Lessons in Leadership: 4 Lessons I’ve Learned in Church Revitalization

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When God called me to my first church as a full-time senior pastor, I had never even heard the term “church revitalization.” Yet, I would soon discover the unique challenges of leading a church out of decline into spiritual vitality. At the time, I was an associate pastor on staff at a church in another state. After I preached in view of a call at this prospective church, they voted me in nearly unanimously. My wife and I then returned to our current church that evening, where we shared the news with everyone at our Sunday evening service. Almost everyone was excited for us. Almost.

During this time, a pastor of a nearby church was “placed on sabbatical” by his church amid long standing conflict. We will call him Jerry. In reality, powerbrokers in Jerry’s church had temporarily removed him to determine whether they would keep him as their pastor. While he was away from his church, he was attending ours. I remember seeing him sitting beside me on the front pew that night. Our senior pastor looked at Jerry and said, “Did you hear the news?! Jordon has been called to his first church!” Jerry scooted toward me and put his arm around me. He then simply said, “Boy, you’re gonna learn a lot.” I was confused. I thought to myself, “I’m a college graduate and seminary student. I have learned a lot!” He looked at me again and repeated, “You’re gonna learn a lot, boy.” I remained confused about his comments, until three months later.

Before we become obsessed with doing something for Christ, we must first concern ourselves with abiding in Christ.

After being at our new church for three months, we had our first business meeting. In that meeting, I met a few powerbrokers myself. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that they publicly scolded me in front of the church. It was quite humiliating. After church, my wife and I returned to our home. We sat at the kitchen table, weeping before the Lord in prayer. We wondered, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” After reminding ourselves that the Lord had called us there, we concluded the prayer. As I wiped my tears and put my glasses back on, my wife scooted toward me and put her arm around me. Then, she humorously said, “Boy, you’re gonna learn a lot!” We laughed, and suddenly, Jerry’s words made sense to me. I had a lot to learn about church revitalization.

Now, with nearly thirteen years of serving in revitalization contexts, I have learned a lot. There are too many lessons to share in the limited space here. But what follows are four of the most important lessons I have learned about leading a church through revitalization.

1. The Pastor’s Personal Holiness Is More Important Than Anything in Revitalization

More important than how you will be used by God to lead a church from death to life is how you will move out of sin and into greater Christlikeness. As Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Before we become obsessed with doing something for Christ, we must first concern ourselves with abiding in Christ. The task of revitalization presents difficult challenges. Without our personal growth in holiness, we will not be fit to handle the task in the long term. This is why when Paul taught Timothy about how to do ministry in the difficult situation in Ephesus, he instructed him, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16a). Pastor, more than anything else, as you lead in revitalization, pursue personal holiness through daily engagement with God’s Word, fervent prayer, and the fellowship of the saints.

2. Pastors Must Know That Only God Can Revitalize a Church

Sometimes, we refer to pastors involved in revitalization as “revitalizers.” I suppose this is okay so long as we understand that we are merely instruments through which the ultimate Revitalizer brings heart change in the lives of God’s people. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate Revitalizer. Of the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63a). Indeed, even as we plant and water, it is God alone who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). In revitalization, as in all pastoral ministry, we are to be regarded as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God who are called to be faithful as he works through us (1 Corinthians 4:1).

While only God can revitalize a dying church, we must also understand that he has chosen means through which he will bring life to a declining congregation. The two primary means are the ministry of the Word and prayer. Just as the apostles gave themselves to these two tasks in the early church (Acts 6:4), so also pastors leading in revitalization must especially give themselves to fervent prayer on behalf of God’s people and the careful and prayerful preaching and teaching of his Word.

3. Pastors Will Need a Tough Skin and a Tender Heart, because Revitalization Is Hard

Craig Hamilton states, “Leading is pain. It’s part of the job. And if you’re planning on not being hurt, then you’re planning on not being a leader. If you haven’t already, you need to accept this fact, stop being surprised by pain, and start expecting it.” [1] This is especially true in revitalization. There are reasons a church has declined in spiritual health. Among the members, there may be decades of neglect of Bible engagement, kingdom-focused prayer, evangelism, and outward-focused service. When leading them back to these practices, you can expect both active resistance and passive apathy. Both of which will be painful. When the revitalization is not going as expected, you will need a tough skin and a tender heart. A tough skin so that everything coming at you will not immediately get under your skin and control how you think, feel, and act. And a tender heart so that everything coming from you is from a disposition of Christlike humility, love, and gentleness.

How does a pastor gain a tough skin and a tender heart? Certainly, we do so through the ordinary means of grace, like regular Bible engagement, serious prayer, and fellowship with believers. But the Bible also teaches that we develop a tough skin and tender heart by going through the fire of trial. Peter compares the strengthening of our faith to gold being refined by fire (1 Peter 1:6-9). One way God will build our character is through trial. A guitar player cannot play well unless he has first developed callouses on his fingertips. But the only way to develop calloused fingertips is by pressing them into the strings repeatedly over a long period of time. This development is painful. But over time, as pressure is applied, the fingertips become so tough that eventually, what comes from them is a beautiful sound on the guitar. In the same way, if we humbly submit to God’s good plan, the pain God will take us through in revitalization will build our character and yield a tough skin and tender heart. Pressure must be applied, but the result will be beautiful.

4. Pastors Will Need to Pace Themselves in Revitalization

There’s no other way to put it: revitalization is a long work. A church does not die overnight, and a church will not be revitalized overnight. It takes years for a church to decline, and it will take years for a church to get healthy again. It will require patience from pastors leading in revitalization. We tend to grossly overestimate what can be accomplished in five months and woefully underestimate what God can do in five years. If we don’t develop a Christlike patience early on, we will inevitably develop frustration, disappointment, irritation, and even anxiety or depression. God has never gotten in a hurry; neither should we. Pastors, pace yourself in this long but rewarding work.

Pastors in revitalization will need to prioritize their personal holiness, realize only God can revitalize a church, develop a tough skin and a tender heart, and patiently pace themselves for the long haul.

“You’re gonna learn a lot, boy.” Jerry’s words are engraved on my heart. I had so much to learn when I first started pastoring in revitalization contexts. And in many ways, I still have much to learn. But this much I have learned: pastors in revitalization will need to prioritize their personal holiness, realize only God can revitalize a church, develop a tough skin and a tender heart, and patiently pace themselves for the long haul.

It will be hard along the way. There will be victories, and there will also be setbacks. But Peter reminds us that, in the end, it will all be worth it when the one leading us as we lead in revitalization returns: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). In that moment, what a joy it will be to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). Pastors, learn these lessons with me, and let us remain faithful as we lead.


[1] Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership: The How and Why of Leading the People You Serve (Sydney, Australia: Matthias Media, 2015), 135.

  • Revitalization
Jordon Willard

Born and raised in Mt. Airy, NC, Jordon came to faith in Christ in his late teenage years. He is married to Veronica and the father of their two children, Karis and Josiah. He has pastored for twelve years and currently serves as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Weddington. Jordon is serving as the President of the 2023 NC Baptist Pastors’ Conference. And he is a Teaching Fellow for the Institute for Theology and Mission. He is a three-time graduate of Southeastern, most recently earning a Doctor of Ministry in Expository Preaching. Favorite activities include spending time with family, reading, collecting sports cards, and playing/watching sports.

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