Transitioning from unhealthy to healthy systems

A column provided in collaboration with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org)

When asked about my church, I reply, “I have the privilege of serving as pastor of a healthy church.”

For far too many people, this is a rare statement. But, over seven years, I learned much about transitioning from unhealthy to healthy systems.

When I began, it seemed like a perfect match. As is so often the case, the package did not match the brochure.

Power struggles and unhealthy systems reared their ugly heads soon after my family and I arrived. Truthfully, even then, the congregation was and currently is a loving group, and they have legitimate needs and a desire to better know God.

In many ways they are like most other churches that cannot continue on a set path and expect past successes to yield future growth. This applies equally to spiritual growth, worship attendance and financial viability.

Each church must continually listen for God’s renewed calling. My experience is not an indictment of any of my predecessors. So, what transformed the best of the past into an unhealthy trajectory?

At the end of my honeymoon period someone wanted to move the piano in the sanctuary from underneath a portico, three feet into a walkway. In the end the church lost several members who left in a huff because they did not get their way, and the piano remained in the portico.

The question behind the piano episode was not about the piano location, but one of control. Who gets to make decisions in the church?

The answer: in a healthy church, the congregation makes decisions, often reaching a consensus.

As the congregation experienced conflict and some lay leaders jockeyed for control, I served varying roles: scapegoat, peacemaker, agent of change (alternatively, person to blame for change), mistake-maker and more.

One man tried to intimidate me and convince me to quit “before it’s too late.” The easiest path in a context of such turmoil is to leave. However, I stayed.

I prayed, studied the Bible, read books and talked with colleagues. Sometimes, I fought. Sometimes, I refrained from fighting (Ecclesiastes 3).

Generally, I followed some simple rules.

  • Stay out in front of problems; do not avoid them.
  • Visit people often, especially if they are in the hospital or request it.
  • Apologize. (It is easier to apologize when one has actually made a mistake, but sometimes situations require an apology when the other person perceives having been wronged.)
  • Be patient.
  • Extend grace to other people.
  • Ask for and expect grace in return.
  • Take the long view.
  • Develop thick skin.
  • Try to understand the church’s past.
  • Love people where they are, not where I want them to be.

Heraclitus said, “You can never walk through the same stream twice.” Over time, things change.

Consistent love, clarity of purpose, compassion and attentiveness facilitate transitioning from an unhealthy church system to a healthy one. The rules above are not a magic formula, but reflect a gospel approach to ministry.

Nowhere does Jesus call superstar preachers. Each person is a sinner in need of God’s grace. Remembering this wisdom during difficult days of ministry can be a challenge.

A lay leader posed an ultimatum to congregational leadership: either they adopt his report outlining grievances against the pastor or he would leave. In that meeting the church members turned a corner. They reached a point at which they no longer were willing to struggle with unhealthy systems.

They could see the two paths before them, although they might not have been able to articulate them: (1) Follow God, which means not firing a pastor over minor disagreements, or (2) continue the old ways with power struggles and church functioning like a club.

I did not speak on my own behalf. Instead, nearly 20 lay members responded to this one person’s ultimatum. He held to his word and never returned.

No longer do I serve an unhealthy church. Lay leaders, congregants and pastoral staff regularly talk about how becoming healthy was no accident. We actively look at how we can grow even healthier.

Healthy churches thirst for worship and spiritual growth. They collectively seek God’s path for the future. And, they are a blessing to themselves, their community, staff and pastor.

I am far from perfect, but have discovered how to lead a church to become healthy. Can other people use some of these ideas and adapt them to their circumstances? I believe so. NFJ

by Matthew Tennant

Matthew Tennant is pastor of Kilmarnock Baptist Church in Kilmarnock Va.