Q&A: On bringing new life to a ‘dying church’

The Rev. Paul Nixon is a UM minister, church consultant and author, based in Washington, D.C. His new book We Refused to Lead a Dying Church! (The Pilgrim Press) profiles 15 comeback congregations, eight of them United Methodist. He agreed to an email interview with managing editor Sam Hodges.

Paul Nixon

You wrote a popular, influential book called I Refused to Lead a Dying Church! Now, a few years later, you’ve changed the pronoun, following up with We Refused to Lead a Dying Church! How is the sequel different and why do such a book?

The first book, five years ago, surprised me in terms of reader response. Sales greatly exceeded our anticipation. Something about that book, perhaps the title, cut to the heart of what a lot of folks were feeling about ministry. It also helped thousands of leaders in local churches sit down for some important and past-due conversations about the future of their ministry.

Yet everywhere people asked me, “Can you tell us stories of a church like ours, that dared to live these choices and turned around?”

So, five years later, the new book is simply stories of 15 faith communities that chose life, defied the odds and came back roaring. I chose diverse stories so that almost every congregation can relate to a few. Obviously, as the reader begins to move through the stories, she will detect patterns and connect some dots—without anyone having to force the point. For example, most readers will discover that conflict is a normal part of the journey to life, and not to be feared.

How did you find the churches in this book, and what were you looking for as you decided which ones to include?

I looked for churches whose stories were against the odds. I wanted to show extreme comebacks so that one might conclude, “If it can happen there, it can happen in our church.” These stories served to further cement my conviction that any church can choose life. Also I looked for a variety of churches, urban and rural, with a preference for smaller congregations. The megachurches can write their own books. These amazing stories in smaller congregations are not told often enough! So around half of the churches we studied are still less than 100 people gathered on most Sundays. There are a few churches in the book much larger. I chose churches that ranged from moderate-conservative to quite liberal in their theological orientation.

Some of these churches turned around gradually. Most, though, seemed to have a dramatic turning point. Talk about how an ice storm helped Evangel UMC of Holton, Kan.

You can’t script ice storms. In every story, things happened that no human being could plan. I am not saying that God sends ice storms to Holton, Kan., but God does show up in every story. And unless God shows up nothing much happens anywhere. God showed up profoundly in the ice storm, helping an internally-focused church to make space for their neighbors and rebuild their community connections, when their building was one of the few in town that still had power.

Probably the most unusual turning point was an infestation of snakes at St. Mark UMC in Sumter, S.C. How did that make a difference in that church’s life?

Snakes ran St. Mark out of a building that they needed to leave anyway. We get sentimental about buildings. We get stuck in buildings. Most churches that close do so in part because they believe that their inability to support their building puts them out of business. That is never true. St. Mark was blessed to have some snakes push them on out and get them on the journey to a much better building that can support their ministry more effectively.

First UMC in Sikeston, Mo., is a church that underwent a lot of turmoil before turning around. You write in this book that “mutinies are normal in church transformation.” Is it usually a case of entrenched interests just not wanting to change?

Usually so. It’s normal. Mutinies often come just before the tipping point. It is advantageous in most cases to postpone those kinds of conflict until we have collected enough new people and bright-eyed people that we can survive the mutiny. In my next book (due out in January), Kim Shockley and I talk about 10 strategies for leading ministry in a turnaround church as the movement builds, in the early months and years, prior to the likely mutiny. That book is entitled The Surprise Factor and will be published by Abingdon.

Each church featured in your book has its own story, and you stress that there’s no one path to change. But isn’t there a common theme here of churches turning from being inward- to outward-focused?

Yes, and a common theme of leaders (both clergy and lay) with clarity of principle, commitment to serving the larger community and the nerve to stick to their vision. Beyond that, it is hard to generalize. This is one of the things I love about the format of just letting the stories speak. People are smart enough to figure out how this works if they just begin to know a range of stories from places other than their own congregation.

Many of the churches in the book made a move to becoming welcoming and affirming to LGBT folks. What do you make of that?

Half did. Half did not. That is sort of a snapshot of American opinions on that. I did not go looking to create a 50-50 balance here in the stories I presented. It was not on my radar when I chose the stories. I did seek to look at churches from the mainline theological traditions. If you are re-rooting your church in your community, your LGBT strategy will likely relate to the core constituency that you are called to serve beyond your walls. And many younger urban people see this as a civil rights issue.

Churches in blue zones will be more likely to act boldly on LGBT inclusivity. But the UCC congregation in Irvine, Calif., is located in an area that voted for Proposition 8. For them, their stands were simply a matter of conscience. I mean in the end, we have to look at God and say, “Here we stand—this is what we believe the gospel demands of us.” Regardless of where we fall in terms of hot social issues, I just respect people who are true to their understanding of the gospel.

You write that denominational help was significant in about half of these stories. Do you think the UMC’s Call to Action initiative, with its 10-year focus on boosting the number of vital congregations and the use of metrics in shining light on how churches are doing, is a good thing? How much change can be imposed, or even encouraged, from above?

The Call to Action, as we are hearing it, is a good thing. But we needed it 20 years ago. The Call to Action feels a little behind the curve to me, in terms of tracking what congregational vitality looks like. But the spirit of accountability and focus on bearing fruit is a wonderful thing! I think the Toward Vitality study currently underway will offer a helpful addition to the denomination-wide study done by Towers Watson. Sometimes churches are based in tough mission fields or have high median age, so that net gains in some categories will be hard-won in the first few years of a church’s comeback.

And yet, a movement may be afoot in those churches that will eventually snowball and often affect the metrics we are watching so anxiously from the cabinet table. Some churches are still declining according to the conventional metrics, but they are well into a new era of God’s movement and blessing. In all of the stories we shared in the book, there were increases in numbers of worshippers, numbers of leaders and numbers of persons making profession of faith in Christ. But we are now in an era where the core paradigm of what church looks like is shifting. So we need to take care to ask which indicators are best indexed to the new thing God is doing among us in each place. It is so much more than worship attendance and how much money we collect.

The Kentucky Conference was one of the few to report improved statistics this year. That conference has had a real emphasis on church plants, including putting a lot of money into the effort. The UMC as a whole has ambitious goals for church starts. Is there a risk that the denomination is putting too much stress on new churches, and not enough on saving existing churches?

The denomination cannot put too much stress on new church plants. It is a both/and. We need renewed churches and lots of new churches. We have to call churches to accountability, to invite them into processes such as the Healthy Church Initiative, where a team does intervention work with a plateaued or dying church. That process works! And we also need to plant churches at four times our current rate just to stay even in terms of the numbers of people engaged in the United Methodist movement in the USA. We doubled new church plants in 2008-12. We need to double it again by 2016 and again by 2020 if we are serious about turning American Methodism around.

Are seminaries doing enough to prepare new clergy for taking on the task of turning around a church?

Seminaries are a mixed bag. But the majority of our seminaries are committed to forming leaders to lead congregations and to make Jesus followers. Partnership between excellent ministry practitioners and solid theological learning is critical—and I hope that such partnership will be a hallmark of 21st-century theological education.

The number one purpose of seminaries is to grow highly skilled leaders for the Christian movement in its congregational expression. Most seminaries partner with ministry practitioners in mentoring and supervisory ways. But unless seminaries are partnering with practitioners who have actual church turnaround within their personal history, the seminary may be wasting an opportunity. Several years ago, I recall a particular local pastor whose church was exploding and that church brought in nearly half the new members by profession of faith for their entire district—and the seminary was uncomfortable with the pastor as a field education leader simply because he did not hold a master of divinity degree or elder ordination. With the UMC in the shape it is in, we cannot afford that kind of elitism.

You note in the book how stressful it can be for a pastor who’s trying to lead a church to recovery, especially when there are factions that oppose him or her. Is there any one story in this book that really underscores that for you?

The first story is about a Baptist church that meets just down the street from where I live. That story was terrifying to me. I had to take a break from the writing of it. It was intense. Most of us pastors, if we saw the kind of price this pastor paid to turn that church around and saw that this was required of us, we would run (not walk) away from parish ministry. My dad was a pastor for most of his life, and a good one. But when he found out about my call, his first response was not pride and affirmation about following in his footsteps, but nausea and to shout at God. He knew. Churches can be cruel places to work and lead.

I sometimes wonder why I love the local church so much. I see the good, and also the bad. Finally, it’s a mystery. God puts that love in a pastor’s heart. And you just have to live with it best you can! Psychotherapists and spiritual directors will be necessary along the way.


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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