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 comes if the “wanting” remains unfulfilled for too long. It 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 remain the same? With the church’s sense of success predicated on outcomes it cannot control, the community’s wanting can slip into an emotional undertone of 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 pastor into that environment. What will the church’s emotion be towards the pastor if (s)he fails to deliver what the congregation has been unable to 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 actually 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. It would be something unhealthy to be content with pain, conflict and injustice. However when a church’s focus is taken up too much by things it does not want and cannot influence, it can create an environmental undertone frustration and anger. It cannot reach the equanimity to say, “The poor you will always have.”
What then happens when a church with that emotional substratum recruits a new 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 itself? 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 simply be the best US that we can be” – perhaps seeing that as a longer term route to lasting fruit. (This approach is often typified by churches with cultural roots in another country.)
he cocooning impulse 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 a forever home in the cocoon! The emotional environment of the cocoon is one of comfort, predicated on its protection from the wider environment. A cocooning church will look for a pastor who can furnish the environment they are in, and keep disturbing elements out, ensuring the environment remains 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. Anxiety. Distrust. “Has (s)he come to destroy us?!”
Untreated, dynamics like these can deplete the emotional environment and fruitfulness of a church. If a negative emotional substratum is not shifted it will simply attach itself to the next pastor.
My first experience of intentional interim ministry was observing the fruit of a regional superintendent for Assemblies of God UK. He worked for two years with the disappointed, frustrated remnant of a church to shift it’s emotionality to a place of hope and anticipation, laying the foundation for what was a transformational journey. In my own engagements I have learned three positive and empowering things from these scenarios of emotional stagnation:
- NONE of these emotions is fatal.
- ALL of these emotions can be shifted.
- A CONSULTANT OR INTENTIONAL INTERIM CAN HELP a church identify its emotional landscape and then reframe its mindset to enable positive engagement and transformation, moving forward.
- CHURCHES CAN SHIFT from places 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 (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
Let me tell you a little more about 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. The intentional interim in question was the superintendent for Assemblies of God in the South East region of the UK, 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. He did it with time, case studies, Bible teaching and tons of humour. He was able to be real and push a bit because the stalwarts knew he was not feathering a nest for himself but preparing them for a future. After a while the stalwarts understood this and gave themselves to the process. The transformation was remarkable.
In the wake of Colin’s work I then came alongside his son, Gareth, as he headed up the work of carrying the church forward into completely new areas of ministry and into a period of phenomenal growth and multiplication. Together we were able to walk an incredibly fruitful path. All the while we were both very conscious that the way had been paved by Colin’s foundational work. 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 my 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 exactly 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 just as the proverb says, “Guard your heart. It is the source of your life.”