axiomPerhaps in no other industry are facts more irrelevant to leaders than in church work. If you line up a hundred pastors whose churches are slowly dying and ask them how things are going at the church, you’ll hear maddening things like, “We have a lot of people who are still very faithful,” or “There’s still quite a good spirit among those who remain,” or “God’s people have faced tough stuff like this since the beginning of time,” or “Many of us believe our best days really are ahead,” or “Sometimes you just have to hang on through eras like this, you know?”

I sometimes ask a question in response: “Do you know why things are in such a state of decline?” The answers I get make me shake my head in disbelief.

“Well, a new bar just opened down the road, and it seems there’s now a demonic spirit of oppression infiltrating the whole community.”

Or “Times have changed, Bill. I preach the truth, but no one wants to hear it anymore.”

I could go on, but I think you get the point. These leaders give me any number of unverifiable ideas about why things are going badly for their church, but deep down, they don’t really know.

“Have you ever thought about asking your people what’s going on?” I ask. A blank look often surfaces at this point in the conversation, so I keep going. “I mean, what if you gathered a group of key people and actually probed the issues behind the church’s decline from eight hundred attenders to five hundred to three hundred to a hundred and seventy-five? I think there are probably very real reasons why your ministry has been struggling, and I just bet they have very little to do with the new bar down the street.”

Very seldom have I heard the response, “What a great idea, Bill! I’m going to get some of our folks together and have a few honest conversations.” Far from it. What I usually get is “Thanks, but we’re just going to pray our way through this. I know what the problem is—it’s that demonic spirit of oppression I mentioned. And that bar …”

Pretty frustrating.

I have come to the conclusion that some pastors whose churches are dying don’t want to know the objective facts of their situation because they are genuinely afraid the raw information will be more than their hearts could bear. Imagine if the “facts” revealed that they were part of the problem, that their preaching or lack of leadership was contributing to the steady state of decline. Regardless, for far too many fear-stricken leaders, facts are not their friends. They would rather watch their church close its doors for good than to face the real problems and take responsibility for fixing what is broken.

Many years ago, a pastor asked me to come do a consulting day with his staff. He hoped that I could come in and encourage his team a little so that their future would be brighter than their present.

I told the staff I wanted to break the day into two parts: during the morning hours, we would evaluate four key areas that can help define the success of many local churches—evangelism, discipleship, student ministry, and compassion initiatives—and then we’d spend the afternoon brainstorming ways to increase the effectiveness of each.

“I’d like you to break up into small groups,” I explained, “and figure out how you’d rate your church’s current effectiveness in each area. On a scale of one to ten—one being really bad, and ten being really, really good—assess how well you reach people far from God, help new believers grow up in Christ, inspire the next generation toward faith, and help solve the problems of our broken world. Come up with one number per group, and then come post your numbers on this flip chart. Deal?”

The staff members went right to work. Opinions bounced back and forth among the members at each table, and as time went by, everyone’s energy for the exercise grew. They seemed genuinely honored to be asked for their input regarding how the church was doing and how it could get better.

Once all of the groups had posted their figures, I debriefed with the entire staff. Evangelism received fours and fives. Discipleship got mostly sixes and one seven. Student ministry ranked low—all threes. And compassion was at the very bottom of the heap. I made a few remarks and reminded everyone that after we took our lunch break, we’d hit the ground running on the solution side of things. “I’ve reserved the fun part for this afternoon,” I said. “We’re going to brainstorm innovative and inspiring ways to raise every single number at least two points in the next six months. Only positive ideas will be accepted, so come with your work gloves on. We’ll cull the best thinking, pray over our work, and then call it a day.”

I dismissed the group to a heartfelt round of applause. They were just as invested in and excited about the process as the groups at Willow who had been through the very same exercise four times a year for many, many years. In the quiet of my own heart, I thanked God for allowing the meeting to go so well.

Or so I thought.

The pastor who had sat silently all morning asked me if we could go for a walk. Once outside, he dropped a five-word bomb on me: “You can go home now,” he said.

I stopped walking and caught his eyes. “Come again?”

“You can go home now, Bill. I have never been more humiliated in my entire life than I was this morning. Can you imagine what it felt like for me to sit at the back of the room and watch my entire staff criticize our ministry?”

I was floored. “But their assessments are honest. …”

He shot back, saying that until those negative assessments got aired, his staff was perfectly happy. “Now they think we have problems,” he said. “And now I’m going to be walking around with a target on my forehead! They’re going to blame me for all of this!”

I tried to explain that the staff wanted to take responsibility for resolving the issues they had raised, that they were glad the problems had been objectified so they could get busy finding solutions, and that the only role he had to play for now was to be a kind of choir director for all the new plans. But he wasn’t exactly in the mood for my clarifications. Or my choir director analogy.

He had made up his mind, and in case I missed it the first two times, he looked at me and said, “You can go home now.”

I drove away from that half day of consulting thinking about how for this particular pastor, facts were definitely not friends. He would have preferred that everything stay mushy and ill defined so that at the end of the day, no one would know the truth.

Maybe you can relate to the dynamic. Maybe facts haven’t been your friends because you too were afraid of what they would reveal. Can I give you a loving piece of advice? Start warming up to facts. Eventually you’ll come to the realization that when you have clear, objectified data, you can plan better, you can make better decisions, and you can chart a surer course for your church. Rather than cowering in fear, you’ll find yourself confidently probing the congregation and staff and board members and volunteers in search of the facts—facts that finally are your friends.

Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.