Great Commission Research Network
Findings Report by Dr. Ray Ellis
November 10-11,2011
Biola University
La Mirada, CA

The Need for Turning Around Churches in the USA

• George Barna estimates two-thirds of the US population are non-Christians (190 Million)
• David Olson in The American Church in Crisis says, “Less than 20 % of the population attends church on any given weekend.”
• Olson also notes that church attendance in the West is only 15% or below.
• If the trend continues the percentage of the US population attending church in 2050 will be 10.5 percent.
• About 85% of the churches in America are plateaued or declining in attendance.
• Established churches over 40 years old are leading the way in decline.
• David Olson notes that based on current trends, church closures will nearly equal the number of church plants between 2005 and 2020. “Approximately 55,000 churches will close between 2005 and 2020, while 60,000 new churches will open, producing a net gain of 4,500 churches. However, to keep pace with population growth, a new gain of 48,000 churches will be needed.”

Dan Eymann pastor of North Mountain Church located Phoenix, Arizona developed a survey for
pastors and church leaders. They were asked their views on the decline and changes needed to turn around churches.

Survey Results included the following:

Causes of Decline Changes for Turnaround

1. Inadequate pastoral leadership 1. Called a new pastor

2. Loss of vision 2. Renewal & recast vision

3. A changing community (demographic) 3. Targeted a new demographic

4. An aging congregation 4. Targeted a younger generation

5. Inward focus (lack of outreach) 5. Community outreach

6. Resistance to change 6. Contemporary worship

7. Power struggles (internal politics) 7. Confronted/removed divisiveness

8. Church split 8. Forgiveness and reconciliation

9. Inadequate facilities 9. Remodeled or new facilities

10. Spiritually unhealthy 10. Small groups

11. Low Morale 11. Positive atmosphere

Top three causes of decline according to the survey:

1. Inadequate Leadership
2. Low Vision
3. Low Morale

Top Three changes needed for turnaround:

1. New pastoral leadership
2. Renewed & recast vision
3. Positive & encouraging atmosphere

Gordon E. Penfold, pastor of First Baptist Church, Holyoke, Colorado, presented a paper focusing on the characteristics of turnaround pastors

He declared that two requirements are needed to develop turnaround churches; first a capable pastor and second, a willing congregation. Both elements must be present for turnaround to take place.

The Personality Profile (DiSC)

In 2009 Gordon Penfold gathered information from evangelical pastors in the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. His research used the DiSC to better understand turnaround pastors apart from non-turnaround pastors. The DiSC profile measures leadership characteristics: Dominance (D), Influence (i), Steadiness (S) and Conscientiousness ©).

Twenty-seven pastors completed the DiSC profile and one pastor participated in the survey but did not fill out a DiSC profile. Worship attendance in the churches ranged from 20 to 5,500.

Penfold used the baseline of a gain in worship of 2.5 % per year for a minimum of five years to qualify as a turnaround church. Twenty-one of the churches met the criteria for turnaround with a minimum of 2.5 % gain in worship for a least five years. Seven churches did not meet the average attendance gain of 2.5% for five years.

The DiSC Profile scores have a range of Low, Mid, and High.

Low-Range 1-3
Mid-Range 4
High-Range 5-7

DiSC Profile average scores for all pastors, Turnaround Pastors and Non-turnaround Pastors were as follows:


Turnaround Pastors 4.7 4.4 3.2 3.9

Non Turnaround 2.6 2.1 5.1 6.6

Two strong differences were noted between turnaround pastors and non-turnaround pastors. Turnaround pastors were more heavily weighted toward the mid to high D and mid to high I range. Non-turnaround pastors scored in the high range in the S and C, while turn around pastors were low to mid-range in S and C.

Only one of the turnaround pastors had a low D and I score. Also one non-turnaround pastor had a high D and I score. God can use anyone to give leadership to a growing church, but the trend for turnaround pastors is a mid to high D and I scores on the DiSC profile.

Importance of Vision

Penfold gathered information from both pastors and lay leaders in the 28 congregations that participated in the survey. The outcomes of six questions revealed that Turnaround Pastors scored higher in responses to the six vision questions.

1. Pastors clearly communicated their vision for ministry to the church.

2. The Pastor’s vision for ministry was spiritually challenging.

3. The people in the church had a very clear picture in their minds for their vision for ministry.

4. The people in the church had a clear understanding of where they wanted to be in two, five and ten years.

5. Their vision was feasible.

6. The pastor communicated the vision with passion.

The Value of Mentors and Coaches

Penfold asked the 28 pastors in his study two questions. 1) “In the first five years of my ministry, I had someone whom I regarded as a mentor/coach.” 2) “I currently have someone who mentors or coaches me in ministry.”

Each questions was answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Thirteen of the Turnaround Pastors said they had a coach or mentor at the beginning of their ministry. Four Non-Turnaround Pastors said they had a coach or mentor at the beginning of their ministry.

Thirteen Turnaround Pastors said they currently had a coach or mentor. While only one Non-Turnaround pastor currently had a coach or mentor.


Penfold gave the following summary from his survey of the twenty-eight pastors. Turnaround pastors are:

• Pastors who most often score mid to high D and I on the DiSC profile
• Passionate, visionary pastors who are able to draw followers after them
• Pastors who, more often than not, have a mentor or a coach
• More innovational than traditional
• More energetic (an absolute essential for turnaround ministry)
• Pastors who are “young in ministry,” regardless of their biological age
• Better team players
• Better at delegating ministry responsibilities
• Better at training new leaders
• Focused and determined in ministry
• Pastors who embrace necessary change and are prepared to pay the price to lead change
• Pastor who have good conflict resolution skills
• Better than average communicators. This communication includes not only great preaching and teaching skills, but communicating vision and direction with passion.
• Pastors who passionately use their primary spiritual gifts and empower others to use their gifts

Suggested Course of Action

Penfold suggests the following suggestions for Overseers of pastors:

• Identify turnaround and potential turnaround pastors.
• Develop boot camps for Turnaround Pastors similar to boot camps that have been developed for church planters. Provide tools for turnaround to these pastors including at a minimum mentor/coaches, conflict reconciliation skills, envisioning skills, leadership development tools, and delegation skills.
• Place these pastors in strategic churches in urban, suburban and rural settings.
• In order to facilitate change, provide church assessment for strategic churches to establish “a sense of urgency.” Leading Change by John Kotter, is recommended reading for pastors interested in turnaround ministry.
• Begin to use Turnaround Pastors as coaches and mentors with pastors who have a good set of pastoral skills.
• Turnaround Pastors need to intentionally train pastoral interns so these interms will be imprinted with turnaround DNA for their future ministries.

Ten Lessons I Learned from Being a Turnaround Pastor
Jerry Rueb, Sr. Pastor Cornerstone Church, Long Beach, CA

1. God is the God of resurrection; He can raise the dead church back to life.
2. Everyone has a different story. A turn around pastor takes time to listen.
3. Picking at old wounds will make healing impossible.
4. Dead churches remain dead as long as everyone’s eyes are looking back to the point of failure.
5. Dead churches require new and compelling vision and new and renewed people who will buy in to give it new life and hope.
6. Dead churches need to see the vision embodied in the new leader.
7. Preaching sermons aimed at correcting problems will typically have negative results.
8. Some people will never get over past wrongs because being a victim gives them their identity.
9. Actively build trust because distrust of pastors and board members takes years of leadership integrity to overcome.
10. Preach the Lordship of Christ!

The Impact of Church Age & Size on Turnaround
By Gary L. McIntosh, Dir. of DMin. Program at Talbut Seminary

Dr. McIntosh says it normally takes some level of coercion, initiation, intervention, or mediation, to get a church moving. From his observations in working with congregations it takes two forces – one internal and the other external – working simultaneously to turn around a local church. The internal force is most often the pastor who desires to see a church reach a new level of vitality, while the external force is often a church consultant. The external consultant may be an independent contractor or a denominational leader from outside the client church. However, change mediated from inside and outside a church is a powerful force to initiate a turnaround.

When a church is less than fifteen or twenty years old, turnaround is reasonably easy to bring about since the basic culture remains pliable. However, by the time a church is over sixty-years old, the culture is deeply embedded, which takes more effort and time to change.

All things being equal, a small church may turn around in a relatively short space of time, but a larger church takes much more time.

The essential key to all turnarounds is the presence of a leader who not only knows the way to go, but more important has the courage to move forward. Sam Chand a consultant says, “Leaders only grow to the threshold of their pain.”

Turning Around Younger Smaller Churches

Turnaround begins as the church collectively wrestles with its strengths and weaknesses. For strategies Dr. McIntosh suggests using his book, Taking Your Church to the Next Level as a guide.

Turning Around Younger/Larger Churches

One key strategy for churches in this size and age category is to identify which sub-ministries are doing well and are in house models of where the leaders want the church to move in the future. Change toward the future is then empowered as people from these successful ministries are systematically promoted to positions of influence in the church.

Turning Around Older/Larger Churches

Bringing about a turnaround in an older church normally takes five to fifteen years as leaders gradually introduce change into the static system. A pastor wishing to bring about change will need to build a new coalition – lead staff, board, and leadership team – comprised of global thinkers (people who think widely about ministry). The practice of new pastors bringing along staff members from another church is one way to begin rebuilding a new coalition.

Turning Around Older/Smaller Churches

Turnaround in Older/Smaller churches takes place when a crisis is identified or created by some leader, usually the pastor. Pointing to the crisis of survival, the pastor convinces the remaining church members that “something has got to change.”

Turnaround in older/smaller churches only takes place when people are willing to make the hard decisions, which allows them to leave a legacy for their future.