Photo: Signs of health should hopefully be easy to find.
After reflecting on (a) what caused us to leave our previous churches and (b) when those signs became apparent (see this post on Early Warning Signs), I’m realizing that it behooves us to take our time when getting to know a new church. Some things will be apparent right away. But then there will be situations where it will take time for a pattern to emerge. A leader can react poorly once, and maybe they’re just caught off-guard or having a bad day. But when that turns into a pattern of general hot-headedness with no actual apology or attempts to do better in the future… Let’s just say that it’s time to move on.
But it’s helpful to also know what are signs of health to look for in a church body. And for that, I think it will be useful to look at a different organizational context.
Using the Workplace as an Analogy
Not all of us have experienced healthy (or unhealthy, for that matter) church. But I’m assuming that most people here will have a variety of experiences in the workplace, either with different organizations or different managers, and will generally have an idea of what has worked well in a workplace and what hasn’t.
Now, I realize that this analogy doesn’t fit perfectly. But I’m going to tease out some themes that I think will apply in both kinds of situations, for the following reasons:
- ideally, membership in both a church and a workplace should be voluntary
- financial reasons can keep someone trapped in a toxic workplace past when they would want to leave, and this is unfortunate; neither should churches use manipulation and shame to trap members in a toxic environment
- people are working toward a common overarching mission
- whether that is “reaching people for Jesus” or “providing automotive repair service good enough that people will continue to pay us for it”
- when the organization gets big enough, there is a hierarchy where certain individuals make the final decisions and everyone else has to learn to either live with it or leave
- as a side note, I hate to use the word “hierarchy” for a church context, given that a church is theoretically a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:4-10) where all are members of one body of equally honorable parts (1 Corinthians 12:1-26), but I can’t think of a better word at the moment
Signs of Health
In no particular order…
There is a reciprocal relationship between the organization and the individual members. When I show up to a job and get the work done, I expect to get paid; if the workplace doesn’t pay me for my labor in a timely manner, I leave.
Churches sometimes don’t like to emphasize the reciprocal nature of the relationship (for fear of the pendulum swinging too far the other direction, I think), but it is reasonable to expect things of them, too; for example, that I receive decent teaching (doesn’t need to be phenomenal, but at least decent) in sermons and/or classes, that any money I donate is stewarded wisely and put toward its advertised purposes, that reasonable (emphasis on reasonable) opportunities are offered for fellowshipping with other believers, etc.
Decision-makers (a.k.a. leadership, pastors, elders, managers, etc.) actively gather input from those in the trenches, act on that input in a meaningful way, and communicate clearly when and why particular input wasn’t acted on. This can be a difficult balancing act, but the best managers I’ve had always at least listened, even if they ended up not acting on my feedback. They were also willing to explain their thought process behind decisions, without getting defensive. (I was raised by a teacher; asking “why” is second nature and helps me better understand how things work.) This article from the Sacramento Business Journal indicates that it’s not just me who feels the same way.
As mentioned above, I think 1 Corinthians 12 paints a similar picture for why we can expect input from pew-peons to be actively solicited in a healthy church. God does not concentrate all necessary gifts in one person; instead, they are shared among different people, none of whom is deserving of more honor than another. Thus, it also behooves church leadership to listen to others in the body whom God has also gifted. While our former church Mars Hill Baby Church turned out not to be the healthiest overall, the women’s ministry at that church was thriving. One of the specific things the ministry’s leadership team did that I think helped this was to actively solicit feedback, both in the form of after-event surveys and one-on-one with different women. It both spoke to the leaders’ humility and their willingness to grow and learn (and improve!).
Leaders follow the law. For context, at least three (I’ve honestly lost track) of my former workplaces have been involved in class-action lawsuits for neglecting to give employees their state-law-mandated breaks or lunches, and in one case for asking employees to work off-the-clock and retroactively “fixing” time cards. Another workplace, in spite of my and other coworkers warnings to the contrary, skirted employment law (and the requisite background check) and hired a teacher who came to school high on drugs one day and molested a child in the middle of class. Needless to say, none of these workplaces are ones I’d go back to or recommend to others.
And regarding churches, before you go and holler “but the Nazis”, I know (happen to be a grandchild of someone who grew up in Nazi Germany). I am not talking about immoral laws. Specifically, I’m talking about mandated reporting laws for child abuse or molestation, or employment laws that may be a hassle but are not exactly immoral. Also, if the church enters into an agreement with the government, I expect them to keep their word. For example, if they enjoy tax-exempt status, I expect them to honor the condition of such status that says they should not endorse particular political candidates or propositions. And if they decide to go against the law, I expect them to be willing to accept the consequences, rather than crying “persecution” as a knee-jerk reaction. And work to change the law, if it is truly an immoral one. Not sure if the cry of “persecution” is justified? Personally, I find it really helpful to have at least a couple of blogs I follow from believers who are outside of the United States (like the one just linked above), to help provide an outsider’s perspective into our politics.
Leaders tell the truth. At healthy workplaces, this is so basic that it almost isn’t even worth mentioning. But toxic workplaces lie as a matter of habit, almost. The one mentioned above that skipped an employee background check lied to clients about employee qualifications and lied again to clients when two employees became midnight runners (the employees left because of the toxic work environment).
Like a healthy workplace, telling the truth in a healthy church should be so basic as to not even register on the radar. At two of the toxic church situations we’ve left, I had an elder lie to my face and a pastor lie in an email. And given my background in academia, I would include an open acknowledgement of any resources other than their own brain that a pastor (or other leader) uses in their sermons or other teaching materials. In other words, if a pastor borrows a quote from someone else’s book or sermon they should say, “Pastor So-and-so says…” “The world” takes plagiarism seriously; given that we in the church are theoretically holding ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to moral conduct, I don’t see why we should think any differently. Also, it helps keep the pastor off of a pedestal, if both pastor and congregation realize that the pastor is also continually learning from others instead of trusting solely in his own judgment. And as a final thought, considering the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the light (John 14:6), I think honesty should be standard operational mode in churches.
Leadership doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, even when it’s hard. I got hired by a large organization just as the 2008 recession was hitting. Fortunately, it was in a strong financial position, but there were still budget cuts, healthcare premium increases for employees, hiring freezes, and the loss of many temporary employees. The CEO held numerous town-hall style meetings during the process, and always managed to strike a balance between honesty and hope. This led to employees trusting him to guide the organization through the crisis.
In contrast, the parent company of the subsidiary David works for communicates the “happy happy joy joy everything is awesome and we are all one in our awesomeness” message so often that it has become a running joke amongst those in the trenches. (David has just given his two-weeks notice, for unrelated reasons.) And the catalyst to our leaving a former church was when it came within spitting distance of financial insolvency. It wasn’t so much the insolvency itself that caused David and I to loose trust in leadership, but that I had seen the crisis coming for months, and leadership had continued to paint finances in a rosy picture the entire time while completely absolving themselves of any responsibility in the resulting mess.
They honor my other commitments, responsibilities, and physical limits. The best bosses I’ve had recognize that their employees have a life outside of the workplace. They don’t hesitate to say “yes” when an employee asks for time off to attend a child’s school performance, or to care for a loved one during a health crisis, etc. When I was pregnant with Miss Bee and still working, my (childless, so never experienced pregnancy herself but was still able to empathize) manager was accommodating of the times I had to leave work early due to simple pregnancy fatigue. These were the managers that I was willing to go above-and-beyond for when my capabilities allowed, because they respected the times when my other commitments would not allow.
In contrast, churches can arrange an array of activities (a good thing) with the expectation that you always attend every single activity (a bad thing). Grace is only given in case of illness or being out-of-town. There can be little recognition that people only have so much bandwidth to give due to “invisible” responsibilities like young children, physical or mental health conditions or disabilities of themselves or family members, caregiving for elderly parents, a particularly draining work life, the simple condition of being an introvert, etc. A healthy church will provide the opportunity for community without strings or guilt trips attached.
People are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their standing in the cultural hierarchy. The community college I worked for before Miss Bee was born is someplace I’d return to in an instant. My understanding is that it is fairly unique even among community colleges in the level of participation classified staff (non-administrators and non-professors) enjoyed in college governance. All college committees were led by tri-chairs (an administrator, a professor, and a classified staff), and the college supported both a Faculty and a Classified Senate. Won’t lie, administrators and faculty clearly had more prestige and influence in affairs. But there was at least honest effort toward including classified staff and taking into consideration their contributions.
In the church, I would look to see how people with less social standing are treated and included in community life and (where appropriate) the decision-making process. Some of these are hot-button topics, but I’m just going to throw out a few ideas: children, single adults, blue-collar workers (if the church is mostly white-collar), physically or mentally disabled individuals, women, ethnic minorities (or ethnicities outside of the majority of members if the church is fairly homogenous), senior citizens (particularly the homebound), those with less or more formal education that the norm, etc.
I can’t speak to all of the above, not having experienced all of the above. But I can address what has been my experience as a woman, as a (former) single adult, and as a parent of young children in churches. I refuse to attend a church that tells men to “bounce their eyes” and not even look at me instead of engaging with me as a fellow member of the family of God, or that practices the “Billy Graham rule.” (One of these days I’ll write about my experiences with this way-past-its-best-by-date rule.) I also refuse to attend a church that says being single is a sin. (Jesus and the apostle Paul were single. As were all the disciples except for Peter, that we’re aware of. And Paul says that he personally wishes everyone could remain single in 1 Corinthians 7:6-8.) Lastly, I refuse to attend a church that sees children as inherently rebellious all the time and neglects Christ’s statement that we must receive the kingdom of God like a little child. (For the record, Harvest Bible Baby Church, an infant who squirms during a diaper change is not rebelling against your authority. They are simply trying to communicate to you that a wet wipe on a naked bum is cold and uncomfortable. You’d probably do the same, in a similar position.)
Accountability flows both ways and ideally includes outside input. This is related to an earlier point about decision-makers seeking input from all levels of the organization. Going back to the community college I used to work for, every single employee, from the college president on down, regularly went through an employee review process. For administrators and faculty (those higher up in the organization), this included anonymous feedback from subordinates (for administrators) or students (for faculty). As one experienced professor put it, there were periodically people with a chip on their shoulder, and those feedback surveys got easier to weed out and ” emotionally let go” with time and experience. But if he started to notice a theme or trend emerge over the course of a group of surveys, he took that as a prompt to revaluate and make tweaks to his courses, as was appropriate. I think it also helps individuals in the organization to have the regular practice of receiving feedback they may not agree with, to practice self-control and self-reflection and humility.
Accountability is all the more important for those at the top of the organization, because their influence is so much greater. The college president was accountable to the district’s superintendent, who was accountable to the board, whose members were elected by the public. So, there was at least some accountability all around. And the people doing the accounting were not hand-picked by those being held accountable. Additionally, the college was part of an accreditation organization and had to go through a review cycle as an institution every six years, accounting for how it managed it’s financial, facilities, and personnel resources; whether courses were teaching what they were supposed to be teaching; etc. Additionally, because it was a public institution that was funded by taxpayer dollars, every single employee’s salary was easily accessible online to the general public.
In a church, if accountability only goes one way, it’s a cult. Period.
To be honest, other than that, I don’t have fully developed thoughts for how two-way accountability might work in a church context. But I think I’d start with looking at finances, and continue on from there. At the very least, is the budget made easily available to members? If the pastor and/or elders know how much individual congregation members are tithing (which I am uncomfortable with as a practice, but that’s too much of a tangent to discuss right here), do the congregation members also know (a) what the pastor and elders’ salaries are and (b) how much they are tithing?
When looking at leadership, does the pastor select the elders (or whichever group of people is ostensibly holding him accountable) himself, or are the elders elected by the congregation or appointed by an outside denominational entity? And when looking at the elder board (or whatever group is holding the pastor accountable), are there members with a conflict of interest? For example, are the elders also employed by the church, or by a different organization that the pastor might be a leader of? Are the spouses or children of the elders employed by the church, or by a different organization that the pastor might be a leader of? If so, elders will have an added layer of difficulty in telling the pastor “no,” because their or their family member’s salary could depend on staying in the pastor’s good graces.
If I ever came across a church that regularly surveyed members to see how their experiences were at the church and what their needs were, I’d be incredibly impressed. And even more impressed if they regularly asked congregation members or staff members for feedback when conducting employee reviews of pastors. [Update, it exists!]
Where the Workplace Analogy Falls Short
In wrapping this up, I do want to acknowledge two areas in which using the workplace as an analogy for a healthy church falls short. First, with money. With the probable exception of non-profits, a business’s main mission is profits. Related to profits is growth and expansion. With a church, any growth or expansion should happen as a by-product of following the church’s mission, and not be the mission itself. And if there is not any growth or expansion, that does not necessarily mean that the church is off-course; it could very well be following its mission (and Jesus) faithfully. (Now, I need to balance this out by saying that maybe a church is not growing because it is unhealthy and people are rightfully avoiding it. A small size should be neither a source of pride nor a source of shame.)
Secondly, with people. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). If you cannot say that the church (and its leadership) is characterized by love for Jesus and love for people, then you should probably not be there. And I realize that there may be sibling squabbles, but the overarching pattern in church relationships should be love, not control.
For Further Reading
A book I found highly practical was Emotionally Healthy Church, by Peter Scazzero. I happened to read it in 2014 when David and I were at Mars Hill Baby Church, and it affirmed the problems we were seeing there. I appreciated that the book not only diagnosed problems, but offered tangible actions steps for moving forward in healing and health.
What are your thoughts about healthy church? Did I miss anything?
Not too long after I published this post, Sam Powell of First Reformed Church in Yuba City (California) posted The marks of the church and social media to his blog, My Only Comfort. He also discusses what to look for (and what to avoid) in a healthy church, and has a perspective on using social media in the process that I hadn’t considered before. His post (and blog in general) is well worth the read.