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Learn to juggle chickens if you want to lead a church turnaround

| by Bud Brown

It was a sunny Saturday morning on the course. The elderly gentleman had begun his pre-shot routine on #1, visualizing his upcoming shot, when a voice came over the clubhouse loudspeaker.

"Would the gentleman on the Ladies Tee back up to the Men’s Tee, please!!"

He was still deep in his routine, seemingly impervious to the interruption. Again the announcement– "Would the MAN on the WOMEN’S Tee kindly back up to the Men’s Tee."

He finally stopped, turned, looked through the clubhouse window directly at the person with the mike and shouted back, "Would the person in the clubhouse kindly shut up and let me play my second shot?!"

Some people don't like to be interrupted!

But if you're a pastor, you don't have the luxury of focusing on the task at hand while ignoring everything else. In fact, this is one of the hallmark distinctions between turnaround pastors and their ministry colleagues.1

Juggling live chickens

Turnaround pastors manage restlessness, distractions, and the unexpected differently than most pastors. The way they react is a hallmark that distinguishes them from the rest of the field.2

Ministry is like juggling live chickens. You are responsible to God, who may surprise you by flying off in an unexpected direction at any time, without warning. You are responsible for church members, who will squawk and flutter and may run away for no reason at all, often at the most inconvenient moments. You also bear witness to a drifting culture that seems to wander aimlessly, pecking at the ground for scraps while ignoring the Bread of Heaven.

So yes, successful pastoral leadership by definition demands the ability to manage the unmanageable: dealing with interruptions, adjusting programs on the fly, gathering those that have flown off - all while keeping an eye on the big picture.

Pastors who resent or resist surprises push back to maintain their churches in states of equilibrium. Pastors who know how to go with the flow position their churches to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities. These propensities are seen in various leadership behaviors.

  • The ease with which a pastor shifts ministry priorities in light of new opportunities
  • Whether a pastor is patient or disoriented by interruptions and emergencies
  • How a pastor responds to distractions to capitalize on immediate wins but still finish the task list


Turnaround pastors have a greater appreciation for the surprise. They are adept at and comfortable leading in ways that foster growth. As a general rule, these chicken jugglers:

  • Are responsive and attentive to the unexpected.
  • Are easily interested in new ideas.
  • Relish starting new things.
  • Take the lead on initiating change.
  • Adapt easily to variety.

Nonturnaround pastors, in contrast, are more comfortable with a predictable environment. They often get "rattled" when something unexpected happens. Nonturnaround pastors typically:

  • Prefer to focus on the task at hand.
  • Are hard to distract.
  • Persevere with long range projects.
  • May seem lost in the project that has their attention.

Best practices

The chances are 80% or greater that you're more comfortable stacking chicken in the freezer than in juggling the live ones. You like things orderly, predictable and conducive to long periods of intense focus. You're in good company but unfortunately, that entire company cultivates status quo rather than nurturing growth.

Here are a few disciplines you could cultivate that will help you lead more effectively in the face of change.

1. Spiritual discipline: Begin each day by offering it to God, acknowledging that he governs every event for his own purposes, and that he may do so without first consulting you!

2. Personal observation: Notice your initial reaction when something unexpected happens to interrupt your work, be it an unwelcome visitor at the office door, an unexpected emergency at home, an untimely death in the congregation, or that phone call you don't want to answer. Ask yourself, "Why does this bother me? Is my plan for the day more important than what God may have in the moment?"

3. Calendar discipline: Chances are that you, like most of us, overestimate what you can accomplish in one day and underestimate what you can accomplish in a week or a month. Make it a practice to reduce your daily task list to no more than five items. If you get them done, great, move on to a new list! But if you don't, recognize that tomorrow will show up on time.

4. Develop a new habit: Make it a point to introduce a new variable into your daily routine, and do so every day. Try a different coffee shop in the morning; use a different word processor for sermon prep; read a new website; take lunch at a different hour.

5. Journal: At the end of every day, take a few moments to reflect and record those unexpected moments, how you responded, and what actions you took.

The objective is to learn to keep an eye on all the chickens at once while focusing on the one that's about to fly off. That's what turnaround pastors do - maintain steady while all systems are go all the time.


  1. A "turnaround pastor" is one whom God seems to have naturally hardwired with the ability to bring renewal and conversion growth to stagnant and declining churches. About 15% of those in pastoral ministry fall into this category.
  2. Our upcoming book, Pastor Unique, which discloses our research, is on track to be released in May.

Bud Brown

An experienced ministry leader, writer and educator, Bud Brown is co-founder of Turnaround Pastors and co-author of the ground-breaking Pastor Unique: Becoming A Turnaround Leader. He is a change leader in many venues — small rural, upscale suburban and mega-sized churches. He brings special expertise to change leadership in the local church, mentoring pastors to become revitalization leaders, training churches how to find and recruit the best talent, and training leadership teams how to achieve their shared goals. Bud also trains pastors in conferences, workshops and coaching sessions. 

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Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
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