Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is there such a thing as a "healthy" congregation?

Is there such a thing as a healthy congregation? The short answer, I think, is no. There may be moments in time when a snapshot might capture group traits and behaviors suggestive of a strong, relatively stable system for nurturing spiritual growth and ministry. But there can no more be healthy congregations than there can be perfect marriages.

So what? Isn't the point to try, to work on developing and maintaining group dynamics that approach the ideal? And after all, isn't one of the cardinal points in a systems theory such as Peter Steinke's that "wholeness is not attainable"? What's wrong with using systems theory and other psychological and sociological models to help people get along better and learn to work better together?

Nothing really, at least not when sensitive, thoughtful people use them in situations that cry out for help. If systems theory or anything else can get people to step back from conflicts that are strangling a community and learn better ways to manage differences in the future, so much the better.

The same is true for many tools widely available and touted as essential parts of a Human Resources tool kit (or, if you will, medicine bag) for congregations, clergy, and dioceses -- survey forms, focus group studies, long-range planning programs, etc. Used sparingly, appropriately, by those who are not only trained in how to use them but also gifted in their ability to relate to people, to listen, understand, and assist, rather than diagnose, direct, or control, these may be helpful. The problem, however, is when everyone is using them, all of the time, regardless of whether the congregation is suffering from a condition or situation that the tools might help remedy or whether they are being applied by those who know how to use them effectively.

It is like taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications or even going to counseling to try to achieve the perfect balance in mood, mind, attention or energy. While it is good to seek help when we need it and learn what we can and should change about ourselves and our circumstances, it also is important to recognize the limitations of medicine, technology, and self-help in general, to make sure that we do not blind ourselves, with a flurry of self-improvement activities, to the pain and suffering of others, the stark reality of our flawed natures, and the urgent need to be in right relation with God before we can even begin to hope of peace and the joy of knowing God's saving grace.

To put it more simply, when we put so much of our time and energy in employing assessment tools and trying to implement social engineering, we run the great risk of our methods becoming the message. I think that is really the point of Ed's sermon (see below). Do we want to be seen and known as those who construct and maintain "healthy congregations" or those who go forth into the world living the Good News, imitating Christ rather than checking off items on a congregational assessment checklist?

Of course the proponents of these methods will argue that they are, in fact, serving the greater goal by helping us live in communities that will better nurture our spiritual growth and provide encouragement and support for serving others. I understand that is the goal, indeed the hope, of their efforts, and I mean no disrespect for those who have thought deeply, listened carefully, and worked diligently and faithfully towards that goal.

Yet I still must ask the questions. I have seen time and time again groups of laypeople and clergy who have attended countless hours of meetings, seminars, and workshops, who have heard truly inspirational speakers, read books and articles about what the church should be doing and how it might best weather the storm of sweeping changes in our culture, economy, social groups and interactions. We listen, become more hopeful, and sometimes we feel we have learned a lot. Other times we share these ideas with those in our parish and brainstorm as to how we might implement them. Yet, truthfully, what becomes of most of it? Even when we think we see some small positive results, have we really gained much other than the pleasure of a few moments of wistful hope that things are not as bad as they seem to be?

As far as professional assessment tools are concerned, their benefits in terms of efficiency may be outweighed by the mixed messages they send. No matter how expertly constructed, their structure and content imply certain expectations and ideas about what makes a healthy congregation. Even the best designed and administered surveys have a slant, suggesting which characteristics are negative and which are positive. For example, satisfaction with things they way they are or doing them the same way is seen as negative, while greater willingness to change and experiment with new ways is seen as positive. Likewise, ranking the extent to which congregational life sparks "energy" and "enthusiasm" implies that the failure to produce that kind of response indicates either that the congregation is not spiritually alive or that it is not lively enough to attract outsiders.

More tellingly, significant parts of these surveys assess levels of satisfaction with certain aspects of congregational life. While it may be useful to find out what people are really unhappy about, discovering it with this kind of exercise gives the message that the congregation is comprised of customers to be satisfied, and that by scientifically cataloguing their likes and dislikes, they will have a better chance of being matched with the pastor of their dreams (shades of E-Harmony).

It is debatable whether professional surveys, consultants, and the data and reports they produce give enough benefit for the dollar over the old ways of open-ended survey questions distributed by mail or in church, lay people puzzling over what they receive in return, and group meetings and flip chart data. They certainly have the advantage of having others do the hard work of collecting and digesting information and presenting it in a format that is attractive and easy-to-read for both the congregation and, in the context of a search process, candidates for clergy positions. But the point here is not which survey methods are best or even how often or how they should be done, but rather to suggest that these assessment rituals have become increasingly important for not only the ways in which the data is used to direct and shape congregational life, but also the way it makes us think that the "health" of our congregations is a matter of vital and ongoing concern, which can be measured according to scientifically informed criteria and measurement tools.

The larger implication is that there are, in fact, objective ways to identify and "treat" unhealthy conditions, and that we must be ever diligent in seeking out congregational "disease" and doing all we can to rid ourselves of it. This adds a whole new layer of meaning to the need for any organization to listen to its members, face problems, and deal with them before they get out of hand. Instead of taking us away from the notion that our clergy are merely hospice workers caring for an old and dying institution, it merely reinforces that idea. It also supports the view that unless we do something quickly and effectively, in terms of dramatic life-saving efforts, with the best tools that science can provide, mainline Christianity will die out entirely.  Finally, it suggests that what the church is most concerned about maintaining is the congregation as a functional social unit rather than nurturing the faith of the people who are its members, wherever they may go.

I'd like to suggest a metaphor that may be more realistic and helpful than the medical one -- a forest, rather than a corporate body plagued with disease or mental or emotional dysfunction. For a long time forests have been viewed either as a natural feature of the landscape or as something to be managed for a particular human use, such as hunting grounds, parks, or a crop that produces timber for fuel, building, or commerce. However, it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that people began to think seriously about applying scientific knowledge and management techniques to preserve and protect large areas of forested land from rapacious harvesting and expanding areas of human habitation and agriculture, and to maintain others to provide a controlled but steady supply of timber and other wood products for human use.

Managing forests and forestland, however, turned out to be more difficult than some first imagined. It required more than just limiting the destructive effects of human activities. Fire, disease, variable weather conditions, soil composition, and other factors could impact forest growth and health, and human interventions sometimes worsened rather than improved the situation. As the science of ecology developed, forests began to be viewed as part of larger ecosystems and life cycles. Even the timber industry began to replace clear cutting with more sophisticated planning, selective cutting, and planting that promoted diversity and better conditions for the soil and the other flora and fauna that inhabited the forest's ecosystem.

A critical turning point came with the understanding that the so-called "climax" forest -- the stage with maximum maturity-- was only one stage in a larger cycle of growth and death, one which might produce variable results depending changing conditions, and one which, in any event, was not static. So while one might find a mature stand of trees and want to preserve it, for aesthetic or commercial reasons, as is, it was only one stage that could not be extended indefinitely. Without fire, decay or wind damage, the forest canopy would become so thick that it would stifle or prevent all undergrowth, including young trees needed to someday replace the mature ones when they die. Therefore, using human means to protect the mature trees from decay, disease, and fire might, in the end, do more harm than allowing them to die naturally to allow new plant and tree growth on the forest floor.  So while the results might seem better than clear-cutting or other thoughtless means of seeking short-term human ends, even well-intentioned human meddling can sometimes cause great harm as well.

I like to think of congregations in much the same way, although the life cycles are less regular and predictable. It is, I think, impossible to create and sustain indefinitely what many would consider a mature, spiritually "healthy" congregation. Yes, a good measure of intention is needed to make a religious community spiritually alive, hospitable, nurturing, growing, and relatively conflict-free (or whatever characteristics make one "healthy" and "mature"). But I think if people were really honest, there's a good deal of luck involved, as well. How often do any of us experience -- if we ever do -- a time in a congregation where most of these supposedly necessary elements fall into place? Once in a lifetime, I'd say, and then for maybe at most two to five years.

The reality that many have to face is that the stars are not always going to be aligned to produce the results we want, no matter how hard we try, no matter how diligently we study, tinker, and maneuver to try to create them. More important in today's world is that the ecosystem, if you will, has changed dramatically. With greater geographic mobility and displacement from family members, weaker ethnic and social ties to religious institutions (with the exception of some minority and new immigrant groups), less support and involvement from the moneyed upper classes, and overall less social pressure to be affiliated with and participate in a particular religious community (with some regional variations), we are bound to have fewer numbers, more frequent losses, less stability and continuity overall in terms of the identity of the members, their ages, family and social connections, and the extent to which they can provide steady financial support. With an ever-changing group of people, less financial resources, more reasons not to attend and less pressure to stay, if conflict arises or simply if something changes that is not to one's liking, little or no denominational loyalty, it's no wonder that congregational life is ever more fragile and precarious, without there necessarily being something seriously wrong or defective about the people involved, their goals, or their individual spiritual health.

In fact, it could be argued that the more passionate and serious people are about religion, the greater the possibilities of conflict and instability than back in the days when church was just "a Sunday habit or a social club." Filling the pews with fairly happy, comfortable people who enjoyed the social life perhaps more than hearing a challenging sermon or having a stimulating leader or group for Bible study, may have once acted as a kind of buffer -- or perhaps simply played the role of a steady Martha who minded the teas, took care of the kitchen, baked and gathered old clothing for the poor, as compared to the sometimes unsettling behavior of the seeking Mary. At the same time, the law of averages might have meant that the larger numbers and the social pressure that kept the successful business people and others with better skills at management and social relations coming to church regularly meant that it was easier to get a ready supply of people who might excel at the more practical aspects of church governance.

This, admittedly, is idle speculation. The demographic trends, however suggest that the decline in numbers and influence among the mainline churches is not so much because of any declining religiosity in the general population but rather because of dramatic changes in the social environment that have largely removed the non-religious reasons for joining and attending church regularly. It may be that the "spiritual but not religious" types were always around in larger numbers than we might imagine, but they once had compelling reasons to warm the pews on a regular basis, as well as a more positive view of religious institutions and religious people.

The mainline churches may still harbor hopes of reversing those trends or, at very least, preventing any further losses. But at some point they are going to have to choose. One option is to keep pursuing efforts at marketing, trying to find and ride the waves of consumer demand and satisfaction, against decades of evidence that what sells is the certainty of fundamentalism combined with the enthusiasm and zeal of evangelical fervor and the money and facilities that go with greater numbers and passion. The other option is to stay the course, tighten our belts, and work with what we have, and focus on nurturing strong, intentional faith communities, whether we lose numbers and buildings and, in some places, meet in small groups and at odd locations.

I think what we have now, at least in the Episcopal Church, is a schizophrenic course that tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, we talk a lot about innovation, new ways of doing things, and now and then check our consumer satisfaction thermometers. On the other hand, we say we want to improve the quality of the communities we have, make them deeper and richer. But what we do is try to measure how far they fall short of the climax forest ideal, with its towering hardwoods and lush undergrowth and sun-drenched floors -- a warm and welcoming place with wise, benevolent preachers and teachers, little or no conflict, and the absence of troubled, contentious people, doubters, and depressives. And instead of patiently waiting for congregations to grow deeper roots and stronger limbs, with the time-tested means of worship, prayer, and mutual love and support, we tell them that what they need most is more energy, more flexibility, different arrangements of furniture, and more lively and contemporary music. So we want our congregations to be spiritually and socially "healthy" and "mature," and, at the same we distract them with assessment tools, fast-talking consultants, systems theory, and innovative liturgies, and constantly remind them that they are not drawing in greater numbers or enough young people.

I think it is time to step back and do less in the way of measuring and engineering and just let the trees grow.  We cannot keep obsessing about the right soil conditions, acidity, temperature, and the like and frantically applying more and more fertilizer and pesticides.  If we keep doing this, we will have no trees at all, let alone the occasional climax forest when the trees reach their full maturity, before they decay and fall or are taken down by wind or fire.

One of the most memorable moments I ever had in an adult Christian education class was a film series on the Epistles of St. Paul.  The narrator traveled to the places where the cities once stood that held the congregations to which Paul wrote.  With a deserted hillside behind him, the narrator explained that not only were the Roman cities gone from those locations, but Christianity was gone as well, and Islam had taken its place.

There was something remarkably calm and matter-of-fact about what he said.  It was not some great tragedy or a waste of time and effort on Paul's part.  Times change and the faith takes root wherever it can, for awhile, at least, and then starts over.  All we can do is keep planting the trees and tend them with care and love.  God alone will decide when we are done.

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