By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

The annual meeting was more like a meeting of morticians than it was a meeting of the redeemed people of God. The past year had seen no new faces in the church and the year had seemed like an endless struggle to pay the pastor. For several months the church, in fact, had not been able to pay the pastor and had to have assistance from its denominational headquarters. The small talk at the potluck proceeding the meeting had centered more upon whether or not the church should close its doors, than it did upon the direction for the church. The sentiment of many was that the church was slowly dying, and maybe it was time for the church to close its doors after a century of ministry in the small church.

For many ministering in the small church, the struggle to maintain the morale of the people is constant. In one survey of small church leaders, the number one problem they confronted was low moral in their churches. This could not only be said of the churches, but of the leaders and pastors as well. Instead of the church triumphantly singing “Throw Out the Life Lines,” the hymn becomes “Throw Out the Life Boats” because the ship is sinking.

Ten Causes Of Low Morale

There are a number of causes of low morale within the small church.

1. Being small in a large society.

The American culture measures everything by size; the bigger the better. This is true from houses to muscles, from candy bars to corporations. This is even true of perception of churches. The larger the church the more recognition it receives and the more it is upheld as the model of a successful church. Smaller churches can develop a sense of inferiority that results in low morale, especially if the church has had little or no growth.

2. Past problems within the church.

If the church has had significant problems within the congregation which has resulted in a sense of loss, the excitement of ministry can be diminished. Issues such as church discipline, conflicts, financial difficulties, a significant drop in membership, or the discontinuation of a significant ministry can sap the spiritual and emotional vitality of the congregation.

3. Lack of clear direction for the church.

Morale is directly related to the sense of significance and purpose in the activities and ministries the church performs. Morale for an army is at its lowest when there are no battles being fought. If there is no direction or purpose, activity can be reduced to an attitude of “being busy doing nothing.”

4. Succession of small disappointments.

While minor disappointments will normally not affect the morale of a congregation, when there are a succession of small disappointments the cumulative effect undermines morale. Continually having new ideas and ministries fail or not meet the expectations will develop a sense of defeatism and frustration. The people who return from the exile become discouraged because the new temple did not meet their expectations and their definition of a successful building project (Ezra 3:12,13). Every church needs some success to develop a sense of accomplishment for their efforts.

5. Conflicts and personality tensions.

While all churches will have occasional conflicts and personality clashes, in the small church it is especially potent since the tensions will be felt by the whole congregation. Furthermore, since the small church places a premium upon relationships, the disagreements threaten the perceived strength of the church.

6. Lack of clear definition of success.

For many today the definition of success for church ministry is the ability to generate numerical growth. Since many small churches are not in a position to grow, the lack of growth results in low morale. Because the small church often does not define what marks the success of a particular ministry, they are never able to determine when they have in fact accomplished their purpose.

7. Lack of communication.

When communications is absent, people become frustrated by a sense of powerlessness. They are not only unsure of what is going on, but they feel that they no longer have any input in the direction and decisions of the church. When people no longer feel important to the church, their morale and excitement about the ministry will be undermined. Furthermore, a lack of communication results in misunderstandings which bring further personality tensions within the congregation.

8. Burn-out.

Two major cause of burn-out are over-involvement and a sense of inadequacy. When people become over-committed in the ministry of the church, the emotional reserves necessary to adequately perform the tasks become depleted. Since only a handful of people are willing to do the work of the ministry, the tendency is for the church to give them too many responsibilities. The result is that they no longer sense that they are doing an adequate job so they become frustrated.

This also happens when people are given tasks that they have not been trained to perform. When people feel inadequate for the responsibility, they become discouraged. The Jews rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem became discouraged when they perceived the rubble to be beyond their ability to move (Nehemiah 4:10). Training for ministry enables people to develop confidence that they are competent for the tasks.

9. External opposition.

Battle fatigue is not only a danger for the army, it is a danger for the church as well. Elijah became discouraged when he realized that he was not having any victory over the external opposition that he faced (1 Kings 18-19). A church that ministers in an area that is unreceptive to the gospel can easily become disheartened.

A church attempting to build a new building can become discouraged when they continually come up against zoning and building regulations. Churches can become depressed when they are confronted with outside resistance over which they have no control.

10. Succession of pastors.

The small church is often plagued with a succession of short-term pastors. While some pastors understand, cherish, and enjoy the unique cultural and ministry challenges in the small church, many others find themselves unable to cope with the isolation of rural ministry and the financial pressures resulting from the low salary package which the small church offers.

The result is that they become discouraged and quit the ministry or move on to greener pastures. The church then begins to develop an attitude that “nobody wants us.” They become discouraged thinking that they are inferior and unimportant to the kingdom of God.

Ten Characteristics Of Low Morale Churches

1. Inward focus of ministry.

Churches that are suffering from low morale become inward focused in ministry. Rather than seeing themselves as the means by which God communicates his grace to the community at large, the church focuses all its ministries upon meeting internal needs. The church becomes more focused upon running programs that maintain the church rather than ministering to those outside the church.

2. Loss of vision for ministry.

Low morale brings about a loss of vision and passion for ministry. When people become discouraged, they lose sight of what they can and are called to accomplish for Christ. Instead of a sense of purpose and direction in ministry they question the legitimacy of the ministry. Organizational paralysis results when the church no longer has the emotional and spiritual energies to make necessary changes for effective ministry.

3. Sense of futility.

The mood of the church becomes bleak when people have a sense of futility in their efforts. They wonder if the ministry is significantly accomplishing God’s purpose or merely maintaining an organization. No longer is there any expectations for effectiveness in the programs. Results are not achieved, nor look for.

4. Preoccupation with what is wrong.

Instead of celebrating successes and accomplishments, the focus shifts to what is being done wrong and the faults in the programs. Discussion at meetings tend to be upon what is wrong rather than what needs to be done and the results achieved.

5. Increase in conflicts and personality tensions.

While conflicts and personality tensions may result in low morale, in many cases low moral may be the cause of conflict rather than the result of the conflict. Tensions arise when people begin to address and identify what they perceive to be the factors undermining the enthusiasm of the church.

6. Loss of enthusiasm in the leadership.

Those in leadership greatly influence the attitudes of the people in general. When they become discouraged concerning the ministry of the church, so will the people. When the leadership manifests a lack of enthusiasm and excitement for the ministry the downward cycle begins. When speaking with colleagues, they talk only about what the problems are rather than what God is accomplishing.

7. Loss of membership.

If the morale continues to decline so will the membership. New people arriving will not stay, and those who have the least amount of interest will quickly leave. This begins a downward cycle in which the membership decreases because of the low morale which in turn further discourages those who remain, causing more to leave. On the other hand, churches with high morale attract new people, which in turn raises morale, which attracts even more people.

8. Ministry becomes a duty rather than a joy.

Instead of love for others and for God being the motivational factor in ministry, people perform tasks and responsibilities only out of a sense of obligation and duty. No longer do people feel a sense of excitement, joy, and purpose in service.

9. Fixation with the past.

Whether it be a fixation upon the glory years or the problems of the past, the discussion always reverts to the former state of the church. No longer is there a sense of optimism about the future. Instead of thinking about where the church is going, the church becomes bogged down in the quagmire of where the church has been.

10. Loss of spiritual perspective.

Instead of being confident in God’s ability to work through the church, the church becomes overwhelmed by its own inabilities. Problems become insurmountable barriers as people focus on their lack of resources, lack of proficiency, and lack of training. No longer does the church see what God can accomplish through the church. Instead, they develop a short- sighted vision for ministry.

Raising Morale In The Small Church
When the present pastor arrived, the church had dwindled down to a handful of faithful attendees. Those who came, came only because it was their families that started the church fifty years earlier.But now, even they were having second thoughts. Although they could not pay the pastor a full time salary, he still agreed to come. Everyone knew that if things did not turn around quickly, the church would soon close its doors.

Past failures had convinced the people that a vibrant church was no longer feasible. Not knowing where else to begin, he decided that the first priority was to repair the church. Keeping costs to a minimum, he convinced the church to repaint the building and repair the parsonage.

In the process, the people renewed their ownership in the church and were reminded that they needed to plan for the future. Since VBS had been successful in the past, in the month of July he organized a VBS for the children in the area. While the Sunday School had dwindled down to eight children, to the surprise of many, twenty-seven children came. Afterwards, one family with four children started to attend. For the first time, the people began to gain a glimmer of hope that the church would continue to minister to the community.

Raising and maintaining the morale of the small church is not a luxury for the small church leader. It is vital to its health and existence. When morale become low, not only do the people become discouraged, but the church no longer attracts new visitors from the community. To raise and maintain the morale of the church, the leader needs to be intentional in his activities and creative in his leadership.

Steps Toward Raising Morale
1. Build upon a theology of divine presence. The foundation of morale is the awareness that God is present within the church. The presence of God is what gives vitality to the church and validity to the ministry, not size or number of ministries. In the rebuilding of the temple after the exile, the people became discouraged because the new temple could not match the size and glory of the previous building (Ezra 3:12). Through the prophet Haggai, God reminds them that it is the glory of the Lord that brings life to the temple (Haggai 2). People who are discouraged because the “glory years” of the church are in the past, need to be reminded that it still can be effective, for God is still present.2. Identify the causes of low morale. With the leadership of the church, identify the various possible reasons why the morale of the church is low. Then determine which cause is the most likely and develop a strategy for addressing and solving the problem. Through the process, the leadership should encourage the whole church to be committed to raising the morale.

3. Remind the people of past successes. We are not to live in the past, but we can learn and be encouraged by the past. Joshua recognized the importance that past successes can have upon present and future generations when he commanded the Israelites to build a rock monument to celebrate the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 4:1-7). Remembering how God has used the church in the past can encourage people that God can use the church in the present.

4. Plan for the future rather than dwell on the past. God reminds Israel through Isaiah that what has happened in the past does not necessarily dictate what will happen in the future. God can renew his work even in the most barren wastelands (Isaiah 43:18-19). Leaders within the church should have a future orientation and need to point people to what the church can and should become. Past heritage plays an important role in the small church. But when the past heritage is marked by problems and struggles, it can defeat the present and future ministry of the church. While the leader needs to affirm the past heritage, he must not allow the church to dwell on the past.

5. Recast the vision for the church. Vision is the awareness of the distinct and divinely ordained present and future purpose and ministry of the church based upon its sociological, theological, and cultural setting. When morale becomes low, people need to be reminded of the purpose of their ministry. When Elijah became discouraged over his apparent lack of success, God reaffirmed and reminded Elijah of his call to ministry (1 Kings 19:15-18).

6. Plan for success. When a church is discouraged because of successive disappointments, the leader can build morale by planning for small ‘sure- fire’ successes. Planning for 3-4 small, fruitful events and ministries help the people see God still working in their midst and that they can accomplish significant and meaningful ministries. Having built upon the small successes, the people will be more ready for a larger, more challenging ministry.

7. Celebrate present successes and achievements. When a ministry or event succeeds, celebrate it. Celebrating a fund-raiser to replace the carpet gives people a sense of accomplishment and success. One of the reasons people develop low morale is they stop noticing the accomplishments of the church. Celebrating these, no matter how small, renews the sense of hope within the church.

8. Refocus upon ministering outwardly. Churches which struggle can easily become inward focused, no longer ministering to the community outside the church. An inward focus of ministry brings with it a preoccupation with problems and failures. Refocusing upon the community at large helps the church realize its mission. Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, had a positive perspective, even in the face of great adversity, because his whole desire was to minister to others rather than maintain his own comfort. This is equally true for the church as well.

9. Develop clear organizational communication and responsibilities. Keeping people informed of what is going on enables them to have a sense of ownership and involvement in the ministry. Clearly defining the responsibilities of people for their ministries not only gives them clear direction, it avoids the misunderstandings which cause conflicts to arise.

10. Allow people to rejuvenate. Elijah was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted after the triumph on Mount Carmel. A component of his rejuvenation was a period of physical rest (read 1 Kings 19). People and churches which had been through traumatic situations need time to restore their emotional batteries. One way to avoid burn-out is to provide people a time for a physical and emotional break so that they can regain their spiritual perspective.

How To Maintain Morale
1. Affirm a “small” theology. Throughout the history of God’s work, he has used both large and small groups to accomplish his plan. A church of 100 people in Acts 2, reached 5000 with the gospel of Christ. God trimmed the large army of Gideon to 200 men in order to demonstrate his power by using a small group to accomplish an impossible task. God called a small group of twelve to be his disciples. While God uses the larger church, he uses the small church as well. Small churches should neither be discouraged or apologetic because of their size.2. Maintain a positive perspective of the ministry. Even though Paul experienced many trials and failures in ministry, he always had an optimistic outlook (Philippians 4:10-13). This was based upon his awareness of God’s empowerment within his life. The attitude of the leader greatly influences the perspective of the people. If the leader has a positive perspective, the people will develop a positive outlook.

3. Develop goals and direction for the church. When a church lacks clear direction and purpose, it will be difficult to maintain morale. Goals give the small church an awareness that it has a future. People can become discouraged when they think they are not accomplishing anything. Having goals and direction enable the church to have a sense of accomplishment when those goals are achieved. This builds morale, and confidence that the church can achieve even more challenging goals.

4. Resolve conflicts. Unresolved conflicts within the church drains the spiritual and emotional energies of the congregation. Paul recognized the importance of resolving strife when he stated, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26b). By resolving past divisions the church experiences spiritual renewal as they see God’s work within the lives of individuals.

5. Define success. Clearly defining the meaning of success brings a clear sense that what the church is doing is important and is influencing others for Christ. Too often success is left undefined or is measured by numerical growth. When growth does not occur, people become discouraged. Instead, success should be measured by the spiritual health of the church and its effectiveness in transforming people into faithful disciples of Christ.

6. Encourage new ideas by allowing people the freedom to fail. To achieve effective results, the church needs to encourage innovative ideas. A church that is caught in the rut of past tradition will slowly bog down in the quagmire of ineffectiveness which brings frustration and discouragement. Implementing and encouraging new ideas not only breaks the church out of the rut, it encourages people to think of ministry effectiveness rather than ministry tradition.

7. Reward faithfulness, not just accomplishments. It is easy to notice what people have accomplished and overlook those who had been faithful in ministry regardless of the difficulties encountered. Christ in Matthew 25:24ff points out that the assessment of one’s ministry is based upon the faithfulness by which the task is performed, not just by the accomplishments that are achieved.

8. Help people utilize their spiritual gifts. People who are performing ministries in which they are not gifted will become frustrated and discouraged. Helping them determine what their gift may be, and aiding them in utilizing their gifts properly, will bring a renewed confidence in ministry. This process includes understanding our personalities, talents, and gifts as well as training in the specific area. One of the tasks of the leadership is to provide people with training in the area of their ministry interests and spiritual gifts.

9. Confront a critical spirit. Just as Sanballat criticized the building of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 4), so also there will be those within the church who will always be critical of the programs and ministries of others. A faultfinder can easily cause “the strength of the laborers to give out” (Nehemiah 4:10), so that people become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. The leadership of the church should lovingly confront such a spirit and seek to build a positive, uplifting attitude within the people.

10. Affirm the importance of every person. 1 Corinthians 12 points to the value and importance each person plays within the ministry and health of the church. Affirming that every individual and every church, no matter how small, has an important part to play within the universal body of Christ, encourages the church to continue to be involved in the ministry of reaching people for Christ.

Motivational “Maintainers”*
1. Provide clear goals.
2. Give prompt feedback.
3. Reward performance quickly.
4. Treat them like winners.
5. Involve in decision making.
6. Seek their opinions often.
7. Provide autonomy in work.
8. Hold accountable for results.
9. Tolerate impatience.
10. Provide varied work opportunities.
11. Keep them aware of upcoming challenging goals.

* C. Bell, “How to Create a High Performance Training Unity,” Training

 Reprinted with permission of the Author. Glenn Daman is Director, Western Seminary Institute for Small Church Health.
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