That’s appropriate. We should always have a picture of our desired future in our hearts and minds.
But what does a pastor do with an unhealthy church?
I’m going to propose a radical idea that shouldn’t be considered radical at all.
Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy churches.
Why? Because unhealthy churches aren’t like healthy ones. And acting as though they are doesn’t help them, it hurts them.
Some Churches Need a Spiritual ICU
Someone with two healthy legs is able to stand, walk, run and jump. But if your leg is broken, your doctor won’t tell you to act like it’s healthy. Treating a broken leg as though it’s healthy will hurt it, not help it. If the medical issue is serious enough, the patient is put in an Intensive Care Unit, where they can receive closer attention. The same goes for churches – no matter what size they are.
Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy ones if they have any hope of becoming healthy. Some of them need a spiritual ICU.
But we don’t usually do that. Too often, we tell hurting, broken, unhealthy churches to get over it and start acting like their strong, healthy siblings.
Then we can’t understand why so many of them stay unhealthy or get sicker. And we end up blaming the pastor and/or the church, when all they did was try to follow our advice.
Some Good Ideas Don’t Work – At Least Not Yet
Here are some characteristics I’ve been told a healthy church has:
- The pastor stops being the primary caregiver
- The people do the work of ministry
- The church trains the people who are here to reach out to the people who aren’t here
- More time, energy and money is spent on ministry than maintenance
- No hand-holding from the pastor
Those are great ideas. If the church is already healthy.
But implementing those principles too quickly in an unhealthy church is like trying to run on a broken leg. They’ll harm it more than help it.
Some pastoral leadership books and blog posts should come with a warning label: DO NOT ATTEMPT IF YOUR CHURCH IS NOT HEALTHY! It would save many pastors from a lot of unnecessary grief.
So what are some of the ways in which an unhealthy church should be treated differently than a healthy one?
4 Starter Ideas for the Care and Treatment of an Unhealthy Church
1. More Personal Pastoral Care
So much of the current advice about pastoring seems to be about how to pastor less, not more.
That might make sense in a big and/or healthy church. But in Small Churches it can cause distance and distrust. And in an unhealthy church it can kill the patient – or the doctor (sometimes both).
An ICU has more doctors per patient than a standard hospital room. It’s only when the patient becomes healthier that they receive less attention from health care professionals.
Before a pastor steps back from hands-on pastoral care, we need to ask a very important question. “Is the patient healthy enough for this yet?”
I was a very hands-on pastor for many years. And I don’t regret it. Why? Because I had inherited a very unhealthy, broken church and they needed a lot of attention for those first years.
Now I’m far less hands-on. Why? Because part of the work I did during the hands-on season was to train others to do the work of ministry. Now the patient is healthy and does a much better job taking care of herself, with only the occasional doctor check-ups.
2. Fewer Demands on the Congregation
Too many pastors think the answer for a broken church is to push them to do more, more and more. That may be the quickest way to kill an ailing congregation.
There are a lot of very busy, very ill churches. As I mentioned in my two-part Bigger Fixes Nothing series, it’s foolhardy to add an additional burden to someone when they’re struggling to handle their current burden.
No, don’t coddle the church. But don’t push too hard, either. There are seasons when churches need rest more than they need exercise.
That happened in the first few years at my current church. They’d been through five pastors in ten years, each of which brought a new vision and a new set of activities to go with it. The church was worn out from trying to please each pastor.
So I gave them a rest. For a couple years, we worshiped, taught scripture and hung out at picnics, potluck, etc. After a while, the patient got stronger and started standing, then walking on her own.
Today, it’s one of the strongest, most innovative and healthiest churches I know. But we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t slowed down for those years of much-needed, purposeful rest.
3. Short Bursts of Activity Followed By Long Periods of Rest
Once a church starts getting healthy, a wise pastor will protect them from the temptation to do too much, too soon.
A church recovering from ill-health and brokenness needs to be challenged. Then they need to rest. This helps them assess, heal and prepare for the next challenge.
As I mentioned in a previous post, a good pastor knows what a good doctor knows. We have to help people stretch beyond their own comfort, but not so far that it will break them.
Knowing just how far that is before giving them a break is another reason congregations need more personal pastoral care during these seasons.
4. Fill Them Up Before Emptying Them Out
Of the five marks of a healthy church, some fill us up, others empty us out.
Fill up with:
Empty out with:
Yes, Discipleship is on both lists. It’s the bridge between them.
Discipleship fills us up with knowledge and training. Then it empties us out when we put it into practice.
When a church is healthy, those lists should be close to a 50/50 balance. But an unhealthy church tends to lean heavily, sometimes exclusively, towards one list and neglect the other.
Some churches are filling stations. They spend all their time inside the church walls, singing, having potlucks and the like. They may even get filled up with tons of bible teaching, giving them a false sense of healthfulness.
Other churches are so obsessed with working that they burn people out with activities, without giving them adequate time to get re-filled.
But let’s face it, 90% of unhealthy churches aren’t dealing with the problem of giving too much. They’re stuck on the first list. Because of that, many pastors make the mistake of trying to fix their church by moving them off the fill-up list entirely and getting them busy with outward-facing activities almost exclusively. This is very dangerous. (See point #2, above).
A church that is only doing emptying activities may think they’re healthy, but they’re not. We need to follow the example of Jesus who regularly pulled away from busyness to get re-filled.
A healthy human body needs to fill up through nutrition and empty out through exercise. So does a healthy church. In the meantime, an unhealthy church may need a little more filling up before they have something to empty out.
This is not an attempt at an exhaustive list. It’s a conversation-starter. So let’s start.
What ideas do you have for treating an unhealthy church differently than a healthy one?
So what do you think? Have you seen any good spiritual ICU ideas you can share with us?
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