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Turnaround churches

By Ronald E. Keener

Tom Ehrich is president of Morning Walk Media, New York, NY. He publishes newsletters on church development and personal faith, writes two nationally syndicated newspaper columns, and does extensive consulting with congregations, church leaders and judicatories, primarily on church development.

Tom Ehrich

His most recent book is, Church Wellness: A Best Practices Guide to Nurturing Healthy Congregations (Church Publishing). Church Executive asked Ehrich a few questions about turning around congregations.

You talk about “invisibility;” to whom and by whom?

Neighborhood churches once were the centers of their neighborhood—visible, part of the landscape. Neighbors knew who worshiped where. People went to each other’s churches for special events. Neighborhoods changed and became less cohesive; many moved to suburbs and started living in different ways. Churches lost connections in both cases. They weren’t being talked about. People knew each other, but religious affiliation became a smaller part of that knowing. Churches that overcame visibility – large campuses, active community presence, charismatic and visible clergy, strong “buzz” – have done well. People are still hungry for faith.

What do you mean by “touches” in moving people along to potential affiliation and membership?

A “touch” is a contact, a connection, maybe not deep or permanent, but a starting point. A church touches many people: regular constituents, visitors, day school families, church fair attenders, friends of friends, etc. Few of these lead to formal affiliation, and yet the people feel a part of the congregation and are being served by the congregation. Many will support it financially. A touch is where we start as we build relationships. If we just wait for people to show up on Sunday morning and then go through our membership process, our churches will die.

One of the touches is to send an electronic message. Why is that important?

The point is to respond to people right away and to follow up with consistency, using communications media that they value. That means e-mail, social media and blogs. Churches waste their money when they send out printed publications through the postal service. Better to send a series of targeted newsletters—e.g. the regular one that all constituents get, a special newsletter designed for prospects, and niche ones for appropriate interests (such as young adults, families with children). If done well – short messages, links to website, focus on human needs and not on institution – people will read them and, over time, begin to identify the congregation as a part of their lives.

You call social media a non-negotiable consideration in lead generation. How so?

If you want to catch fish, the saying goes, you have to fish where the fish are. That means Facebook, as well as Twitter and, for a growing number, LinkedIn. Teenagers are using even newer social media. They aren’t using e-mail. They don’t read newspapers or magazines, rarely read their mail. They want to connect with peers using tools that interest them. This is true on up through the age ranks.

Churches should track leads, you say. What software is available for doing so?

Software-as-a-Service (web-delivered applications) is the way to go. The category is CRM: customer relationship management. An industrial strength example is SalesForce, a less complex but still potent one is BatchBook. Set permissions so that several can enter data, and a limited number can enter/read more personal data. Make sure you can report from the data. Forget PC-based apps (like Act! and Outlook).

A pastor’s blog is one approach to social media. Explain that, and how the blog is about the agenda of the leader, not personal matters.

In the corporate and not-for-profit world, all top leaders are being encouraged to blog. It is a business blog, not a friendship blog. It enables the top leaders to establish their agendas, communicate their vision in a personal and not official-policy way, try out ideas, give personality to their vision (“this matters to me, and here’s why”), clarify and extend the brand, and address issues as they arise.

“Elected leaders need to stop running churches,” you say. How so?

Too many lay boards see their role as managing the day-to-day operations of the church, from education to pastoral care to worship to program planning. They get so caught up in that work that they fail to pay attention to the future. They don’t study trends, emerging markets (such as young singles without children), changes in the context, challenges and opportunities in the marketplace. That concern for the future is their primary duty. Let the pastor, staff (if any) and key volunteers run the operations. Boards need to be dealing with top-level personnel requirements, what emerging opportunities say about infrastructure.

“Leaders need to engage change and risk.” In what ways?

The general rule is: stop doing what isn’t working. Mainline churches have been in decline for 45 years. What they are doing isn’t working. They enjoy it and feel useful doing it, but the outcome is negative. One-half to two-thirds of mainline churches are falling below the level of viability and will need to close within the next three to five years. There will be no way forward that isn’t substantially different from what they know. Finding that way forward will entail trial-and-error, a radical commitment to risk, and a bold determination to learn from failure.

You also say “leaders need better data.” In what ways?

Many church leaders are “flying blind,” as they say. They track average Sunday attendance and annual giving/spending. But those numbers are mostly meaningless. They need to track visitors, touches, small-group formations, age distribution, geographic distribution, program sustainability, departures, job formations/losses in local economy, living trends, housing values/sales/foreclosures, school-choice decisions.

What else might you want to share in this matter of turnaround strategies?

Churches have serious needs for:

  • Better leadership (younger clergy, younger lay leaders, more diversity, leaders who are willing to be trained and kept informed, fresh leaders)
  • Less focus on institution and more on persons, their needs and their relationships
  • Fresh ways to tell the Gospel Story and to respond to it
  • Get beyond Sunday morning worship as the prime, often only, locus of ministry
  • Listen to the marketplace, rather than to the comfortable sounds of our own voices
  • Focus on faith and transformation of life

For more information about Tom Ehrich visit www.morningwalkmedia.com. Twitter = tomehrich. Facebook = tom.ehrich.

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