5 Strategic Decisions to Stop Church Decline


Is your church in the Preservation Phase of the Church Life Cycle? 

Preservatives keep food from spoiling. 

These additives and chemicals allow our foods to last much longer than in their natural form. On the surface, this seems positive. In most ways, it is. However, preservatives can be dangerous. Our bodies often don’t process these kinds of chemicals and additives like pure food products.

But they keep bread good for a week or two rather than a day. Preservatives allow nearly all the foods we intake to remain edible for weeks longer than without these additives.

Of course, bread without preservatives tastes better. But it doesn’t last.

Bringing us to the fourth stage in the Church Life Cycle.

NOTE: You can read more about life cycles here:

Preserving Churches

In parallel, churches in the Preservation Phase often add things to their model to “preserve” the church, or “our way of church,” so it can last longer.

Now, rarely will a church intentionally say or acknowledge they are adding programs or experiences to “preserve” the church. They are changing, improving, and preparing for another growth season. However, most of these “additions” are superficial, not strategic or cultural. They make things around the church look or sound different, but nothing is really different.

I mentioned this in a previous post (How to Recycle Your Strategy to Reset Your Life Cycle).

The most common failure during preservation is to change the dressing without changing the product and strategy. Some call this “putting lipstick on a pig.” As the organization sees it, it’s a strategic issue only. Not a people or leadership problem.

Let’s use a smartphone as our illustration. Old phones are slow phones. The battery is weak, apps won’t update, and the camera stinks. You would never buy a new phone case and believe the phone would function anew. Nobody puts on a new case and exclaims, “Look at my new phone. Look how great the battery works!” Yet, this is precisely what organizations do in preservation. They adopt new words or values (or even tweak the mission) without changing the core approach. And they believe it will make a difference.

An Example: Adding Lipstick to a Hybrid Church Pig

Let me give you the most significant example from the past three years: “Hybrid Church.” The pandemic ushered in a wave of necessary changes, not tweaks. Crisis illuminates and accelerates. In the case of the pandemic, the trends in and around the church accelerated some 5 or 10 years. This type of accelerated change necessitates a core model change. 

What did churches do in response? They immediately went “hybrid.” Or they increased their digital capabilities. Church service streams were added, and Instagram and Facebook received a new focus. Email became more critical.

Yet churches, even with all of these additions and upgrades, didn’t get better. Most got worse. Much worse.

And when they resumed in-person gatherings, their new “hybrid” approach didn’t improve the church very much, either. 


Because adding a few digital options doesn’t change the model. The addition of Instagram and emails doesn’t change the core model. Digitizing an outdated strategy only gives churches a digital version of an old model. It’s a superficial addition unless it fundamentally changes the core strategy. 

Virtually no church changed its core model or strategy in the past three years.

And churches keep wondering what happened and why people aren’t coming or engaging any longer. 

NOTE: I wrote a post about “hybrid” church about a year ago, but it still feel very relevant: Why Your Hybrid Church Still Isn’t Growing

Preservation Works Against Progress

Whether said or acknowledged, most churches aren’t attempting to change. They are trying to preserve. They want to, consciously or subconsciously, keep things exactly how they are. They are quite adept at resisting change considerations, too.

Churches (and any other organizations) deeply embedded in the Preservation Phase are just beginning the downside of the growth cycle. It’s minimal at first. And, of course, as the decline accelerates, more preservation is often enacted.

“We need to ‘get back to basics'” can be heard in leadership meetings. “We’ve lost our fundamentals” is another often-heard phrase. When a leader – often a younger leader – suggests a new strategy or different approach, the old guard politely listens without real intention to adopt the suggestion.

Fighting for new innovations feels like banging your head against a wall. Why? Because “that’s not how we do it around here.” We have a way of ministry. We have a model. And, in case anyone forgot, our model is what got us here!”

This is the clearest fork in the life cycle road to date. Churches have one of two choices to make:

  1. Preserve the previously successful model at all costs, and step into the next phase of the cycle: Deterioration. Or
  2. Recycle the church life cycle by forcing fundamental changes.

There is no other option. Keep preserving your way to irrelevance and death or channel your inner Robert Frost and take that road less traveled.

Breaking Free from Preservation

It is possible, but it takes work.

There is a reason very few churches and organizations can reinvent themselves to experience a life cycle recycling experience.

Here are 5 suggestions that may help you exit the Preservation Phase before it’s too late:

1. Listen to Outsiders

I mean no self-promotion here. No bait-and-switch. Don’t listen to me, but listen to somebody on the outside who’s been there before, understands the dynamics of your industry, and can help you see what you’ve little ability to spot.

Luckily, the preservation position is relatively easy to spot from the outside. Unfortunately, listening to someone who’s not been in your church’s organizational trenches takes great humility. I see this all the time. When a consultant proposes new ideas or points out our current failings, the executives ignore the suggestions. “They don’t know OUR church, though.” “That wouldn’t work here.” “We are not like those other places.”

At the risk of sounding harsh: Pride interferes with learning.

Empathetically, I get it. If you created a successful model yet are now watching metrics decline, and the mission suffer, this response is the natural and human response. If in this same position, most of us would double down on how we did it before. We’d need help to separate the principles from our previous success from our programs.

Step One: Start actively listening to outsiders.

2. Diversify the Decision Table

Most leadership teams and decision tables are dominated by those who’ve been there the longest.

In most cases, that’s THE qualification.

Think about how crazy that is. The longer you’ve been in an organization, the harder it is for you to see anything differently. Perspective glue sets more and more firmly with every passing day. This is all worse when founders and original staff dominate decision tables.

The solution is diversity. Diversity is a powerful tool for interjecting openness and innovation into any organization. Diversity brings people of varying perspectives to the conversation. In my experience, the more diverse the conversation, the better the final decision. Yes, decisions may take a bit longer. Still, I’d rather delay a decision for the best decision than speed through the process with a handful of identically-minded executives.

Step Two: Add Diversity of All Kinds To Decision Tables

NOTE: Again, no self-promotion here! But it is interesting that with several of my church and marketplace clients, I am asked to sit at their decision tables monthly to listen, ask questions, and make suggestions. Why do these leaders ask me to participate? Because I’ve been there before, and I can see their organization from a perspective they just don’t have.

3. Take Calculated Risks

Taking risks at the beginning of the life cycle is easy. What do you really have to lose?

As a larger and more mature organization, risks look much riskier. I’ll give you a personal example. When I first arrived at Woodstock City Church to serve as lead pastor, we had $400 in the bank, four staff members, and a few hundred people for Sunday services. Financially, we had to take some risks if we hoped to survive! But what did we really have to lose? I mean, we had about three months before our doors were closing anyway. Something had to change, so we changed all the time. We experimented as much as we could.

Fast forward a decade, and we had 8,000 attending each Sunday, a $9 million budget, and 65 staff members plus 20 interns. Our community and culture were still changing as they did a decade ago, but our scale and the potential loss of a wrong decision hampered our ability to change. We recovered from bad choices in the beginning. When our church grew much more extensive, wrong decisions could lead to dozens of jobs lost and thousands of people disengaging from their local church.

The constant preservation force is to eliminate risk. The more there is to lose, the less risky churches behave. The reverse should be true, though. Large churches (and organizations) will lose much more by not changing and adjusting to changing times. And large churches have more funding to test ideas more easily. This is especially true for a multisite church, where a campus can be a beta test.

Step Three: Start Taking Measurable Calculated Risks

4. Honestly Evaluate The Difference Between Management and Leadership

I’ve written about this many, many times, so I won’t rewrite it all here. The simple point is that managers orchestrate what currently exists while leaders create what can or should exist. The longer an organization, like a church, exists the more management rules the day.

Step Four: Track How Much Time You Spend Working On it (Leadership) versus Working In It (Management)

5. Change Leadership

Ouch! I’m sorry to include this as a suggestion. Sometimes, the only real way forward is through a change in leadership. And once again, this seems more necessary when a founder is at the helm of the preserving organization.

The founder or current leader doesn’t need to ride off into the preverbal sunset, never to be seen again. That’s harsher than is necessary. I do believe the leader unwilling or unable to adopt core, fundamental changes to the model must step into a more advisory role than a point leadership role. This could be a board chairman or pastor emeritus. This individual can still hold influence, preach, and engage. But they can’t be the final decision maker any longer.

You can imagine how often this happens. When it does, however, a well-orchestrated transition can lead to great success and recycling of the life cycle. 

The other option is eventually a forced change in leadership, but typically in the Deterioration or Expiration Phase. 

Step Five: Evaluate Your Position in the Future Organization


This is the last real hope for organizational recycling. In the next post, we’ll discuss some deterioration strategies, but these don’t often “recycle” the current organization – they usually lead to creating an entirely new entity. 

New thinking is required to revitalize the organization. Often this comes from new people. My friend and former boss Andy Stanley once said, “Let’s not do what a previous generation did and assume that what’s appealing today will be appealing tomorrow.” As a current leader in an organization experiencing preservation, you’re most likely that previous generation leader. You’ll need to enlist new, different, and younger leaders to consider new and improved strategies.

The further down the preservation slope the organization slides, the more challenging recovery becomes. Additionally, as the slope increases, the more necessary a change in leadership is likely. You can imagine how rarely executive leaders are willing to relinquish their position. Hence most organizations in preservation end up in deterioration rather than recovery through recycling.

If you suspect you’re in the Preservation Phase, I pray you’ll have the courage to take the necessary steps to change your life cycle.

If you’re unsure if your model or strategy is obsolete, this post may help: 6 Questions to Determine if Your Strategy is Old or Obsolete

Until next time,