Sometimes it is obvious that a church needs emotional healing before it can move on. When a congregation experiences a trauma – a tragedy, a natural disaster , disclosure of abuse or a scandal, the experience will produce fear and grief that need healing before the community can be a happy and safe environment for all within and around it. At such times the need for an Intentional Interim is obvious. But sometimes toxicity in the life of the church can be the result of more subtle emotional problems:
If you see a church exhibiting any of these symptoms it can be a sign that what is needed is another kind emotional healing:
- A sequence of 2 or more otherwise happy tenures conclude in toxicity
- A sequence of 2 or more pastoral tenures ending with pastoral burnout
- A sequence of 2 or more pastors concluding their ministries without a new job
- A failure to attract a new pastor after 2 rounds of enquiries / interviews
- a lack of laughter in the church environment
- a lack of social connection among members outside of church services
- a lack of moments on the church’s calendar for just enjoying company
When symptoms like these signal “something wrong with the environment” often what’s creating the toxicity is the church’s underlying emotion. If the church is built on any one of the three emotions below, problems are inevitable.
- Unfulfilled Wanting
- Not Wanting
The Wanting Church – The essential emotion of some churches is wanting what they don’t have. The emotion may be positively couched in the language of “vision” or “goals” and “objectives”. But essentially the church wants something it doesn’t have. It wants to reach a demographic, shift a culture, meet a need, get a building, expand in number etc.
There is a subtlety to it. All these are commendable aspirations, and a sense of direction and outreach is important t the health and energy of a church. The danger is that the “wanting” creates a felt environment of unfulfilment, frustration or insecurity. What happens if the demographic is not reached, the culture has not shifted, the building has not been acquired, the numbers have not grown? The church’s happiness has been predicated on outcomes it cannot control. In this way wanting can slip into disappointment – and as the Proverb says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” True of people. True of churches.
Now consider what happens when the wanting church recruits a healthy pastor. What will the church’s emotion be towards the pastor when (s)he fails to deliver what the congregation could not deliver for itself? And what will the pastor’s emotion be? Disappointment! Unfulfilled wanting!
The Not-Wanting Church – does not want the things it is seeing. The congregation does not want to be smaller, does not want to be older, does not want its unfashionable old building. I once served a church where the key leaders did not want people bringing children into the church services! The church may not want the shifts it is seeing in the surrounding culture – shifts in the local property market, moral shifts, movements in law and regulation, inequities and injustices in the local and national environment.
Again there is a subtlety. We would be unhealthy to be content with pain, conflict and injustice. But when a church’s focus rests too squarely on things it does not want and cannot control, it can create a felt environment in a perpetual state of frustration. It cannot reach the equanimity to say, “The poor you will always have.”
What then happens when a church living in frustration recruits a healthy pastor? What will the church’s emotion be towards the pastor when (s)he has not corrected, fixed or changed what the congregation could not correct or change for themselves? And what will the pastor’s emotion be? Frustration. Not wanting.
The Cocooning Church – has come to terms with not being in sync with its environment, not reaching new demographics, not shifting cultures, not making much change. So it decides, “let us be the best us that we can be” – seeing that as a longer term route to lasting fruit. This is subtly different to what would be a healthy response. Real coccoons transform their occupants, and once transformed their occupants break out and fly away, never to return. The cocooning church gets stuck in the cocoon. The emotion of the cocoon is one of comfort, predicated on its protection from the wider environment. It will look for a pastor who can furnish and equip the cocoon they are in and make it comfortable for the longer term.
What happens when cocooning church recruits a pastor who wants to move the metamorphosis along and break the occupants out of the cocoon? What will the church’s emotion be towards the pastor? What will the pastor’s emotion be? Discomfort.
Untreated all three emotions – disappointment, frustration and discomfort can deplete the environment and fruitfulness of a church. If the emotion isn’t shifted it will simply attach itself to the next pastor.
The good news is that none of these emotions is fatal. And all of these emotions can be shifted. A consultant can help a church understand the emotion it’s in and leverage it for positive engagement, correction and transformation.
When the signs are discerned, better than recruiting a new pastor to operate in an unhealthy emotional environment is to recruit an Intentional Interim Minister to heal the emotional environment and carry it from a place of disappointment, frustration and discomfort to a place of Blessing.
In the place of Blessing a church be at ease with itself and have the emotional wherewithal to say, “What can we do to bless and serve our local environment? What do you (as an individual or a group) have going that we (the church) can bless and support? What is God doing in our locale that we as a church can bless and partner with?”
In the place of Blessing a church has the emotional energy to look for opportunities to bless – but its happiness is not dependent on outcomes it cannot control. It is in that happy place where it can participate in the life God has given, in the setting in which God has placed it. It’s a great place to be. And i’s ta great joy to see churches coming into that place of blessing.
The first time I observed an interim process shift a church from the trifecta of negative emotions into the place of blessing, it was undertaken by a Pentecostal district superintendent in the UK, by the name of Colin Benton. Colin’s work took a small, disappointed and frustrated group of elderly believers out of their cocoon to a place where they were ready for an amazing metamorphosis. The bulk of Colin’s work was in shifting the congregation’s emotional life. The transformation was remarkable.
I then came alongside Colin’s son as he headed up the work of carrying the church forward in ministry and multiplication. Together we were able to walk an incredibly fruitful path, the way paved by the amazing work with which Colin had preceded us.
More recently in Australia I met with a church which had experienced a sequence of significant traumas and grief. It was bogged in a space of disappointment, frustration and cocooning. 2 years into the healing process we entered a happy place – with the energy to jump in to a wonderful new opportunity for life and ministry. The emotional healing was central to this process. How did this happen?
Both the above processes used all the tools described in the posts about Intentional Interim. But the most powerful tool for emotional healing was that of story-telling-and-laughter.
I loved the approach of healing through story when I first saw it modelled in Colin’s intentional interim ministry (before the term had been coined) back in the 1990s. It has been my joy to put that tool to work ever since. Through it I have seen the vital importance of emotional healing in interim ministries. (To probe this aspect further take a look at my post on Intentional Interim as Story-Teller.)
Nothing heals the heart like laughter! In a human body the health of the heart is vital to every other aspect of health. It is the same in church-life. Just as the proverb says, “Guard your heart. It is the source of your life.”