Build and tear down

Sometimes the same leader who builds up a church can destroy it.

By Mark Wingfield

The church building is grand and beautiful, representative of the kind of early 20th-century architecture prevalent among prominent Baptist churches with resources. A recent restoration has brought the shine back to this gem of a worship space, but the reality of harder times shows in all the empty and paint-peeling spaces behind the sanctuary — and in the small number of people filling the pews.

The same pastor who presided over growing this congregation to 3,000 members also presided over its decline to about 25 people. The reason involves more than changing demographics, because this church has been continuously located in a viable community.

Here’s the hard truth: Sometimes, the same leader who builds up a church can destroy it. The reason? Perhaps it’s because the skill set needed to build a church is not the same skill set needed to sustain it. Or perhaps it’s a matter of control — not being willing to give up control when needed. And sometimes it’s both those things.

Take the example of another church in another place: A dynamic, evangelistic pastor comes to a church start and over a period of just a few years grows the congregation from a handful to 300. This pastor has gifts of outreach and evangelism and works extremely hard as a solo staff member. But the apex of success doesn’t last long. The same pastor who worked so hard growing the church unwittingly kills it because he just can’t give up control as the church grows; his extreme focus on evangelism doesn’t allow for needed administration. And a solo pastor, even an energetic one, cannot sustain a 300-member congregation using the same skills that worked in a 50-member congregation. The church eventually closes.

In the case of the first church, a once-energetic young pastor built the church and then stayed in office well beyond a reasonable retirement age, apparently placing his need for position above the health of the congregation. And the congregational leadership did not have the wherewithal to enact the kind of change that would have saved the church its near-demise.

Here’s where a contradictory fact comes into play: We also know that pastoral longevity positively correlates with congregational health — most of the time. Churches that constantly churn through pastors don’t fare well, while congregations that nurture long-tenured pastors tend to thrive. But this truth also remains: As congregations grow or change, the type of pastor they need also changes.

My own senior pastor, George Mason, tells a story about a call he received a few years ago from a pastor friend marking a 10th anniversary and sensing a natural transition point. “What do I do now?” the pastor asked. George’s response: “You either become the pastor of another church, or you become another pastor of your church.”

Therein lies the sweet spot between the need for pastoral longevity and the benefits of fresh leadership. Both are true. Too much of one thing can kill a church, but too little of one thing also may be deadly.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.