I selected this as my first book because I am beginning a preaching ministry in a new church and I wanted to get a grasp on the general features of healthy congregations. I also, and arguably primarily, chose it because it was short.
Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach
Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006
In graduate school my wife, Sierra, took a course in which she was assigned this short book. It sat on our bookshelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to raid her books and steal back to my office with a fresh supply of loot. The book stood out to me for several reasons. First, although I have my own intuitive ideas of what health looks like in churches it occurred to me that someone with vastly more experience than I do might just have a better clue. Second, ministers can easily fall into the trap of getting obsessive-compulsive about their own ministry’s problems. We see the gaps in our work, often projecting them on our own deficiencies, and submerge ourselves in them. At this point it is hard to actually deal with them because from the vantage point of submersion everything looks like a hopelessly tangled web. Reading this book is like coming up for air: come out of the hole, breathe a little bit, and lets sort things out a little better.
The subtitle of this book says it is a “systems approach.” Although sometimes this just boils down to giving the author license to overuse analogies to human biology, I think the idea is important. Problems in life are complicated, and they rarely are solved through a black & white, good vs. evil dichotomization. We need to see churches and the problems associated with the people in them as systemic problems—problems that are not isolated from, but indeed indelibly wrapped up within all of the other forces that constitute human life—and to deal with them accordingly. We need to understand that a problem does not exist in isolation from every other factor in a person and his or her community. If a church has a problem getting their congregation to volunteer, the solution cannot be to berate people and tell them to suck it up and start giving up their time. The solution has to address the systemic issues that deter people from giving their time to the church’s ministry.
In thinking systemically the author uses the analogy of the church to human biology extensively in addressing everything from the ideals of congregational health to the diagnosis and treatment of congregational disease. The upshot of this is that you often find yourself skipping entire paragraphs of text because you understand the analogy right away! Just kidding, don’t presume to know what the author will say. Even though this analogy has definite limits, using a general knowledge of human pathology to inform the way we think about health and healing in churches yields a lot of helpful and practical fruit.
One thing that sticks with me still is the difference between critical and optimistic approaches to congregational care. I don’t remember when I turned cynical but I am confident it had something to do with what is wrong with everything. A great mentor of mine woke me up in college from the ways in which unchecked cynicism is just a way of dealing with the problems of the world without dealing with the problems of the world. The same seems to hold true of congregational issues. When our approach consists of beating to death what is wrong with our church then we are only ushering in more death and less confidence into an already crippled body. By addressing problems by focusing on our strengths, options, and resources we inject new life and approach health.
Another, more minor, bit of wisdom that sticks with me is the idea that pathogens need hosts in order to produce disease. This applies in particular to those persons who choose to complain or criticize as their default mode of self-expression. Listening to criticism is important, but this kind of criticism can be distracting at best and divisive at worst when we allow ourselves to give in to the pressure. Church leaders need to know how to allow dissent to come and go without letting it infect or affect them.
“A congregation may carry the delusional hope that something outside itself will save it. In fact, I have seen many congregations place their will-being in the hands of a magical helper, an instant solution, or a sure-fire programmatic cure. Looking outside for help may be a forfeiture of responsibility. Wanting to be taken care of simply compounds the illness. Helplessness is a disease in itself. Congregations need to see themselves as the source of their own healing. The power to heal is internal.” (18-19)
“Health is a process, not a thing or state. It is ongoing, dynamic, and ever changing. Health is a direction, not a destination, a once-and-for-all property.” (27)
“Indeed the body functions more like a garden than a machine, though the opposite is commonly believed.” (34)
“Healthy congregations can grow through the challenge of pain. They discover strength in managing it, and they head off many of its negative effects in the process.” (51)
“To be healthy requires taking an effective stand in the middle of those who are taking sides or hostages.” (56)
“When you judge someone critically, you do not define that person. You define yourself. Your harsh judgment says something about you. It describes your likes and dislikes. Accusation—‘you, you, you’—is really about ‘me’.” (63)
“Some evils are not to be worked out and some conflicts are not to be managed—they are simply not to be admitted into the community’s life at all…The manifestation of evil I encounter most frequently in the church is the cunning, sly kind—subtle manipulation, winsome seductiveness, shrewd innocence.” (64)
“When a congregation is trapped by its own resistance to change, the congregation resembles the monkey. The congregation cannot understand that openness to change is more valuable than fear of it.” (74)
“How many congregations believe they are in the “we exist for ourselves” business rather than the “we are in a mission tot eh community, even the world” business? How many congregations confuse “the way we have done things for decades” with the “larger apostolic purposes”? How many congregations mistake the means for the ends?” (75)
“It has been said that health comes from empowering people to take responsibility for their own health. The health of a congregation is no different. It comes from individuals being responsible, being stewards of the whole.” (85)
What it means to be successful in the world of churches these days is largely up in the air. Before we can really figure out what that success really should be we need to take a few steps back and try to figure out just what a healthy congregation is. This is a wonderful primer on what “health” might mean in a congregation. It must be said that there is ultimately nothing that distinguishes the author’s wisdom for churches from any other institution. This is not necessarily a fault. We must presume that true wisdom works toward peace, unity, and harmony—it aims towards health in any and every kind of organization. At the same time sometimes I felt like the wisdom of this book could make a peaceful community with an anemic mission. As Plato once said, the medicines can sometimes cause other diseases. But that is an unnecessary consequence for the sincere reader. If anyone is interested in thinking about congregational health, at 116 pages and large type, this is a pretty good place to start.