Pleonexia — (Plē-ō-nĕx´-ia) — the insatiable desire for more; a condition of deep dissatisfaction with what one has; seeking fulfillment through the acquisition of possessions, prestige, or power.

20060924new4greedBesides being a great word that’s a lot of fun to say, pleonexia is an insightful description of much of modern culture — including church culture — in the United States.  At an individual level, people organize their entire lives around getting — getting homes, jobs, money, cars, clothes, (in my case, books), toys, and then getting bigger, newer, fancier, costlier versions of each.  It is like a disease — which is why pleonexia is such a great word.  It sounds like a disease.

Viral pleonexia is infecting our churches, pushing us to pursue bigger sanctuaries, bigger staffs, bigger budgets, bigger program, bigger parking lots, bigger projection screens, and even bigger egos.  No matter how much we have, we want more — even when we don’t very well manage what we already have.  Bigger is better, no matter the cost.  Money, time, energy, expertise are all aligned to expand and grow.  Size not only matters, it becomes the only thing that matters.  Pleonexia may be the swine flu of mainline Protestantism in the U.S.

So what are some of the symptoms of the disease?  How can we diagnose pleonexia, and what can we do about it before it becomes terminal.  Let Doctor Dan offer some “early warning signs,” and what can be done about them.

Symptom 1: The Scarcity Mentality

A strong sign of pleonexia is hoarding behavior grounded in the fundamental worldview that there isn’t enough for everyone.  ‘More’ becomes a protection against the uncertainties of the future.  Fear is more motivational than faith.  Getting as much as possible now means we won’t have to worry about tomorrow — except that “as much as possible” is limitless. 

Our gospel is grounded in a promise of abundance — an abundance that will provide sufficiency for all.  There is more than enough for everyone, and the only true justification for more is how well we do with what we have already been given (this is Biblical, check out the gospels.  To the one who has, more will be given, etc.).  We often act as if the next new member is the most important member, that all our current problems will miraculously dissolve if we have more people.  But there is a basic flaw to this logic.  If we can’t get along with a few people, what chance do we have getting along with more?  And since people are ‘difficult,’ we turn our attention to “stuff”: buildings and programs and campaigns and techniques and technologies.  Pleonexia — we need more.  Our solutions are never in what we have, but in what we need to get, but no matter how much we obtain, it is never enough.

Symptom 2: Competition

gluttonyWhere there is a scarcity of resources there will be competition.  One of the unintended consequences of reducing infant mortality in Third World countries has been an escalation of violence and strife over land and resources because there are more people — too many people trying to live off of too little.  In our churches, we compete over resources, people, power, influence, and attention.  Bigger, growing churches get a lot of attention, and they chew up a lot of resources, and with few exceptions they don’t want to share with those who have less.  I can’t tell you the amount of resentment I encounter from the pastor’s of large membership churches who are appalled by the idea that they could share what they have with others.  Even in our connectional church, the fundamental attitude is “my church members support our church and I’m working hard to make our church grow, so no one else has any right to the spoils of our efforts.”  This worldview emerges from the combination of a scarcity mentality and a competitive spirit.

Symptom 3: Numbers Fixation

If the mantra of pleonexia is “the one who has the most is best,” then numbers are the most important measure of success imaginable.  Biggest church, most programs, biggest staff, most members, highest attendance, biggest budget — these become goals rather than the tools of effective ministry.  I have consulted with churches who list such goals as:

  • becoming the biggest church in the conference
  • getting large enough that the conference can’t tell us what to do or move our pastor
  • getting exclusive television rights so we can claim the highest worship numbers in the conference
  • having the highest paid pastor in the conference

When we measure success by quantity, quality is often the greatest casualty.  Having people in the pews becomes more important than equipping them to take God’s love into the world.

Symptom 4: Misplaced Values

Numbers-driven goals have very little to do with “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” (which, if it should happen, is an acceptable fringe benefit) and everything to do with pleonexia.  More, bigger, mightier, better than, most popular.  They reflect North American cultural values, not Christian gospel values.  They operate from a colonial “conquer and divide the spoils” mindset, instead of a post-colonial “justice, mercy, and security for all.”  It tells us a lot about the relative influence of God or Mammon by where we place our time, talents, and money.  Some of our churches are mortgaged to unconscionable limits, all in the name of power and prestige in the present.

Symptom 5: Misdirected Marketing

rodriguez_avariceChurches suffering pleonexia promote the church rather than gospel, the ministries rather than the mission, the unique buildings and locations rather than the body of Christ, and they tell the world it has to come to us instead of promising that the church will come to them.  Pleonexical (I just made this word up) marketing turns religion into a product, faith into a slogan, and spirituality into a logo.  When we don’t have confidence in the integrity and quality of the gospel, we think we have to sell it, spin it, or spruce it up.  This is doubly sad when we’re talking about the greatest story ever told, and we think it will benefit from our rewrites and revision. 

Symptom 6: Shaming Behaviors

Pleonexia, by implication, says small is bad, little is inferior, and humble is embarrassing.  ‘Simplicity’ isn’t about doing without or doing with less; it’s about driving expensive hybrid cars and recycling old i-Pods and computers when the new ones come out.  ‘Haves’ aren’t viewed as more fortunate than ‘have-nots,’ they are viewed as superior.  It isn’t okay to be small when afflicted with pleonexia — it is cause for deep shame.  The inability to be big, to get more, to grow and expand is a sure sign of inability and ineffectiveness.  Little churches should be ashamed of themselves in this diseased worldview.  Every church should want to be BIG!

Symptom 7: Quick-Fix Syndrome

In the insatiable quest for more, pleonexics (another made up word) compulsively look for the next quick fix — the next book, program, guru, DVD, campaign, etc., that will deliver grand results allowing them to gain even more.  Get-rich-quick schemes are not new.  Our entire country is paying the price for greed and grasping in the financial industry, but the church hasn’t yet learned the lesson.  Quick-fixes often have disastrous and untenable long-term consequences.  Many congregations are locked into a very narrow course because their future has been mortgaged to the tune of seven or eight figures.  The ‘buy now and reap all the benefits and let someone else pick up the tab somewhere down the line’ is the worst form of poor stewardship, yet we do it all the time.  As one pastor put it to me recently, “I’m going to retire on top!  It doesn’t much matter to me what happens after I am gone.” (Yep, a UMC pastor…)

Symptom 8: Savior Displacement

Especially among pastors, a clear sign of pleonexia is the “I, Me, Mine” refrain: “my church, my ministry, nothing happens without me, my legacy, my vision…”  Another sign is when the church name is referred to infrequently because the church is better known as “pastor so-and-sos church.”  In these settings, the church may still be the body of Christ, but the pastor is the head, not Jesus.  In these settings — and thankfully there are a lot more examples outside Methodism than in — the greatest possession the pastors owns is the church itself.  There is absolutely nothing healthy about such a situation, but you’d be surprised how many pastors secretly (or not so secretly) desire it.

Let me be clear here — pleonexia is not a “large church” disease.  We have some very healthy large churches that are growing, but not as a goal, but as a result of doing excellent, balanced ministry.  And we have churches of all sizes and shapes — many very small in membership — who are deeply afflicted.  The insatiable desire for more can strike anyone.  In no way is the implication here to say that big churches are bad and small are good.  It is to point out that unhealthy and destructive cultural values of acquisition and accumulation are at work in our churches, and where they are present they are a big problem.

In my all-too-limited experience, there are very few good therapies for pleonexia.  Most of them require an intervention — someone outside the immediate system that treats the major sufferers by removing them from the church setting.  Never heard of this happening?  It’s because most of our annual conferences suffer pleonexia as well.  We often do not challenge pleonexical behavior — we endorse it.  We lift it up as a model for other churches to emulate.  Get big, get more money, build more buildings, hire more staff — these are mistakenly viewed as the signs of health.

To help treat pleonexia (which is a type of ecclesial obesity, if you think about it) we need to change three things: diet, exercise, and lifestyle. 

  • Diet — the constant stream of business, church growth, leadership, and development books and programs need to be replaced by more focus on spiritual formation, outreach and service to the world, vision for peace, justice, and social engagement, empowerment, and community building.  The selfish, individualistic, competitive messages we encounter need to be met with generous, sacrifical, communal, and collaborative messages.  What we focus our attention on is generally what we get more of.  We need to seek counter-cultural messages.  Getting more needs to be countered by the ethic of serving more.
  • Exercise — we need to move the gospel into the world, in the way we talk, act, think, and consume.  If we help people engage in serving others, they won’t have time to acquire more.  If our churches spend more time getting out of the building, we won’t need more building.  If our ministries are serving the needs of others instead of focused on meeting our own needs (and insatiable wants) we will trim down to a manageable and healthy size.  To be truly effective and responsive there will need to be more of us (groups collaborating together) than more of us (bigger, richer, busier individual monolithic congregations).  We will not consume more, but we will begin to reach more.
  • Lifestyle — there is no way to reconcile pleonexia with good stewardship.  Our churches are centers of egregious waste and extravagance.  Many of our churches possess huge amounts of space and property only used a few hours a week.  We print bulletins, newsletters, fliers, brochures, posters, banners that chew up energy and resources.  The larger the plant, the greater the waste-offender in over 90% of the cases.  Maximizing the use of our resources to do the least harm while doing the most good (huh? huh? 2-out-of-3 Simple Rules!) is critically important stewardship work for our churches today.

Pleonexia is nothing more than the disease of a consumeristic culture infecting the church.  We need an inoculation — and we have it.  It is called the gospel.  We cannot pretend to tell the world how to live when we are the worst violators.  Pleonexia is a justice issue.  It is a faith issue.  It is a fairness issue.  It is a values issue.  Our insatiable quest for more, for bigger, for newer, for better than what others have, sends a message to the world that we really don’t want to send.  We don’t need more.  We need to be grateful for what we have.  We don’t need bigger.  We need to use what we have with more integrity.  It doesn’t need to be all about us.  It needs to be about God’s children out in the world.  Let us all pray for healing.

11 replies

  1. Dan, your earlier post seems to provide a two edged sword. I certainly applaud and support locally grown talent that engages the congregation in deeper ministries. And following your next post, paying people to do everything is clearly, as your say, a step in the wrong direction. As a professional musician (I am a conductor/educator-can’t play a darn thing) the opposite side of your solution is harsh. I am curious though. Your reported congregations/ministries that are growing through collaborative volunteers…at what point is a paid, seminary trained pastor no longer needed? After so many years I find that ordained ministers struggle to see a Christianity that doesn’t need them either.

    • I want to be careful not to be too cut and dried. I know some professional musicians that are helping a number of churches develop solid music ministries. They have moved from performing for, and leading the performance of, congregations to empowering incredible communal music ministries. Their expertise and skill cannot, and should not, be diminished. There are a number of congregations blossoming under lay leadership and tent-maker ministries without the benefit of paid, full-time clergy. And our healthiest congregations are those served by paid clergy and staff who empower others to do the work of the church, rather than doing it for them. There are many churches that are designed to be “led” by paid staff and professionals, and these cover the whole spectrum from empowering situations to disempowering — those who equip the whole laos for ministry, rather than doing ministry for them. I don’t want to be harsh — but I do believe that the real challenge in our modern church is to pay for leadership (for the things we that we cannot do any other way) to work themselves out of a job by equipping the laity to do for themselves what they pay others to do. This is not possible in most places, not desired in many places, and not workable in a few places — so we will continue to need professionals to serve in a wide variety of settings. But I think the ideal is to create ministry settings where the worship, formation, and service life of the congregation are strong regardless of whether there is a paid staff or not.

  2. Thanks for responding Taylor. As I look at my post I realize I wasn’t clear…I should have said “last person on a church staff to be designated part-time is a pastor.” I am the music director. With 20+ years of experience and three degrees, I have to live, as most of us, in the world of my mortgage. If I am not full-time at at church, the simple reality is that I probably won’t be anything as my need for full time music employment will dominant my time. That often leads to a degradation in the quality of the music, which for people like me, leads to a very, very strong desire to not attend worship services. Might still work in the soup kitchen, but my community worship experience is gone.

    • For people making their living in ministry, they are branching out — playing for other groups and congregations. It is a difficult shift, since we have professionalized many communal/congregational functions. I have been in three churches recently where they pay choir members. I think this is a big step in the wrong direction, but it follows upon paying organists, musicians, music directors, etc. The same goes for the churches that pay their ushers, etc. The more we professionalize, the less we cultivate shared community. It eventually creates a structure where anyone is ministry is simply work for hire.

  3. I won’t disagree with anything you said. Now…considering that the last person on a church staff to be designated “part-time” how do you balance all you said above (remember, I do agree) with the very real issue of a budget and physical resources large enough for full-time well trained staff outside of the pulpit? Large cities might support well trained part-time staff, but then in more cases than not the position is a revolving door. Smaller population centers simply cannot find these people.

    • And where they cannot find them, they cultivate them — developing the gifts, skills, passions, and abilities of the assembled community of faith to BE the church. Some of the fastest growing ministries are among the least staff dependent we have seen in years — outreach and service ministries, spiritual formation, house churches — reaching and teaching as many if not more than our large and mega-churches. Tent-maker ministries are on the rise, and what is amazing most people is that these don’t result in a lower quality ministry, but in many cases much higher quality because people’s intrinsic values match their monetary values. It isn’t a simple answer. Where the focus is on numeric growth (at least in United Methodism) paid staff are normal; where the focus is on spiritual formation and discipleship, collaborative volunteer leadership is predominant. Even in our healthiest numerically growing churches, the number of paid staff positions are signficantly fewer than in most large churches. When a congregation designs leadership cultivation and development into their vision for ministry, the need for paid staff diminishes — over time. Many of the churches that turned this corner did so by paying staff to do lay leadership development!

  4. Now that plans are being announced to study and bring proposals to restructure the UMC to counter its decline and to get bigger, younger and more diverse, all in the name of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, I’m wondering how you are seeing pleonexia playing out on the denominational leadership stage…

    • Man, as if I’m not getting myself in enough trouble on my own…
      I think of three sci-fi classics of the fifties: The Blob, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day The Earth Stood Still. None of them are good models for the church, but all seem to have parallels in our current context. Blob consumes and absorbs, Body Snatchers co-opt and spread, Klaatu and Gort conquer with doom and gloom predictions and imposing one will over another. There are some weird ways in which The United Methodist Church is resembling 1950s science fiction movies in unpleasant ways. Paranoia, divide-and-conquer, clutch and grab more, more, more. For me, the bottom line is we don’t deserve more — we haven’t done very well with what we have already been given. I lack confidence in new churches, new people, new programs, and new initiatives when we can’t figure out how to fix the ones that aren’t working so well. We need to do a better job — and I am as guilty as anyone else. I talk a good game but I don’t really change anything. I’m just a quality over quantity kind of guy, so all the focus on MORE just drives me crazy.

  5. Don’t desire “bigness” but don’t be a club.

    Getting the “golden mean” is rather tough sometimes. 🙂

  6. On point three, I am reminded of something Eugene Peterson wrote. He noted that it is teen-agers who spend all their time worrying about measuring and taking stock of who has the biggest body parts.

    He’s probably too generous to the non-teens among us in this statement. But I do like the image as a way to think about numbers fixation – its like the junior high school locker room where everyone is looking around to see who has the biggest parts.

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