Seminaries, denominational headquarters and church libraries are filled with studies, surveys and opinions about why churches in the United States plateau and decline. However, few address a pastor’s leadership style as a contributing cause or solution.
Transformational leadership distinctives evidence concern for the follower’s well-being, as well as an obvious interest in the well-being of the organizations they lead—often at great personal cost. These and other distinctives of transformational leadership practices contribute to one approach pastors can use to lead churches through the process of preservation and revitalization.
From the late 1980s into the first decade of the 21st century, many churches declined in overall membership, financial stability, missions effectiveness and community relevance for a variety of reasons. During the same time, many established churches built new, larger facilities and increased staff, and those congregations assumed weighty budgetary responsibilities.
Demographic shifts over the last half-century have contributed to church decline, as communities that once supported churches with ease and occasional extravagance no longer had those resources available. Statistics indicated a decline among many Texas Baptist church membership, financial giving and community relevance. Between 2006 and 2011, 50 percent of Texas Baptist churches grew in membership, community relevance and donations, while 43 percent were declining.
Neglect of leadership style
Researchers who conducted studies on the organizational life cycle of churches concluded churches must be proactive in preparing for the plateaued and ineffectual season of their long-term life cycle, and preparation needs to occur when the church is growing and developing. However, past efforts to address the problem of plateaued and declining church organizations primarily focused on better programs, bigger facilities or replacing leaders. They neglected to consider pastoral leadership style.
Many Baptist pastors do not know their own leadership style, and they do not recognize the status of their church as plateaued, declining, revitalized or end-of-life. Internal factors such as untrained leaders, aging leaders, waning donations and immobilized mission statements contribute to the plateau and decline of churches.
So, I surveyed 27 pastors of Baptist churches in the El Paso area. I wanted to encourage pastors of small, plateaued and declining churches to examine their own leadership style and deal realistically with the current status of their churches. I hope the study contributes to strategies that may help churches break out of the downward spiral that often leads to organizational demise.
Findings were based on a self-report questionnaire, researcher journal and field notes, and seven face-to-face interviews.
• Transactional or laissez-faire: Analysis of the data from the questionnaire indicated 19—or 71 percent—of the pastors were either transactional or laissez-faire leaders.
• Transformational: Eight of the 27 participants—29 percent—posted their highest scores in the transformational leadership category.
• Demographics: The churches ranged in size from a congregation of 25 members to more than 1,200, with an average size of 186 members. The annual budget of the churches ranged from $30,000 to more than $1 million dollars
• Disproportionate gap: The disproportionate gap in attendance and in annual budget justified the use of a median membership of 60, and the median annual budget was $45,000.
• Plateaued, growing, and revitalized: One-third of the participants viewed their organizational status as plateaued, while 30 percent considered themselves growing, and 15 percent saw themselves as revitalized.
• Comparative data: Statewide, archived Baptist General Convention of Texas statistics reflected 53 percent of 60 churches with congregations from 50-99 members in decline and 14 percent growing. Within the BGCT service area that includes El Paso, BGCT data reflected 59 percent of churches in decline and 20 percent plateaued. Study results also substantiated the self-reported organizational status of Southern Baptist churches in El Paso was 34 percent growing, 13 percent plateaued, 12.5 percent declining and 16.6 percent in revitalization.
A weakness among pastors’ self-awareness
The data revealed a weakness among pastors’ self-awareness in terms of leadership style. Practical recommendations include:
• Mentoring groups designed specifically to bring leadership style awareness to small-church pastors
• Revitalization teams of successful and experienced pastors who can assist plateaued and declining churches through consultation, mentoring, resourcing and other means of support.
• Self-awareness classes in terms of leadership style by utilizing mentors, consultants and organizational trainers.
• Training by seasoned leaders on pastoral education, cultural awareness and organizational lifecycle trends for pastors of small churches.
Questions remain. How should denominations deal with the eventual disposition of plateaued and declining churches? What are solutions either to reverse the trend or manage an end-of-organizational-life experience? This research has provided a platform for further discussion with denominational leaders and exposed the gap in pastors’ self-awareness in terms of organizational status and leadership style.
Genuinely transformational leaders need to stand at the helm of churches, leading congregations out of the downward slide to eventual organizational death.
Joseph Christopherson is executive director of El Paso Baptist Association. He wrote a doctoral dissertation at Grand Canyon University on the role of transformational leadership in the revitalization of plateaued and declining churches.