contemporary Worship begin to leave, I could forsee the death of the church. This moved me to action, beset with unintended consequences. The storm was brewing, but I was determined to act, not knowing where it would lead, but knowing our present course wasn’t sustainable.  But first, some reflections applying this to a broader story.

The predicament Apostles found itself in wasn't unique. Many mainline denominational churches today face similar problems. These cultures are so stuck in their ways that any attempt to effect healthy change sparks turbulence. As you try to move from a control structure to a permission-giving structure, those used to control will resist mightily. A bit of wisdom I've heard without knowing the source: Do you know why conflict is so bad in churches? Because the stakes are so low. In places where the church is truly persecuted today, people don't have time for petty squabbles.

As I work with leaders in these churches, I often find them in problem-solving mode. They live in what my friend Robert Fritz would call a zone of tolerable conflict. Change is motivated by the negative: budget problems, declining worship attendance, shifting neighborhood demographics, trouble attracting the younger generation, conflict in the church, worship wars.

90 percent of the churches of our Lutheran tribe are on plateau or in decline. Most have not had a compelling mission or vision in place since the early days. Time after time in troubled churches I see a real impetus is to move away from the problem. Yet I find very little energy for discerning a Godly vision to move forward in those churches.

TAKE A MOMENT What is the culture like at your church? Is there an attitude of "We don't need to change--we're fine just the way we are"?

The church building spree that began after World War II and continued through the 1950s and '60s has left a legacy of facilities that are underutilized and aging. Bill Easum has written several books on church leadership, and he describes these buildings as an albatross around the church's neck. These facilities were built to serve us. Now, all the cash flow goes into building upkeep, and program budgets suffer as a result.

As families, we buy homes, cars, boats and other objects to serve our needs. Then we find we must have two incomes to pay for the lifestyle. We end up serving the very things we bought to serve us. Churches have this problem in spades. Declining churches face a stark choice of paying for the building or paying a decent salary to the pastor. In most cases, the pastor loses.

Problems like this move a congregation to action. Unfortunately, it's often action without vision. Anyone who has tried exercise or diet plans knows that it's rarely enough just to want to move away from the negative reality of being overweight. Robert Fritz describes it this way: "Problem-solving is like demolition. You are trying to take something away. Creating, on the other hand, is like architecture. You are trying to make something new." Fritz says, "Have you made the fundamental choice to live a healthy life? In so doing, you will readily adopt secondary decisions that are difficult, like diet or exercise, in service of creating a healthy life."

We will make the hard choices if they move us closer to a compelling vision, but we rarely choose them for their own sake. So, the promising question we can ask, the right question, is, "What do we want to create together?" As we begin to think in this way, we can architect our way to a better future.

TAKE A MOMENT Has your church clearly articulated its mission, vision and values?

As you begin the process of discerning a vision, it's key to remember the difference between vision and mission. The vision is an outcome, not a process. It is the destination. Charlotte Roberts uses a football analogy, The mission defines the playing field. The work we do is within the boundaries of the field, our Mission. There is a lot of great work going on outside the field, but that's not what we do. The organizations norms and core beliefs are the rules by which we play the game. The vision is like the score at the end of a game played well. What will a win look like. The outcome is the vision.

Another critical element in visioning is an unflinching look at reality. You must know your starting point if you are going to successfully navigate to a new destination. Otherwise, you won't design effective strategies for reaching that destination. Once you have articulated a clear vision and established a starting point based in current reality, the contrast will create strong structural tension that will compel you to move forward. The current reality will show where the gaps are and highlight the work that needs to be done to reach the vision. This process is the core of visionary leadership.

The key element in a church setting is that God is the author of the vision. Through discernment and prayer, we seek to find the vision God calls us to live out in our Christian community.  This moves us beyond problem-solving and into the wonderful world of creating a future together.

This process of creating a vision and moving towards it is much easier in a new church than it is in one that is on a plateau or in decline. In an older, established church, many cling to old models. These models may be failing, but many are unable to let them go. Church council is elected based on criteria other than spiritual leadership. The council makes all the key decisions. Control is at the center, and little time is spent in prayer or discernment. Decisions are made based on human thinking rather than the still, small voice of the spirit. It is a control model, not a permission-giving model.

I believe that any church that is listening to and following the Spirit, building healthy community, will be blessed by God with the resources needed to do what God is calling forth. Those who quit hearing and following will wither like the fig tree that wasn’t producing fruit when Jesus passed.

Continuing to cling to an old model just doesn't work in the 21st century. Once a church has plateaued or begun to decline, only a drastic turn will change its fate. It may take decades, but the church will eventually die. The key to reversing this trajectory is to find a shared vision that all will energetically work towards. Success will build on success, and the participants will grow as individuals and as a team. At the core of this is spiritual leadership.

Biblical Reflection:
Romans 10:14-15-But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent"  As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Bonus Material:

Slow, but Relentless

Prepare for the Journey, Storms will Come

Difference Between a Leader and a Martyr Is Two Steps

Successful Visioning in Churches