In the field of aerodynamics, an airplane “stalls” when it can no longer produce lift. It has nothing to do with the engines but with the wings. The engine or jets can exert full power, but the wings are no longer properly cutting the air and producing lift. In fact, in commercial airlines, an alarm goes off when a stall takes place or is about to take place. 
You see a stall take place at an air show when a small aircraft begins to pull up in a sharp climb, and at a point, it begins wobbling in that upright position. The air is no longer breaking across the wings properly. It begins to fall out of the sky like a rock. No aerodynamic lift is exerted on its wings. Now, the pilot’s job is to regain lift by navigating the airplane into a position, so the wings cut through the air at a forward “angle of attack” and again produce lift on the wings.
When I took flight lessons, one of the most important parts of the training was understanding “lift.” Flight instructors would purposefully put the plane into a stall, and your job was to regain lift. Actually, most all flight instructors put the airplane into a moderate stall because of the dangers that a serious stall poses, especially when you lack the altitude needed to recover from a serious stall. Instructors have died at the hands of student pilots who made the test stall worse because the flight instructor lacked the time and altitude needed to recover.
Churches stall as well. They lose lift and begin wobbling. The leader’s job is to regain lift by navigating the ministry in such a way that it doesn’t crash.
Many do crash and have crashed in the last two years. The crashes do look very different at times. Sometimes the “passengers” survive the crash and seek a new pastor. Other times, the church closes or merges under another “pilot.” Sometimes the pastor learns quickly and is able to do an emergency landing, all to fly another “day.” Far too often, the “pilot ” walks away from a crash unharmed and begins piloting yet another aircraft. It wasn’t his fault. It was the “craft,” the “crew,” or the “passengers.”
Many churches experience an “aerodynamic stall” over time! It is part of learning and the immense time “in the air.” It is just part of reality, and pastors ought to be taught what to look for when it is about to happen or happens.
There are “alarms” that will go off.^
#1 – Interest Wains: There are ways, legitimate and creative ways, to build and grow a church ministry ( no less a school in today’s culture, but that’s another issue). The proof is found in the local churches around an area that are doing it.
The handful of mega-churches across America is not the issue or concern. But the many area churches that are experiencing growth are! When interest in visiting, attending, faithfully attending or joining a local church ministry wains, an alarm ought to go off.
Sporadic attendance is also part of the lack of interest. If members and friends of the church are not consistent, why? Why have those who are “connected” lost interest, commitment, or appreciation?
Attendance and giving are legitimate independent indicators of where a church is in flight. Both are legitimate indicators of care and concern of a ministry! Pointing to one over the other is a way to ignore the alarm that is sounding.
Unfortunately, most also realize that a meaningful drop in “giving” will be the loudest alarm alert given due attention.
#2 – Reality Is Ignored Or ^Denied: “How did they not see what was happening?” Probably, you have heard that said or said it yourself. It was obvious what was happening, and no steps were taken to address it.
- Attendance dropping, or
- Finances getting tighter, or
- People leaving, or
- Weak Gospel outreach, or
- Few visitors, or
- Fewer new members, or
- Long-time supporters left, or
- More difficult to find lay help, or
- Sporadic attendance, or
- Lost “excitement” about our church, or
- Any number of the above . . . .
I understand the language that accompanies the disregard of the alarm — “We are growing deeper, not greater.” One might argue that deeper and greater work hand in hand. Depth should also result in breadth.
The language of failure is invoked and used to explain or divert what is actually taking place. This may be the first alarm that goes off when what is happening is avoided or denied. “We are not interested in numbers but faithful followers!” “We want to see disciples made, not just people who attend church on Sunday” — as if it is “either-or.”
The wording changes to divert attention away from what is actually happening.
#3 – The Cost Of Staffing Overrides The Budget: You may have heard it said this way . . . . “We are too heavy on administrative costs.” The organization is top-heavy. A high percentage of the income covers salary, benefits, and supporting staff. What is a “high percentage” or “top-heavy?”
You may find out the answer to that question when the “overhead” costs begin to weaken ministry, when money gets tight, and the ministry struggles to do what it was called to do.
An alarm ought to go off when you total the cost of salaries, support staff, and various elements of compensation far exceed the total of all other monies used to minister to and through God’s people and the programs in which they serve.
Churches do stall, and some crash because they lack the altitude needed to recover.
There is a reason that long-term Sr. Pastors are able to avoid a fatal crash. It is not that they don’t find themselves in any “stalls.” Rather, they don’t ignore the alarms. They adjust and are able to navigate back into forward flight.
Those who have been in the position of Lead Pastor for only several years, and ignore the alarms that accompany a “stall,” are likely to walk away from a crash, leaving the passengers to deal with the wreckage — an unfinished building program, financial troubles, hurt and damaged believers, a failing school, a bloated staff, struggling ministry programs, fewer members, low morale, poorly supported missionaries, dwindling bank accounts, etc.
Yet others will continue to stay seated in the cockpit while the alarms sound, offering a very bumpy ride and maneuvering to stay aloft.
There is a “reality stall wall” that a church will hit when the alarms are ignored. When the alarm can’t be ignored or denied any longer, then, suddenly, everyone sees what has been happening and may even profess having had prophetic ability — “I saw what was happening and I should have said something.”