In theory, congregations have the capacity to be a positive influence on the broader community. They have a belief system that often looks at the big picture, a narrative that upholds the respect and sanctity of life, and, for some, a relationship system that treats people as equals.
In practice, congregations are becoming just the opposite. They are narrowing their beliefs, touting theological positions that only serve to counter secular ideals, promoting a narrative of taking a life to “save” lives, and treating people who are different, differently. It’s observable in meetings, and in emails and phone calls between parishioners. Is it realistic to expect congregations to behave any different than those who do not attend a congregation?
For mainline Protestant denominations, there has been a steady decline in worship attendance over the past fifty years. A benchmark denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is addressing decline for the first time in its history. What contributes to this mass exodus from the mainline church? It is not a failure to communicate the message. It is not a lack of effort. The decline is related to the inability of local congregations to be flexible and adaptable to the rising tide of societal anxiety.
I’ve assembled some ideas on what this looks like in relationship to ministries of outreach, nurture, and administration.
Outreach and Missions
Most congregations participate in some form of outreach. And when I say outreach, I mean ministries with the poor. Congregations often send money and volunteers to local agencies. Many of these agencies are coming to terms with how traditional paradigms for helping the poor are not working. Good intentions to help individuals who are in need have promoted a type of helplessness.
Dr. Murray Bowen describes a projection process that goes on in the family that extends to the helping professionals:
“The family projection process is a triangular emotional process through which two powerful people in the triangle reduce their own anxiety and insecurity by picking a defect in the third person, diagnosing and confirming the defect as pitiful and in need of benevolent attention, and then ministering to the pitiful helpless one, which results in the week becoming weaker and the strong becoming stronger. It is present in all people to some degree, and by overcompassion in poorly integrated, overemotional people, powered by benevolent overhelpfulness that benefits the stronger one more than the recipient, and is justified in the name of goodness and self-sacrificing righteousness. The prevalence of the process in society would suggest that more hurtfulness to others is done in the service of pious helpfulness than in the name of malevolent intent.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p 434.
The time has come for congregations to step up their understanding of emotional process as it relates to outreach ministries. This includes finding new ways of engaging others in need without contributing to their underfunctioning. Congregations need to start asking the question, “When is helping not helping?”
Education and Programming
Fear stunts our intellectual growth. Our motivation to uncover facts, our drive to discover, and our curiosity for exploration are halted by fear. If not challenged, our fears will keep us from learning and growing. We will lack the confidence to move forward.
What does it mean to be challenged? A great coach is someone who knows how to challenge an individual to reach beyond their capacity. They bring out the best in their student.
Where in your congregation are people being challenged? How are these challenges tailored to the individual and not generalized to an entire congregation? Who are the coaches working to challenge others to reach past their potential? Where are the leadership development programs that encourage people to step up and do better?
Congregations are anxious about administration. Most congregations first fill their administrative vacancies leaving programs to suffer from a lack of leadership and volunteers. It says something about the level of anxiety people have about administration, especially finances.
All congregations need to be transparent in the ways they handle finance. Unfortunately, congregational leaders are often transparent in the wrong ways. Instead of being transparent about the facts of their financials, they are transparent about their anxiety. They share their worries and fears either by withholding information or fantasizing about the future demise of the congregation.
Leaders do a better job with finances when they find ways to share facts and decrease the amount of anxiety they share. It’s useful to focus less on telling the congregation what to do (like how much people should give) and focus more on encouraging individuals to be responsible givers. When leaders talk about the impact of giving on the ministries of the congregation and the community, those are facts. It is not a fact to tell the congregation you will turn off the lights in worship if the giving does not increase. Efforts to blame or shame have no place in congregations or any relationship system.
Does your congregation help people learn about personal finances? Does your congregation offer opportunities for people to think about what kind of legacy they want to leave and how they will support ministries and organizations to that end? Do leaders work to understand the goals of individual members and think with them about how to accomplish their goals? Do leaders model this effort themselves?
What is responsible leadership?
It’s important for congregational leaders to define what they believe, what is important to them, and what they are trying to accomplish in their life.
Dr. Bowen developed a view of what he called the “family leader.” Therapy for Bowen involved identifying someone in the family with the capacity to be more of a self; someone who is actively working on differentiation of self. He writes:
“Operationally, ideal family treatment begins when one can find a family leader with the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do, who can know and respect the multiple opinions of others, who can modify self in response to the strengths of the group, and who is not influenced by the irresponsible opinions of others . . . A family leader is beyond the popular notion of power. A responsible family leader automatically generates mature leadership qualities in other family members who are to follow.” (Kerr and Bowen 1988, 342-43)
A responsible leader is someone who is working on being their best self. It is what Bowen described as differentiation of self. It is a thinker – someone who thinks systems. Someone who is focused on “I” while others are focused on “we.” It is a connected self. Someone who has viable contact with both their family relationship system and the congregational relationship system while working on self-regulation. It is charting one’s own course while respecting the courses others are taking. It is acting on one’s beliefs and being prepared for the reactivity from others that inevitably accompanies such an effort. It is understanding that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. But we can all do better.