Creative LeadershipStrategy & Marketing

When a Church or Ministry Should Die

Controversy – here we come: In my career, I’ve routinely discovered an obsession with continuing the life of a nonprofit or ministry – even when it’s obvious their work is done, donors aren’t interested, it’s incompetent, or it’s a cause or mission no one cares about. In the best cases, the reason they continue is because we just simply can’t imagine a church or ministry work ending. It’s understandable that in spite of poor results, bad outcomes, or lack of financial support, we still want to push forward for the Kingdom God.

But in the worst cases, it’s largely selfish. In other words, the purpose of the church or ministry isn’t about mission anymore, it’s about keeping people employed and paychecks coming. In other cases it’s about a leader’s ego, or employees who simply think it’s easier to ride a dying horse than go to the trouble of finding a new one.

Whatever the reason, there is a time that certain churches, ministries, and nonprofit organizations should consider pulling the plug. Here’s a few:

1) When they’ve forgotten their “why.” I know one ministry that was founded on evangelism. They were great at it, but eventually realized “evangelism” is a tough sell to donors. But instead of doing the tough work of figuring it out, they started exploring other “whys,” like feeding the hungry, pro-life campaigns, human trafficking, disaster relief, and more. All the time searching for what would connect better with donors. They were all good causes, but before long, they forgot the original reason they existed. As a result, they lost their passion, and became more about finding what will keep the donor money coming in than actually accomplishing their purpose.

2) When church leaders have lost their accountability. Yes I know that there are good people still inside churches who’s leaders have gone off the rails. But in too many cases, there are churches with unaccountable leaders, and there is no plan or desire to change. Pastors who divorce their wives and never miss a day in the pulpit. Leaders who live lavishly at the expense of the people they’re supposed to serve. When elders (official or otherwise) won’t step up and call the leader to accountability. When heretical doctrine becomes normal. When their peers make excuses for them. When their staff puts them on a pedestal. Those are all signs that it may be time to shut the doors.

3) When ministries stop pointing to the Church. Remember when outside ministries were called “para-church” ministries? Para means “by the side of” or “side by side.” But in the media age, many ministries have grown beyond any attachment to the Church and pretty much stand on their own. A ministry today doesn’t have to have an official affiliation with a single church, but it should always be pointing people to the “Church” with a capital “C.” I’ve actually met major ministry leaders who don’t even attend church. They tell me “I do ministry work all week. Why should I attend church on Sundays?” But the corporate Church is the reason any outside ministry exists, and if it’s not making Churches stronger and driving people there, then it’s not accomplishing it’s ultimate purpose.

4) When a ministry or nonprofit is good at something that doesn’t matter. Today there are ministries and nonprofits raising money for projects that aren’t even necessary. I saw an ad in a Christian magazine recently raising money to smuggle Bibles into China. Seriously? Who’s doing that anymore? Yes, there are crackdowns on churches in China, but at the same time there are printing companies inside the country printing Bibles. Even bigger, there are fantastic Bible apps like YouVersion that have Chinese language Bibles and study resources available to anyone with a smartphone.

Part of the problem is that too few Christians really think. We’re impulse givers and if the advertisement or appeal is emotional enough – no matter how irrelevant – then we give. As a result, we have ministries continuing to be financially supported who don’t actually accomplish anything, or the payroll is mostly 3rd and 4th generation family members still hanging on (because they still have the mailing list from the glory days), or who are doing projects that aren’t even necessary.

As much as it may go against the grain of our thinking, nobody ever said a single church, ministry, or nonprofit should last forever. Plus, there’s plenty of reasons for certain outreaches to be raised up for “such a time as this,” make an impact in their generation, and then close their doors.

If we’re going to make a difference in today’s world, we need to let some churches, ministries, and nonprofit organizations die. Then, let’s redirect those financial resources and support to the ones making a real impact.

Related Articles

46 Comments

  1. Along these same lines, Phil: why do we need more? Why does a small town with 13 churches – each with about 30 people in attendance – need yet another church? Just so a particular denomination can say it has one of “our” churches there? If that same town had 13 struggling pizza parlors, would we be calling for a 14th?

    Why do we need yet another ministry feeding kids or doing something that 40 other organizations are doing well? There are literally hundreds of thousands of tiny, struggling non-profits and ministries that have no unique reason for existing and are barely keeping the doors open.

    Before starting a new organization, you need to ask – how will I be any different? What is the need for this organization? Am I doing something others aren’t doing, or in a way they aren’t doing it, or in a place they aren’t doing it? Or am I just feeding my ego because I want to plant a church or start a ministry? If we had more cooperation and less focus on individualism, we would be reaching far more people in a far more cohesive way.

    There – maybe I’ll take some of the slings and arrows people were going to shoot at you… 🙂

    1. Yes! I often think of “downsizing” when it comes to my church Synod – is it heartbreaking? Yes. The thought of closing a church because the members are dying off is unpleasant. But to have multiple churches in a region of the same denomination with little attendance and half of them have been calling a pastor for years, what is the point? How can you bring new people into a fold of nothing? Time to consolidate, unify, and get something done. (Looking at you LCMS)

      1. Consolidation in many cases would certainly allow more possibilities for ministry. But in far too many cases, these churches or ministries aren’t really about “ministry” anymore…

  2. Add another: When the mission becomes more about the individual/personal gain, and not about those you seek to serve, it’s time to move on. So many Boards consider being “Friends” more important than holding the organization and leadership accountable to the core values for which it was created.

  3. Some churches and para-churches are like NGOs. They go on forever, even if the needs to which they ministered stopped needing help a long time ago.

  4. This overlaps with a problem I have been thinking a lot about recently: Who is the audience? By that I mean that missions tend to have multiple audiences — those they are trying to reach and those that are paying for it. I have seen many groups focus on those that are paying for it as the primary audience and die because they lose focus on those they are trying to reach. I somehow feel this is a bit like Jesus talking about serving two masters. *But* if we focus on those we’re trying to reach then we die because we run out of money. Choose your poison?

    Years ago the head of a very big mission agency used the phrase ‘we don’t know the beast we have created called missions’. He would not wish to be cited but within this monetarist world we have created a beast called missions which is almost out of control.

    (This is the same as large companies… do they exist to serve customers or shareholders?)

    1. Good question Richard, and one that many organizations wrestle with today. I don’t believe it’s “either/or.” I believe it’s “both/and.” We have to deal with the reality of both issues being important. I do know ministries who fund important things donors WON’T support out of the income of what donors WILL support. That juggling match happens, and it’s tough. It’s not an easy answer, but if we don’t embrace both issues, we’ll fail for sure.

      1. Some years back I decided I’d rather fail doing what is right and I’m called to than succeed doing what is fundable.

  5. Passionate people don’t want to let a ministry die. Many organisations in an attempt to survive start to create mission drift. Mission drift is fatal why the drift is being created by a need to survive and not a genuine innovation of the Church or Ministry function. However, unless something dies and leaves a seed in the ground new life cannot come.

  6. It’s a sad truth that so many ministries have come to function under the post modern church formula that “works” which seeks to grow rather than edify the saints. When ministries jump on the bandwagon that’s when those core values and initial mission statements take a back seat. The Church is called to the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). Edify the saints and Christ will build the church through the out-working of the Holy Spirit through the saints. Far too often church leadership has got it backwards because their eye is on size and funding and the formula. But Christ has called us not to worry and seek first his Kingdom (Matthew 6:25-34). It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to win souls. It’s the Church’s job to equip the saints, to teach them to eat meat, not milk, so the Holy Spirit can work through them! But all that said, it’s just a testament to the fact that we are in the end of the end times and these ministries will probably not die until Christ returns.

  7. As one of the wealthiest Christian philanthropists in California once said to me, “i don’t believe in euthanasia for people, but I do for organizations”

  8. Good post Phil! What drives me batty are ministries that ask questions that no one is asking. Or take up causes no one gives a rip about such as raising millions of dollars for a plane. Most of my friends when they saw that ask said they could watch anyone they want online so why would they give money to a minister’s plane? I support causes that connect with me – such as a missionary on my alma mater university campus – or local causes. The church I attend is very involved in supporting organizations that reach people in our area such as girls and women being rescued from being trafficked, single moms, orphans etc. With all the noise and so many churches and organizations begging for money from the same pool, I think churches that go back to the basics of the Gospel with accountability that effectively serve people in their neighborhood will always have more then enough.

    1. I love the line “I support causes that connect with me.” That’s exactly right. We need to focus our message on things that connect with the particular audience we’re trying to reach. Great advice, and thanks for sharing!

  9. I’ve seen this as well. One of the best resources I’ve read (and recommended) is Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud. I read it when the Great Recession hit my animation business in waves. I didn’t end my business, but I completely restructured how we operated and adopted a new model. Change is painful. Ending a dream is painful. But, it may just be the thing that lets the Lord birth something new and healthier!

  10. This is timely for me, as I have run a ministry that my husband and I founded almost 18 years ago. However, we noticed a huge shift in what I’ll call support when we moved o a different state because of my husband’s job. In the former place, we had amazing, active, and physical support for our work (people who witnessed its birth and purpose and came along side us enthusiastically) and it was a joyful and forward-moving experience (fundraising for children’s homes in Asia). However, with our move to a larger area, I found there was markedly LESS enthusiasm for what we were doing (even the fact that we are volunteer-run and have always given 100% of all donations didn’t make a difference) and I found things drying up: few donations, no new sponsors for the children’s home, few speaking engagements, and a “meh” attitude from most. Some very baffling experiences gave me food for thought, among them a man who donated a shipping container and the funds to get it to Asia for us (something I’ve dreamed of doing!), which I spent months collecting for and packing, only to have many things go terribly wrong (too much too explain here) with the container still sitting at the border of this country, 5 years later. As I talked to the Lord and listened intently to His voice, I felt He was telling me to just lean into Him and to trust Him. I felt His direction to stop one part of the ministry, then another, and a few years later, yet another. It then became apparent to me that it was time to let this thing end and be okay with it! I feel God allowed this drying up for a purpose! I found other ministries that could do what I did, and as of this year, we will officially “close shop.” It is bittersweet but I feel that I gave it my all and that He was using us for a specific purpose and goal, and now it is someone else’s turn to do the work. Proverbs 19:21 led the way, as did Ecclesiastes 3:2.

    1. That’s a great story and I’m so glad you shared that. You had the courage to face the truth, and although it was “bittersweet”, it served it’s purpose and goal. I love that you had the courage to pass it off to the next generation or leader….

  11. Add another: When the mission becomes more about the individual/personal gain, and not about those you seek to serve, it’s time to move on. So many Boards consider being “Friends” more important than holding the organization and leadership accountable to the core values for which it was created.

  12. This overlaps with a problem I have been thinking a lot about recently: Who is the audience? By that I mean that missions tend to have multiple audiences — those they are trying to reach and those that are paying for it. I have seen many groups focus on those that are paying for it as the primary audience and die because they lose focus on those they are trying to reach. I somehow feel this is a bit like Jesus talking about serving two masters. *But* if we focus on those we’re trying to reach then we die because we run out of money. Choose your poison?

    Years ago the head of a very big mission agency used the phrase ‘we don’t know the beast we have created called missions’. He would not wish to be cited but within this monetarist world we have created a beast called missions which is almost out of control.

    (This is the same as large companies… do they exist to serve customers or shareholders?)

Leave a Reply

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker