Reaching the summitRecently, while returning home from a speaking engagement the airplane I was on was experiencing turbulence as we began descending toward our destination. I fly quite regularly so I am use to turbulence and I have experienced harsher turbulence than on this particular flight. However, there was something new to me with this experience. It was late at night so it was dark in the cabin as well as outside. As we descended through the blackness of night and thunderstorm clouds, bouncing with the turbulence, suddenly the plane dropped. The drop was so sudden and significant that it lifted everyone out of our seats. The incident only lasted for a second or perhaps a second and a half. I’m not certain how far we dropped, probably only a few feet. I believe I do not want to know how far it actually was. The pilot was masterful and got us to our destination on time and safe.

Most organizations do not fall in one clear-cut, knock-down drop. There is normally a series of digression. An examination of the organization will in most cases show a departure from the original purpose and core values of the organization. The initial signs of decline may be subtle and ignored or explained away. This first phase can go on for several years without notice.

In the church for example early decline in attendance is most always excused as, “We had several families move away.” Or “Several of our members passed away and their families no longer attend.” Another familiar line is, “Our senior adults just can’t get out like they once could.” A decline in financial support is often explained away with statements involving the economy or loss of jobs in the community.

In the above statements and most others given, the reasons are outward focused. All of the reasons have to do with outside influences. Our reasons (or excuses) are of outside influences that we have little or no control over because it is easier and less painful to excuse away decline as the fault of someone or something rather than to accept responsibility for something we did or did not do. Rarely is thought given to the possibility of impact from the organization’s leadership or ministry practices. We do not want to look inside. After all it is much easier and less painful when we can find an outside reason for decline. When I was a child everyone liked playing “Pin the tail on the donkey.” But no one wanted to be the donkey. One does not take favorably to “pinning” something on oneself or allowing others to pin something on us. Whether we want to admit it or not, organizational decline is most often self-inflicted.

I believe there are phases of decline that the church or similar organization encounters. While the first two phases are normally subtle and slow at producing decline, they are critical as the years a church lives in phase one and two are pouring a new false foundation for the church. This false foundation is one of indifference and disconcerting mind-sets for church members and leaders alike. If this is not addressed and a course set for reversal it will lead to an apathetic view-point for the unchurched souls of your community and beyond. Furthermore, it will catapult you into deeper decline.

Once this mindset establishes itself the self-infliction of decline increases and the further into decline a church recesses, the more in-turned the church becomes. In-turned means we become less and less outward focused and more and more content on doing things for the members inside the church at the expense of the lost communities we have been called to serve. The purpose or mission moves from reaching the lost for Christ, to “we’re here, we hope you come.” to “if they come they come, if not it is their fault.” to “why aren’t we growing, they won’t come.” to “I just don’t know what happened, we tried.” Organizational decline is in most cases self-inflicted. And oftentimes we do not even realize it.
George Yates, Reaching the Summit (Essence Publishing, 2012).