Healthy Churches

I read an article this week about how churches are having “all or nothing” conflicts. Church consultant David Brubaker observes the sharp divisions and polarities that exist in society over politics, social issues, and idealogy have seeped into our churches. “Instead of engaging conflict,” he writes, “people often find it simpler to argue about issues that present simplistic binary choices. “Are you for the pastor or against him?” “Do you support the building project or oppose it?” “Will it be traditional worship or contemporary?” These “identified” issues, reduced to their most simplistic and binary categories, are easy to comprehend and strangely comforting to take sides on.”

Back in the early 1990s a movement began called “healthy congregations” based upon the understanding that churches act as emotional systems, much like our families. So what is a “healthy church”?  A “healthy congregation” is one that has a set of healthy practices and principles that are learned behaviors and flow from our biblical and theological values. Here are some important markers.

  • Healthy churches are where people feel safe to be themselves without rejection, criticism or pressure to conform. People are free to share their thoughts, values and ideas and welcome those from others as well. Differences are welcomed as a normal part of the human family.
  • Healthy churches are transparent. Boards and committees are open to all and minutes are accessible. Members don’t have secret meetings in the parking lot, at a coffee shop or in their homes, but keep their concerns in the open.
  • Healthy churches have direct communication. If an individual has a problem or concern they go directly to the person, including the pastor(s). They speak for themselves and not for others. They also understand that having your say doesn’t necessarily mean having your way.
  • Healthy churches aren’t afraid of conflict. Conflict means a body of people is alive and well. People respond to anxiety and change instead of reacting to it. A healthy church will have venues to share conflicts and policies and procedures everyone follows. Conflict is not bad but dealing with conflict by trying to get others in your corner, painting those who disagree with you as “bad guys,” or pretending it isn’t there is unhealthy. Large people talk about ideas; small people talk about others.
  • Healthy churches are places where forgiveness is freely given and received. We all are one at the foot of the cross—sinners in need of God’s grace and redemption. We shouldn’t be surprised when we sin or someone sins against us, but we should be able to model how a community of faith struggles to keep its accounts short and play fair.
  • Healthy churches recognize that in God’s wisdom we are an emotional system. Just as our bodies are comprised of many different, but interdependent systems, so are churches. We try to keep emotional stability and when tension is introduced into the system (the pastor makes changes in the worship service or the deacons made a decision not everyone agrees with) the system then pushes back to try to find equilibrium. Sometimes we just have to live with the tension for a while and see where the Spirit leads us.
  • Healthy congregations focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. They are not “problem saturated.” They don’t try to be something they’re not.
  • Healthy churches focus on mission, rather than on “getting along,” the past, survival, “the minister,” or some other thing or issue. The mission of loving God, sharing Christ and ministering to people drives every decision.
  • Healthy congregations act flexibly and creatively adapting to new challenges instead of rigidly relying on precedent, Roberts Rules, or by laws, realizing that every problem does not have a quick fix. New truths require new practices and that takes discernment.
  • Healthy churches practice hospitality welcoming the stranger, the newcomer and the outsider instead of favoritism for the few or like-minded. People empower others rather than dominate or cure them. People develop caring relationships and share their lives instead of each living for oneself.

One of my jobs as an interim pastor is to help you to become as healthy a congregation as you can be to present to a new pastor. Patterns of behavior and practices that are not faced will remain in the congregational culture and continue to emerge. So I encourage you to reflect on areas where you are healthy and areas that could use some surgery, therapy, or a dose of antibiotics.  Just as we need to take care of our human bodies, we also have to take care of the body of Christ

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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