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.
- 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 positive aspirations, and a sense of direction and outreach is important to the health and energy of a church. The danger is that the “wanting,” if unfulfilled for too long, can create a felt environment of frustration, unreality and insecurity. What happens if for too long the demographic remains not reached, the culture remains unshifted, the building remains unacquired, the numbers have remain ungrown? If the church’s sense of success has been predicated on outcomes it cannot control, then the community’s 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 has been 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 the growth their church was experiencing. Specifically they did not want local people bringing children into the church services! The church may not want the shifts it is seeing in its 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 is taken up too much by things it does not want and cannot control, it can create a felt environment in a perpetual state of frustration and anger. 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. Anger. 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 cocoons transform their occupants, and once transformed their occupants break out and fly away, never to return to their cocoon. By contrast the cocooning church sets up its forever home in the cocoon! The emotional environment 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, keep disturbing elements out, 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? Disturbance. Discomfort.
Untreated, dynamics like these can deplete the emotional environment and fruitfulness of a church. If a negative emotional environment isn’t shifted it will simply attach itself to the next pastor.
Here are three pieces of good news for churches struggling with an emotional environment like one of those I have listed:
- None of these emotions is fatal.
- All of these emotions can be shifted.
- A consultant can help a church identify its emotional landscape and reframe its mindset for positive engagement and transformation.
Better than recruiting a new pastor to operate in an unhealthy emotional environment is to recruit an Intentional Interim Minister to help the church heal its emotional environment. That is the key to moving from a place of disappointment, frustration and discomfort to a place of Blessing.
In the Place of Blessing a church has the ease to ask more open questions about its mission. Questions like”
- What can we do to bless and serve our local environment?
- What do you (as an individual or a group within the church) have going that we (the church corporate) can bless and support?
- What is God doing in our wider environment 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 what is vital is that its happiness is not dependent on outcomes it cannot control.
The late Colin Benton – Southern Light Ministries / AOG UK
The first time I observed an interim process shift a church from the whole trifecta of negative emotions I have identified, 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.
In the wake of Colin’s work I came alongside his son, Gareth, as he headed up the work of carrying the church forward into new areas of ministry and multiplication. Together we were able to walk an incredibly fruitful path. All the while we were very conscious that the way had been paved for us by Colin’s foundational work prior to our arrival. Without the previous emotional healing the church’s story would not have been the same.
More recently in Australia I led an Intentional Interim process for a church which had experienced a sequence of significant traumas and grief. It was bogged down 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.
What drove these two successful healing processes?
Both processes used all the tools I outline 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. It helps heal negative emotions and build the kind of emotional health on which the life of the church depends and thrives. It is sust as the proverb says, “Guard your heart. It is the source of your life.”