Courageous Churches

Last year I was called in to mediate a serious conflict in a congregation where a small group of church members attempted to hoard power.  I was just about to throw up my hands and give up when a very wise church member said to me, “Laurie, don’t be afraid.  You must stand firm.”  His sage advice empowered me to help that congregation gain freedom from those who were intent on using the church for their own personal desires rather than the good of the church.

Last week I wrote about my New Year’s resolution of becoming a more healthy, self-differentiated leader.  Today I want to share with you my New Year’s hope for our district churches: that we will become healthy, courageous centers of excellence.  Healthy churches recognize that many of the dilemmas that sidetrack congregations have more to do with a toxic emotional climate than anything else.    

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence that don’t give in to the herding instinct, where togetherness is valued over individuality.

One of the greatest dangers of a family system (including the church) is that we become too accepting.  Normally, being inclusive is a worthy goal.  However, in an effort to honor everyone’s views, congregation members often appease troublesome, immature people who attempt to hold back the vision and mission set forth by the church’s most courageous and gifted leaders.

When things get too tense in the church, people naturally desire harmony and so pull back.  When one person vociferously objects to a proposal, we tend to cave in, and nothing gets done.  There is a significant difference between togetherness and stuck-togetherness, however.  As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12, we are part of the body of Christ but individually members of it.  We are separate so we don’t have to separate.

We must give our congregational leaders the authority to be bold in their individuality and decision-making.  This does not imply grabbing power, squelching dissent or denying a permission-giving atmosphere in the church.  What granting authority does is honor the responsibility of leaders to become the immune system of the church, which means spending less energy warding off enemies and more energy seeking coherence of the whole.    

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence where leaders have the confidence to stand alone after making tough decisions.

Church members who have never been in leadership aren’t always aware how difficult it is to make decisions that may upset the equilibrium of the congregation.  Reducing the budget, freezing salaries, asking a staff member to resign, or delaying a remodeling program are courageous decisions that leave leaders exposed and vulnerable to criticism from people who hold them responsible for the “downfall of the church.”

Healthy congregations evolve from leadership training that includes more than how to run a meeting, submit a budget and get reports in on time.  Courageous churches that function well in times of fear and uncertainty teach leaders to preserve self, be non-anxious in the face of sabotage, regulate their own emotional responses, and recognize relational systems.

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence where risk-taking is encouraged rather than feared.

The inclination of most systems is toward self-preservation and safety.  “We have to take care of our own needs first” is a common mantra.  House homeless families in our church?  No way, they’ll wreck everything!  Tutor in the local elementary school?  What are we doing for our own children?  Invite poor people into our fellowship hall for breakfast?  They’ll track snow in everywhere!    

Imagine what might happen if the first question we ask is not “Is this safe?” but “Is this where God is calling us?  Let’s wander out into the community and see what’s there.  God might be leading us in new directions.”  If new initiatives are always stifled, the risk-takers will eventually leave for a church where boldness is encouraged.

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence that take responsibility for their own destiny rather than blame others.

“The Bishop did this to us.  He keeps appointing incompetent pastors to our congregation.  The district superintendent is to blame.  We begged for help, but she didn’t fix things.  The conference made our ministry shares so high we can’t possibly pay them.  The Bishop appointed me to a dying church.  How can I do ministry here?”

I’ve been a superintendent long enough to know which churches tend to whine, blame and wallow in self-pity without lifting a finger to move toward greater health.  Courageous churches are willing to look inward, take responsibility for their own well-being and counter dis-ease with a strong immune response. 

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence that focus on fundamental and enduring change rather than on symptoms and quick fixes.

When churches experience hard times, it is tempting to want things to be better right away rather than take the time to face reality and explore why they are in their current situation.  A good analogy is a person living with chronic pain.  Even when surgery may relieve the pain forever, sometimes people would rather bear everyday low grade pain than the intense pain of surgery.

Churches love quick fixes!  Many of our district churches are struggling with their budgets right now.  Rather than accept decline as normal, I hope churches will engage difficult questions like, “How can we improve our stewardship education?  Have we attempted to reach out to the community?  Are we living beyond our means?  Could our decline be related to a hostile church environment and acute anxiety in the system?”  Courageous churches are not content with being worn down by chronic pain but are willing to embrace the difficult decisions that must be made for long-term health.

  • I hope for healthy, courageous centers of excellence with lots of nerve. 

Strong immune systems provide that nerve.  Edwin Friedman writes in his book, A Failure of Nerve, “In fact, within medicine the immune system today is defined as the capacity to distinguish self from non-self.”   If the purpose of the immune system is to preserve the integrity of the system, then lay and clergy leaders supply those ingredients.  A church with a healthy immune system will become a courageous and adventurous center of excellence in the toughest of environments. 

What hope do you have for your congregation this year?

Blessings, Laurie

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