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.
Besides 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
Where 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
Churches 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.