Back From the Dead: Believe That Death is Not Inevitable

Back From the Dead: Believe That Death is Not Inevitable February 27, 2013

Here on the blog I’ve been summarizing some ideas from a book I read recently called, Back From the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth, by Gerald Keucher.  In chapter four, “Packing Your Toolkit,” Keucher highlights some points about attitude, style, and spirit leaders need to bring with them in order to lead a congregation in a turnaround situation.

As far as I can tell, when he says “style,” he is not referring to fashion.

believe_largeInstead, he’s trying to articulate some personality qualities that characterize effective turnaround leaders.  Today’s quality is the belief that death is not inevitable.

In other words, Keucher is saying here that an effective leader must articulate a strong vision in a compelling way.  This leadership quality, of course, is not limited to dire situations.  However, in turnaround leadership positions, he claims, this personality trait in a leader is critical.

Congregations that have declined significantly, particularly those who navigate the present with images of the past hanging over their heads, are prone to be “too distracted, sad, and angry to be able to articulate a constructive vision.”  Conflict is rife in these situations, too.  It’s rare that anyone in a congregation in crisis can see past the mess of the present, in other words.

Again, Keucher has strong words about leadership…he says that congregations don’t get to the point of near-death without a legacy of poor leadership, so changing that pattern is a critical leadership strategy.  He writes: “If you cannot see some new possibilities in the situation, and if you do not have a couple of ideas about ways those possibilities can be explored, you are probably not the one who can lead a turnaround.”

It seems to me that this is a pretty steep expectation for a leader; effort toward turning a parish around with principle responsibility falling on the pastor’s shoulders is a heavy burden to bear.  It’s here that Keucher’s Episcopal context and my own reference of congregational polity start to experience some tension (or maybe it’s just a biased opinion from this pastor that perhaps all the responsibility for renewal should not fall on the pastor).

Regardless, Keucher rightly points out that leadership in these situations is a punishing task.  Vocational satisfaction and clergy health are critical, he claims, and suggests if denominational resources are unavailable, clergy should try to find support among other clergy in similar situations.  “Keep your eyes and ears open for new ideas as you share experiences with these other clergy….  You’ll need a steady supply of ideas to try because a good many of them won’t stick.”

Most of all, the quality of believing what seems impossible can actually come to be is the personality trait Keucher claims is necessary and even critical for leadership in turnaround situations.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this quality of believing what seems impossible at first glance is part of the life of faith overall, isn’t it?  In the words of Hebrews, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…”.


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  • This is one of the ways that free-will polity is so much stronger…you should not shoulder the vision alone. But I notice a consistent strain in the Episcopal structure that maintaining a suitable hierarchical distance is necessary and appropriate. They are very threatened by the idea of a strong lay leadership (which I am constantly throwing at them). And the idea that they would be a leader in the face of a congregation that has other ordained members would give them the willies…

  • Amy, it seems we have entered an entrepreneurial age in the life of the American Church, just as we have entered such a time in American economic life. The headlines — both religious and standard media — spotlight those persons and organizations that are innovating with great success, and they often deserve the accolades. The problem seems to be that there are not enough pastors with entrepreneurial personalities, or enough churches with an entrepreneurial spirit, to shift with the times. Can you be taught to be an entrepreneur? Or do you just have to be born with it’s spirit? I don’t know. There are a lot of really talented, intelligent computer geniuses, who could never be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Is the same true for us and our pastor peers? Thanks for the blogs on this book. Tim Moore