Karl Vaters on the Practices of a Healthy Church

Karl has been in pastoral ministry for 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 28 years with his wife, Shelley. He is the author of 100 Days to a Healthier Church: A Step-by-Step Guide for Pastors and Leadership Teams and Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250. He spoke with us about church recovery after a crisis.

How did you first get involved in the conversation on church recovery?

I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years, and all three churches I’ve pastored needed to do some work on recovering from bad history, tragedy and/or stubbornness.

In my first pastorate, we had some success, but it was a short-term stay. In my second pastorate, we had a very short-term stay because we weren’t able to accomplish the needed recovery. By the time of my third, and current pastorate, I’d learned a lot of hard lessons, which I implemented. I’ve been here for almost 30 years now, and we’ve been through several seasons of recovery and renewal, resulting in a very healthy, vibrant church.

Now I teach those recovery principles to other pastors and churches all over the world. And since I’ve had hose three very different experiences I can relate to almost every pastor I talk with.

What are the differences between a church that thrives during crisis and a church that suffers?

It’s tempting to say things like Biblical preaching, passionate worship, deep discipleship and so on. And those are essential, of course. Without them we have nothing. But there are many churches that do all of the essentials but still have a hard time recovering from difficult seasons.

As I wrote in The Church Recovery Guide, there are three primary differences between churches that have all those biblical mandates in place yet struggle, and church that have them in place and thrive.

1. Resources in reserve

2. Team-based leadership

3. Adaptability

Churches that have those tend to recover well, while churches that don’t, don’t.

How can church members support one another during and after a crisis?

This comes down to the old-school, analog, face-to-face, non-digital relationships. Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, being there for each other in the simplest ways are what matter.

Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, being there for each other in the simplest ways are what matter.

Sick? Bring them food. Sad? Let them cry. Angry? Let them vent. Doubting? Pray with and for them.

Listen more than you talk.

What are the warning signs of an unhealthy church? How can a pastor recognize when to change the way they pastor their church due its level of health?

There are innumerable signs of an unhealthy church. But underlying most of them are three things:

1. Lack of vision: We’ve forgotten what the church exists to do.

2. Rear-view thinking: Looking to the past more than to the future.

3. Selfishness: Being more concerned with our comfort than with our worship and ministry.

Why is it so important to pastor healthy and unhealthy churches differently?

Pastoring a healthy church is like being a coach. You challenge and inspire them to dream and do things they wouldn’t do on their own.

Pastoring an unhealthy church is like being a doctor in an ICU. You can’t challenge a person with a broken leg to run faster. They need time to heal. It takes more hands-on care and gentleness.

What advice do you have for a pastor who feels pushed to their limit by all the changes their church has been through?

Treat ministry like a marathon, not a sprint. Work hard at preserving your energy for the long run.


Learn more about Karl’s latest release, The Church Recovery Guide: How Your Congregation can Adapt and Thrive After a Crisis.