Setting Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations is important for any leader. It is important for any pastor. But setting realistic expectations is absolutely essential for church revitalization. Without them, the potential for confusion and conflict increases. In a recent conversation on the Church Leadership Podcast, I talked with Andy Frazier and Mark Gainey about the importance of setting expectations at the start of a revitalization pastorate. These expectations would include…

1. The Expectation of Leadership

I recently met with the leadership team of a church that is very close to dying. In fact, without a miraculous intervention from Jesus, I’m not sure they will make it to the end of the year. But after just one conversation, I understood at least part of the problem. They refuse to be led.

Setting a realistic expectation of leadership is vital in church revitalization. The pastor must be ready to lead. And the people must be willing to be led. And the only way for this to happen is for there to be a mutual understanding of the priorities of pastoral leadership:

  • The Priority of Faithfulness. Many church members believe that the pastor is called to make them happy. He is not. The pastor is called to make God happy and to make the church holy.
  • The Priority of Preaching. Preaching is the single most important thing a pastor does each week. Jesus calls the under shepherd to “feed my sheep.”
  • The Priority of Loving the Church. Mark Clifton often reminds us to love the church we have, not the church we wish that we had. And we show that love by the way that we preach and the way that we lead.
  • The Priority of the Great Commission. The aim of pastoral leadership is to shepherd the church to make disciples. To borrow the cliche. Jesus called us to be fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium.

This last priority is key. Most declining and dying churches are organized to maintain the organization. And they often desire a pastor who will manage what they have. The pastor who takes on the challenge of shepherding a declining or dying church must establish the expectation of leadership. Establish priorities. Pray for church members. Love them like crazy. Listen to them with respect. But shepherd them forward in Jesus’ power alone.

2. The Expectation of Reality

One of the greatest sources of conflict in a struggling church is a misunderstanding of reality. The church wants someone to lead them back to the future. In my consultations with churches, this is a common theme. We remember when… We remember when our church was full. When we just opened the doors and people came. We remember when we had youth choir, RAs and GAs, WMU and Brotherhood. We remember when… That list could go on forever. And the implication is that if we could do those things again, we would be successful.

The church wants a pastor to help them become the church they were twenty years ago. And many pastors are trying to pastor the church from twenty years ago. These pastors and churches think that they can resurrect the programs of the past and achieve success.

The result is frustration and conflict. I know that is the case because I have been there and done that. I didn’t get the t-shirt. But I do have scars to show for it. Setting realistic expectations begins with defining reality. If the church is a mess, then say that it’s a mess. That is reality. Also, the church did not become a mess overnight. And it’s not going to experience revitalization over night. There are no quick fixes for declining and dying churches.

3. The Expectation of Hardship

There are no quick fixes. And there are no easy fixes. When I came to Huffman Baptist Church, I made it a point to let them know how hard revitalization was going to be. I told them things would likely get worse before they got better. Some of them who were so excited that God was sending them a pastor would think in six months that I was the devil himself! Revitalization is messy. And it’s important to establish the realistic expectation of hardship.

4. The Expectation of Hope

Leading a church in revitalization is hard. But there is hope. Jesus is still in the midst of his church. And he is calling his church to return to our first love. I do not subscribe to the theory that churches have life-cycles. That it is normal for a church to die. There is nothing about a dying church that brings glory to God.

Jesus wants to bring life to dying churches. So there is hope. Jesus has a plan for his church. But we must be willing to submit to God, submit to leadership, and submit to one another.

Not only does the pastor need to set realistic expectations for the church. He also needs to understand realistic expectations for himself. I once had a deacon ask me in an interview how I would lead change. I answered, “If I do my job well, you will experience change and you probably won’t recognize it.” That response was arrogant and ignorant. It set an unrealistic expectation for myself.

These are four realistic expectations that pastors should set. What would you add?


Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has helped churches in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. He is currently serving as the senior pastor of Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries and the work of church revitalization, visit