I was called to ministry in February of 1987. In my world at that time, a call to ministry was a call to pastoral ministry, music ministry, youth ministry, education ministry or missions. If there were specializations within each area, I was not aware. In recent years, a new speciality has emerged for those called to pastoral ministry. It is the call to serve as a revitalization pastor.
Over the past year I have consulted with a number of pastor search committees for churches in need of revitalization. I have encouraged each of them to seek a pastor specifically called to church revitalization. The truth is all pastors are not alike. We have different talents. Different spiritual gifts. We certainly have different skillsets.
The North American Mission Board has identified eight characteristics of the revitalization pastor. They also serve as a good guideline for any pastor who is attempting to lead the Lord’s church.
Lead them as a visionary shepherd.
There are two parts to this characteristic. Visionary. Shepherd. I have known pastoral leaders who were one, but not the other. A visionary who isn’t a shepherd may look at church members as a means to an end. He may treat them as resources to be deployed in fulfilling the vision. But Karl Vaters reminds us, “In a church, the people are not resources, they’re the result. They’re not on the bus to help get you to your destination; they are the destination.” On the other hand a shepherd who isn’t a visionary is likely to become nothing more than a chaplain, unwilling to rock the boat even when the boat is sinking. These leaders tend to forget that the role of the shepherd is to lead sheep to green pastures and still waters. To protect them from wolves and other enemies.
A visionary shepherd loves the sheep. And he leads the sheep. Several years ago a guest preacher told our church, “You are a blessed church. Your pastor loves you. And I know he loves you because he is leading you.” I appreciated his words of affirmation. Similarly, I want to encourage pastors to shepherd the flock of God that is among you. Be a visionary shepherd.
Lead them with tactical patience.
John Maxwell identified the Law of Timing as one of the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Simply put, it is the ability to know when to execute and when to hold back. Mark Clifton calls it “tactical patience.” In many churches there are literally dozens of things that need to be changed. As Lyle Schiller pointed out, “One of the most frequent signs of a dysfunctional church is denial, and one common expression of denial is the hope that next year will closely resemble 1955.” That’s because nothing has changed in many of these churches for a very long time. Tactical patience is knowing where and when to begin. Just don’t make the mistake that I once made when I ignorantly and arrogantly bragged that if I did my job well the church would experience necessary change so gradually they wouldn’t even notice. Lead the church with tactical patience.
Lead them with emotional intelligence.
Self awareness is essential for the revitalization pastor. Truthfully, it is essential for all leadership. But church revitalization brings highly charged emotions. Church members are often fearful of the future. They don’t want the church to die. But they are not sure they want the church to change, either. One of the characteristics of a revitalization pastor is the ability to read people and to respond accordingly. That ability begins with the pastor knowing himself. Knowing his own emotional vulnerabilities. His own strengths and weaknesses.
Lead them with a high tolerance for pain.
I really wish this was not required for pastoral leadership. Unfortunately, it is. Especially in church revitalization. The truth is that sheep bite. And the shepherd needs to be able to take it. I have known men who ceased to be visionary shepherds because they did not want to endure the pain of leadership. They chose to go with the proverbial flow. To not rock the boat. I once had a church tell me that they did not have conflict. I responded, “Unless you call a pastor who is willing to hold your hand and keep you happy while you die, you will have conflict. You can’t continue with business as usual.”
NOTE: This is in no way intended to give church bullies and cabals permission to treat pastors poorly.
Lead them as a resourceful generalist.
I recently completed a consultation with an established church facing revitalization. Historically, this church has employed a church staff that included a pastor, music minister, youth minister, children’s minister, secretaries, custodians and paid accompanists. They can no longer afford a paid staff of that magnitude. Their next pastor will have to be a resourceful generalist. He will have to be willing and able to take on multiple roles in order to lead them to be a healthy church.
Lead them with respect for the church’s legacy.
Every established church has a legacy. When a church is dying, it is tempting to trash and bash those who have come before. After all, if they had led well the church would not need revitalization. But the revitalization pastor tries to build on the positive aspects of the church’s legacy. He helps the church remember what God has done. He helps them to see their history through the eyes of Jesus.
Lead every generation.
My pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham does this better than anyone I know. Danny has led that church for more than twenty years. It is a church that includes members from six generations: Builders, Silents, Boomers, Gen X, Millenials, and Gen Z. Fifty years ago it was unusual for a church to have more than four generations. But life expectancy has changed that. Danny has a knack for engaging each generation and leading them to engage the next generation. The effective revitalization pastor leads every generation. He also loves every generation.
Lead your family well.
I have heard Thom Rainer remind pastors many times that the pastor’s family is his first line of ministry within the church. Pastoral ministry is hard work. Church revitalization is even harder. It is vital that the pastor’s family be supportive and persevering. And that probably will not happen unless the pastor is shepherding his own family.
When I was first starting out in ministry it was not uncommon for a pastor to stay three to five years in his early churches as he “moved up the ladder” of success. In fact, I had a search committee tell me once that the church was at its best when they called “up-and-coming pastors who stay with us for a while and then go on to bigger and better things.” I am thankful today that there are men responding to God’s call to invest their lives with churches that are stuck, struggling or spiraling towards death. Church revitalization is not a quick fix. It takes time. It also takes leadership from those who are called to the task.
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