Shepherding a “Heritage” Ministry

The conference call was scheduled to last 30 minutes.  Instead, it lasted two hours with a planned continuance to come later.  The focus of the call involved leading what my ministry colleague called a “heritage” church . . . a church that once had a thriving ministry that reached and led many unchurched neighbors to faith in Christ, but has now settled into a comfortable routine focused on caring for existing attendees and structures.  At best, these congregations have reached a plateau, and worst-case scenario has them in steady decline.

My colleague was called to lead a heritage church as his first pastoral ministry, and has persisted in that setting for a few years now.  Brought on to bring new hope and approaches to what those who called him rightly perceived as a ministry in need of new life, he has faced moderate to strong resistance to most initiatives.  That resistance often is couched in comments such as “you care more about those outside the church than those in it.”

To his credit, he still sees the potential he originally saw in the work and still clings to a real hope for that potential.  His questions for me were, “What do you do to begin to overcome the obstacles and move good people who have gotten off course toward their real mission and the possibilities residing in it?  How do you get out of this mission-resistant pattern?”

Tough questions!  And ones faced by pastors all over North America where the “heritage church” is pretty much the norm outside of the world of church planting and those rare bodies that succeed in renewal efforts.

At the risk of being simplistic, it seemed to me in my friend’s case, we boiled the challenge down to one major obstacle: the system (church structures) had replaced relationships.  Everything answered to the system of constitution, committees, traditions and programs, and it was through those structures that people related . . . or not.  That pattern made it very difficult for those inside to reach outside and for those outside to ever get “inside.”

Marshall and Payne in their book “The Trellis and the Vine” describe the phenomenon this way: “. . . structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift – away from erecting and maintaining structures, and toward growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ.”

So my question for my challenged but optimistic colleague was what tools would you need to begin to see this situation change in your congregation . . . to see the potential you and a few others see being reached?

His answer underscores the importance of a primary yet seemingly underdeveloped biblical value . . . he said what he needed was more relational connection . . . not within the congregation, but with sources outside the congregation that could help them see and learn how to make the critical changes necessary to begin to once again fulfill the mission that is their heritage . . . reaching the unchurched with the Good News of life found in Jesus Christ.

Specifically, he identified these tools as being potentially crucial to the future of this heritage ministry:

  • the insight and guidance of multiple leaders outside the congregation who have been down the path he must travel (in his words, the needs of a heritage situation are larger than one person can understand or address);
  • an experienced and authoritative mentoring team to help both the pastor and the congregation get healthy;
  • some “elders” in ministry that can specifically help coach him and his elders in ministry (his question: where do you find these people?);
  • and what they don’t need – another consultant with another system and structure.

Here’s the reality this conversation surfaced: no heritage church can possibly develop, sustain and/or regain missional health alone.  Without each other in genuine relationship, we will inevitably see structures replace relationship and with that, the decline of true, life-giving discipleship.  Both leaders and congregations need relational connections in which the mutual and biblical give and take has as its aim and result keeping the ministry compass pointing true north.  Put in a different way, to stay mission healthy we must resist the individual and congregational propensity to isolate.

(Want to be part of a focused study on the “heritage church”?  Check out the opportunity on the Western Alumni Group page on LinkedIn or contact Dr. Bert Downs at

About Bert Downs

A proverb in the Downs household is that Bert still works for everyone he ever worked for . . . and that’s very close to the truth. At various times a high school teacher and principal, a football coach, the vice president for Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, a WTB seminar instructor, a seminary staff and faculty member, a seminary president, the executive director of a conference center, a regional exec for a church association, a seminary chancellor and an interim pastor multiple times over, Bert still periodically engages in all of those things, often with the original groups he started with! Bert and his wife Alice now live in Washington State. From there Alice operates a business she launched in 2012, and Bert continues serving as Chancellor of Western Seminary, the regional coach for Southwest Church Connection and a personal coach/consultant for individuals and groups throughout the West.