By Robert Perry
There is a great deal of talk these days about church health. I think most of us welcome that terminology, because we grew weary of the constant emphasis on church growth that seemed to emphasize bodies, bucks and buildings. Intuitively, and now experientially, we know that churches can have large numbers of people, huge budgets and massive buildings and still be desperately unhealthy.
The work of Ministering to Ministers is primarily to provide advocacy and ministry to called servants of God and their families during times of severe crisis. Very often those crises are the result of the actions of unhealthy persons and unhealthy churches. So in a real sense, the work of MTM has to do with helping ministers, lay leaders and church systems become more healthy and effective. An increasing portion of the work of MTM is concerned with prevention of dysfunction rather than the response to dysfunction.
The old saw reminds us that, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Church leaders are realizing more and more that churches can take positive, proactive steps toward greater health, and in that way prevent some of the conflict that results in the termination of ministers and the dividing of churches.
In 1997, I published a book entitled, Congregational Wellness: Help for Broken Churches My motivation for writing was a concern for the alarming number of churches I saw experiencing either overt conflict or benign ineffectiveness. Both situations indicated that the church was not fulfilling God’s intent that it be a body of interdependent members, diversely gifted, lovingly related to one another, focused on reaching beyond themselves, and healthily growing both in quantity and quality. As we enter a new millennium of Christian enterprise, with all of the opportunities afforded us by advances in technology, communication and transportation, it is essential that the Church be healthy in order to seize the possibilities of this new day.
Three of the important elements of church health are: vision, climate and function. In the past, we have often talked only about the functional aspects of church life as defining health. We have spoken of growing churches as those with good programs of evangelism, Bible teaching, discipleship, missions and education. These are all functions of the church, and they are important. Indeed, no church could be considered healthy if it is not functioning with some degree of effectiveness in all of these areas. However when we define success only in terms of function, we move toward a superficial and mechanical view of something that God did not design to be a machine, but a living organism. The church is infinitely complex, and while humankind may develop the ability to create wonderful computers and robots, the spiritual and mysterious elements of church life cannot be understood in terms of function alone.
My favorite analogy for healthy church organizational life is the concern a good pilot has before taking off in a small plane, particularly one without sophisticated instrumentation. Obviously, the pilot is concerned about functions. She wants the engine to function properly. She wants her radio to function. She wants the moving parts of the plane’s guidance mechanisms to work properly. But everything functional about the plane can work properly and there still be a disaster. In the same way, all of the mechanical functions of a church can appear to be in good order, and the church can still be unhealthy and headed toward a crash.
There are two other elements that the pilot must consider before taking off visibility and weather. Flying without instruments, and utilizing visual cues, the pilot must have the ability to see for some reasonable distance. Fog, smoke, low clouds or other impediments to visibility can create real danger. In the same way, a healthy church must have the capacity to visualize God’s purpose and intent for its future. The leadership of the church, in order for the church to achieve and retain health, must have a clear sense of vision for what God wants to accomplish through the life of that congregation. Churches that are “flying blind,” even if all the programs seem to be working well at the moment, can not be considered healthy. These churches maintain much activity, to the point of burning out workers, but they may be flying in circles and spiraling toward a crash.
The “weather” is also important. This moves us into areas of church life that are very subjective and spiritual in nature. The climate of a church is defined by such things as: morale, fellowship, caring, sense of humor, self-esteem and enthusiasm. These intangible qualities also help a church stay healthy. These elements make it possible for a church to see its way through some of the potential misunderstandings and conflicts that come along. A church with a positive climate can handle as a gentle rain shower what might be a violent thunderstorm in another church. Major decisions and significant transitions in church life can be worked through with minimal stress if the prevailing climate is healthy.
The typical progression of dysfunction in a congregation would be for problems to first show up in the climate. If the church loses morale, loses energy for its mission, or loses its sense of humor, the beginnings of an unhealthy trend are appearing. Problems in the atmosphere in the church then begin to impact the vision the church has for the future. People become pessimistic, faith wanes and the church begins to live for the moment. The concern for the future is not primarily accomplishment for the Kingdom, it is survival for the institution.
At this point in the church’s downward spiral, the functions may still be looking good. Churches headed in this direction can move along for some time based on mechanical memory. “We can keep doing what we are accustomed to doing. It may not work as well as it did in the past, but its what we know to do.” The church may show numerical growth and programmatic success for a time, but this is not a healthy church. It is moving in a direction that will eventually lead to disaster. It is along this path where church conflict, minister terminations, membership erosion and other forms of functional problems will soon begin to appear. Long before the sprout of the weed appears above the ground, the seed is germinating and growing roots below the surface.
Healthy church life is only possible by the Grace of God. It is a gift and a blessing. And it is rare. Those of us who work with MTM. strive to enable movement toward healthier ministers and healthier churches because this is a cause that is dear to the heart of God.
Dr. Robert Perry is a consultant with Organizational Health Associates located in Willard, Missouri. He served as the MTM Board of Trustees Chairman.