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How to thrive in a struggling church part 1 – plan for growth

As I look back on the beginning of my time as a children’s pastor, I’m often struck by what went well and what I wish I could change. For me, my early years were marked by a church that was struggling. I know that many children’s and youth pastors are experiencing the same things I did, so I decided to write down what I learned from working in a struggling church.

R1-01008-0020My first three years at First Christian were great. I learned a ton, and I experienced a lot of grace to build up my knowledge and learn from my mistakes. All of my growth happened in the context of a church that was struggling, however. Between leadership issues, church splits and general distrust, our number were dropping, our giving was down and there was a underlying tone of apathy.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am that FCC is growing in a healthy manner, and that our leadership has been revitalized. However, I know that there are many great children’s leaders who are trying to do what I tried to do – thrive in a struggling church. That’s why I’ve decided to look back and share some of the things I learned from being in that situation. And, looking back, here’s the first thing that came to mind.

Never stop planning for growth.

I didn’t always do this. We would discuss which unused spaces we would need “when we grew” and I would sometimes tune out. Thankfully, not all the time, however, because when we began to actually grow we had some groundwork laid to build upon.

Simply put, it’s really easy to assume things will stay the way they’ve been. When you’re growing, you think you’ll always grow. When you’re on the decline, you assume there’s no changing things. But there is! At some point the opportunity to grow with present itself, and when you are working in a declining church you need to be ready to change direction.

For us, this happened with Awana. We’d been offering our own Wednesday night programs with (shocking!) unsatisfactory results. When we realized that there was a hunger for Awana in our congregation, we went for it and got to experience big numbers, but even more important, we got to experience a huge push in momentum. Even as our church slogged through a Senior Pastor transition, our children’s ministry got to see growth.

I wish all my experiences went like that, but many times they didn’t. We had programs flop, we had people leave and we dealt with moments of cynicism. After all, serving in a struggling church is inescapably stressful. However, the best moments came when we looked for opportunities for growth. We got to see the tide turn, bit-by-bit, and we put ourselves in a slightly better place for when things began to change at the macro-level.

So, if you’re serving at a struggling church, never stop planning for growth. It will keep you hunting for new ideas, provide encouragement, and lay the groundwork for good things ahead. After all, if you can’t honestly see your church thriving, why stay?

What about you? What tips do you have for serving in struggling churches?

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