by Thom Rainer

Little doubt exists that many churches in America are sick. The statistics paint a dismal picture. But I remain optimistic about churches across our nation because we serve a God of all possibilities.

Can a dying church find life? Absolutely. But it takes leaders who are willing to do the hard work of leading their churches toward health.

While conducting research for Breakout Churches, a study of churches that moved from decline to significant and sustained growth, I discovered several traits that distinguish breakout church leaders from merely good leaders. Here’s a brief look at each.

Biblical faithfulness. Breakout church leaders never stray from biblical truths or central doctrines of the Christian faith. Belief in the authority of Scripture is requisite for church leaders.

But breakout leaders also passionately live out their beliefs. They are hopeful, believing all things are possible with God, including the revitalization of dying churches.

Perseverance. Declining churches are usually mired in unhealthy structures and traditions that cannot be reversed in a short time. Fortunately, breakout leaders have a long-term view of ministry.

The average tenure of a breakout church leader exceeds 21 years, while the national average is only 3.6 years.

Pastors who make it to their fifth year have a good chance of experiencing their most fruitful ministry at a church. A long-tenured pastor is one of the key requisites for churches to experience revitalization and long-term health.

Confident humility. Breakout church leaders are often reluctant to attribute the church’s accomplishments to themselves.

While they confidently believe their leadership was critical to the health of the church, their confidence centers more on what God is doing in their lives and less on their own inherent abilities.

Acceptance of responsibility. Weak leaders blame people and circumstances when things don’t go well. Breakout church leaders accept responsibility for things that go wrong, and they see God’s possibilities even in difficult situations.

Christlike spirit. Most pastors experience some pain, heartache, and frustration as they lead their churches. But those who are leading a church out of a downward spiral experience more than their share of discouragement.

The revitalization process is difficult and invites criticism. Despite the pains and trials they experience, breakout church leaders express an intense love for the members of their congregations.

They follow Jesus’ model for their ministries and demonstrate an unconditional acceptance of all their members.

Legacy focused. A distinguishing mark of a breakout leader is the desire to see the church thrive and make a difference beyond the ministry of the current leadership. They make decisions that will benefit the church after they are gone.

Persistence. Most breakout churches don’t experience explosive, overnight growth. For most, the path of growth is slow, methodical, and strewn with obstacles.

Because they have a long-term perspective, these pastors are willing to lead in a way the congregation can manage—one intentional step at a time.

Outwardly focused vision. Breakout church leaders lead their churches to look beyond the walls of the congregation. They devote time and energy to connecting with their communities.

These pastors are passionate about reaching the lost and unchurched, and they consistently communicate this priority to their congregations.

Some pastors are born with gifts and characteristics that make them great leaders. But I’m convinced many of these traits can be learned and sharply honed.

The process of revitalization includes more than the transformation of a church; it includes the transformation of a leader.

Though any story or report of church revitalization is encouraging, I am always particularly encouraged to hear about pastors who are moving from a sense of hopelessness in their own leadership and churches, to an attitude of hopefulness and possibilities.

Thom S. Rainer (@ThomRainer) is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.

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