Running Church

running_of_the_bullsStephen King wrote a novella entitled, The Running Man, about a brutal futuristic society where game shows and public executions were combined to produce the ultimate reality show.  Prisoners were given the opportunity to try to escape death — on national TV — by facing unexpected and unimaginable challenges.  The bottom line was to keep moving, keep running, because the moment a person stopped, they died.  Now, this might seem an unusual metaphor for our current church situation, but sadly it is not.  At almost every turn, well-meaning and good-intentioned people trade our Promised Land for Dystopia.  The end result is that we run as fast as we can to lose ground, living in constant fear of imminent demise.  Am I being too grim?  I hope so, but here are five pieces of evidence that I think support the theory:  clergy morale, clergy health, lay apathy, church debt, and lack of vision.

Clergy Morale

Ten years ago I did a study on clergy morale and worked with one of our annual conferences on the issues impacting morale.  Fewer than one-third of our ordained clergy leaders feel good about their ministry.  Only one-in-six feel they are effective, and only one-in-nine feel they are living up to their potential.  Seventy-one percent feel that the church exerts negative and/or damaging influence on their family, and two-thirds have considered leaving the ordained ministry at some point in their career.  Only 10% feel that their actual ministry aligns closely to their original sense of prophetic call to ministry.  Almost eighty percent feel they work too many hours, take to little time off, take poor care of themselves, and that they are both misunderstood and underappreciated.  And we wonder why we are struggling to attract new clergy?  Ninety-one percent of clergy believe that a primary expectation for their work is to “grow the church” numerically, and an equal percentage fear they will be punished (or denied promotion) if they do not bring in big numbers.  Eighty-four percent feel they are victims of unrealistic expectations from their congregations and conferences.

Clergy Health

Different reports indicate that clergy are among the least healthy professionals in the United States.  Above average obesity, nervous disorders, back pain (often an indication of psychosomatic illness and stress), heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and life-threatening blood pressure characterize American pastors.  One APA study indicates that women clergy under the age of forty are 17 times more likely to show symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome than the general population.  Alcoholism (generally hidden), smoking, and drug abuse are all on the rise among U.S. clergy.  The impact on insurance rates motivated our denomination to make clergy health a priority, and global health a focus.  Working with doctors at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee I learned that in general clergy report more health complaints but are most resistant to taking preventative care measures.  Almost universally, the doctors report that clergy are bad about diet, exercise, and proper rest.  And those few clergy who do take steps tend to overcompensate.  On the other side of the coin, clergy are also numbered among those who over-tax and over-stress the body causing exercise related injury, and female clergy top the list of adult anorexia, anemia, and malnutrition due to poor, non-nutritionally balanced diet.  Clergy pop more pills than the U.S. population as a whole, also.  Said one Vandy doc, “It isn’t too wide of the mark to say that on a given Sunday at least fifty percent of our pastors are preaching on Prozac, Cymbalta, or some other prescription mood enhancer.”  Clergy are also among the heaviest caffeine ingesters in the U.S.  “Something needs to change.  There are pastors literally killing themselves for the church,” remarked on of the Vanderbilt physicians.

Lay Apathy

Passive consumption of church product and member inactivity have been on a steady incline during the whole period of membership and attendance decline in The United Methodist Church.  Low expectations, lack of accountability, and a pervasive consumeristic culture account for much of the apathy, but surveys indicate that many laity simply feel they aren’t given anything to care about.  The focus of much ministry in the U.S. has turned internal.  I remember talking to some disaffected Nashvillians about their church in Brentwood.  “We left because the church just kept spending so much money on itself.  More buildings, more equipment, more staff, more parking, landscaping, statues, a fountain,” shared one couple.  “It made us sick.  There is so much need in the world and all the church was doing was trying to become popular and famous.  People would preen about how beautiful our church was and how most churches could fit in our narthex.  It was disgusting.  We had to get out.”  As more and more church leaders care more and more about church buildings, less and less laity are interested in church.  Go figure.  National statistics show people drifting away from the church — and the Christian faith — in record numbers.  So many of the articles ask the question, “What’s wrong with those people?”  Fewer wish to ask the question, “What’s wrong with us, that we are driving so many away?”  And it isn’t the disinterested we are losing.  No, we’re keeping those.  The laity who don’t want to change, who want to be comforted and cared for, who see attending worship and participating in ministry as optional?  We have all of those you could want, and more.  No, the highly motivated laity, those seeking meaningful growth and discipleship — they’re the ones who are drifting away.

Church Debt

Having consulted with congregations and conferences across this denomination for over a decade, I am still amazed at the number of our churches that place themselves at economic risk for spurious and non-missional reasons.  Building bigger buildings is a sickness in this denomination.  Conference after conference is saddled with archaic dinosaurs in poor locations — huge churches supported in a bygone day that currently sap all resources just to slow the inevitable decay of the facility.  And what have we learned?  To do the same thing, at much higher cost, with less short-term return on investment so that we can support even larger monstrosities with even fewer resources in the future.  Jesus wept.  Ministry should not be bound by maintenance.  Ministry centers (churches) are tools — means to greater ends — not the focus of what we do and who we are.  The statistics are all over the map, but building and property debt-load keep rising while mission spending and apportionment payments decline.  We actually have pastors who must take out life insurance policies in order to get loans to further bloat and expand.  And when the pastor retires or leaves?  No problem, somebody will pay for it someday — and the denomination will pay for it forever.

Lack of Vision

If we could mobilize The United Methodist Church to focus on one Christ-led, world transforming goal, there would be virtually no force on earth strong enough to stop us.  Were we to discern God’s vision of a Promised Land for this world in the 21st century, we could live up to our mission.  With a clear picture of a “transformed world,” we would know what kind of “disciples to make” to achieve God’s purposes.  How cool would that be?  Instead, we spend most of our time looking around at the Wilderness, griping about what we don’t have and how uncomfortable we are and how boring it is.  Our best efforts are not aligned toward a Promised Land — merely how to survive in the Wilderness one more day.  Getting through the desert has displaced moving toward a land flowing with milk and honey.  Perhaps where there is no vision the people don’t actually perish, but they don’t make much difference, either.  If Katrina taught us anything it is this — where there is great need, purpose, focus, and resolve we join together to do amazing things.  We need an amazing thing — and we need leaders who will point the way.

It will take people a lot smarter than me with a lot more power and influence to get the church to stop running.  Treadmills have their purposes, but they don’t get you anywhere.  We are on a treadmill, generating negative energy.  What must we do to change morale for the better?  How can we support better health and wellness — not just saying it’s a good idea, but making self-care a mandatory priority?  How do we reconnect the passions and interest of the masses of lay people so that our congregations are cultures of productive engagement rather than passive consumption?  How do we pull in the reigns on unnecessary, non-missional spending so that we stop glorifying ourselves and do a better job honoring and glorifying God?  How do we stop managing the Wilderness and make space to discern God’s Promised Land?  I don’t have answers to these questions — but I do believe if these were the questions being asked, we would be running toward a bright new future rather than into a dystopia of despair.

21 replies

  1. Thank you, Dan. If you will permit a question to John Meunier either answered here or at, I would like to ask John a “systems” type question. Would it fit into your suggestion of a network for change to ask each local church to disclose/post its answer to this question: “What does it mean to be a Christian congregation anyway?” The question was asked by Rev. Eugene Stockwell in his 1965 book — Claimed by God for Mission, The Congregation Seeks New Forms. It was contained in the introduction as he spoke of a dream where all that had been taken for granted as part of the life of his congregation had been swept away. He wrote that this meant — no bishops, no district superintendents, no pastor to run the church, no appropriations to be met, no commitments to any program, nothing to be done simply because it had to be done.

    • Larry, sorry for not replying earlier.

      Others are probably better resources for questions about systems thinking than I am. I’m still quite a novice.

      That said, the question you propose is a good one, but I have one thought about it. The truth is that every church already has an answer to the question – even those that cannot articulate it.

      The answer can be seen in the way the church runs. What it actually does is the answer to the question “What does it mean to be a Christian congregation.”

      When the answer the congregation articulates is placed next to the way the congregation actually acts, a space often opens up. That can potentially lead to interesting conversations. Or so I imagine. People like Dan actually do this work. I just think and write about it.

  2. Wow! Three of us hit upon clinical codependency concurrently and independently! If discipleship is the study and emulation of Jesus, and we recognize our problem as an aberration of that (particularly the emulation), then wouldn’t the wholly appropriate venue be the Conference Board of Discipleship? In Wisconsin, I know the bishop and superintendents are committed to solving the problem. I can understand why they might feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem and their inability to get a handle on it. The very system that elevated them has made them powerless. We need to practice breakthrough, grass-roots politics. That means independent, direct, effective communication with the laity; that means independent, direct, effective communication with the clergy. We also need to recognize that it won’t happen overnight, or with one communication. It needs to infuse the culture. That shouldn’t stop us from writing a strategy, drawing a roadmap, establishing a timeline, outlining a budget, and defining and delegating tasks.

    We must ask ourselves “What am I doing today to advance the mission?”

  3. Dan – You mention two prescription medications from the SSRI and SNRI class of reuptake inhibitors and describe those who take them as “popping pills.” Would you describe my father’s insulin use as “shooting up?” You describe these drugs as “mood enhancers,” a term that seems to lump them with alcohol and recreational drugs. Their actual effect is nothing like that; no one takes them for recreational use. These drugs – and others like them – are medically indicated to help restore more normal brain function for some who have depression or anxiety disorder. And no, I don’t take them, but if my doctor prescribed them as part of a treatment plan, I would.

    Surely you are aware of the biological component of depression. There is no strict cause-effect relationship between life-choices, experiences and depression, so don’t blame the victim. The etiology of these diseases is more complicated than that.

    Clergy should take care of their health. Every time I return to Annual Conference and see my peers, it’s obvious. One of the best things that the Army has done for me is to make me work out. Physical exercise helps the brain work better, too.

    Your language, however, directly stigmatizes those who seek medical help and indirectly stigmatizes those who suffer. It’s not right.

    • Having been on Cymbalta for two years, I recongnize the possible benefits. Do I think our lifestyle choices, all the problems we have created for ourselves, and the over-medication of the American population excuses it? I am criticizing those who medicate and self-medicate less than I am the system that makes these things possible, if not preferable. I am thankful for the chemo my mother received after a lifetime of smoking, the insulin my grandmother received after a lifetime of poor diet and obesity, and I am thankful for anything that relieves chronic and often unendurable pain (having broken my back in 1978 and living with constant daily pain ever since). None of this changes my sense that our current structures are destructive of both clergy morale and health. Change the system.

    • The now what is in the post — our leadership needs to lead. Instead much of it is selling out to corporate consultants trying to run the church like a business. The five things I mentioned are all within our control to do something about. Trying to bait new comers as our salvation is trying to persuade those beyond our control to come into our control. This is risky, resource intensive, and speculative at best. Working within our system for radical change is something we could start on tomorrow were our bishops and agencies interested to do so.

      • Of course, our leadership is a captive of the system as well. Some of them do not want it to change and some are stuck in the same forces that drove out the two young pastors you mention.

        If we were sitting down as family systems therapist with one of our bishops, how would we talk with him or her to help that person see the dynamics of the system and respond to them in a productive way.

      • Without belaboring the psychological side — we have addictive and codependent behaviors that drive much of our decision making. We are caught in a cycle of having to maintain the existing system. I have an acquaintance who is a professional juggler. His personal best is eleven objects, but he notes that adding an object is much easier than intentionally dropping an object. We are in a system that has added objects, many of them no longer useful or helpful, that we seemingly cannot drop. The problem is that there is no capacity for change unless we drop what we have been doing — but we’re addicted. We love our buildings. We love our services. We know that itineracy, guaranteed appointments, the apportionment system, the charge conference structure, continuing education, etc. are not working, and in many cases are actually doing damage. But we LOVE these things. They are as familiar as our childhood teddy bear. Sure it is flea-ridden, smelly, and unsanitary, but it’s ours and we want to keep it. One of my former mentors was lying in a hospital bed after a heart attack and complete collapse. In tears he told me of the emotional and psychological abuses he suffered in the church he served, how he was actually afraid to get well and go back. When I asked why he didn’t retire or do something else he indignantly told me, “I am a pastor. There is nothing else I want to do.”

        From Freidman, and others, I believe the key is two-fold: differentiation and accountability. Church leaders are not the church, yet we run churches like little fiefdoms, where we want the “in-charge” part of “pastor-in-charge” acknowledged and honored. Well meaning clueless leaders have hired consultants from outside the church to tell us what the church should be — with disasterous (and, as yet undisclosed) results to come. One day the church is going to find out how its world service dollars have been spent and it will have a holy cow… But it is all about preserving the broken, dysfunctional system, not creating a healthy, appropriate one. I was absolutely powerless to impact the system at the national level, but I hope I can work collaboratively in an annual conference system to create a brighter future. Time will tell, but I am delighted to have the opportunity.

      • In Paragraph 340 of the 2004 Discipline ( I know; I’m stingy), the three ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Service each take 1/2 page, while the ministry of Order (which includes providing for the other three) takes a full page. The implication is that everything falls to the pastor, an implication embraced and exercised. On might argue that, because the implication is in the Discipline, it’s our polity at fault. However, the attitude that “it’s the pastor’s job” prevails in churches with congregational polity, too. Somehow, we select and train pastors to build and die on their own crosses. We stand by the wayside and watch them drag their crosses up the hill, and applaud them at the hour of their passing. It makes for good theater and poor discipleship (the pastor’s and the congregation’s). This script we write is shot through with toxic codependency. Pastor’s aren’t taught to delegate EVERYTHING (except sacraments), laity aren’t taught to put on the harness, and bishops and superintendents seem unable or unwilling to overcome the social momentum.

        Just sending pastors to training won’t solve the problem. The other two groups will just draw them back into homeostasis. So how do we train the hierarchy and the laity, too? The first step is convincing everybody there is both a problem and a solution. I have trouble getting word to pastors in two districts, much less communicating with members. I’ll step back now and listen.

  4. I’m trying to reconcile the facts about the UMC with some of the pieces in this presentation. Elders in the UMC have guaranteed appointment, a guaranteed minimum salary, vacation weeks, health coverage and a pension. Is the stress coming from all the “clergy-killers” among those of us in the laity who just “lay in wait” to attack poor unsuspecting clergy or something else? We see too many clergy who are decent people but do not possess the gifts and graces to be a good preacher or a good evangelist or a good shepherd much less all of them together.

    I also really wonder how many good clergy who are trying to create a disciple-building community are chased away by laity who just want to be entertained for one hour on Sunday versus how many laity are removed by charge conferences or withdraw because of clergy who believe that they already have all the answers and don’t need to talk with the laity.

    I also don’t know how many Crystal Cathedrals are among the 35,000 local churches in the connection. Many of us are spending to keep the lights and heat on, not for fountains or parking garages. I do agree that there is an issue with conference funds being spent to subsidize churches that are just existing instead of being missional.

    Finally, I do agree that as laity we need to step up. Obviously, it does help to have inspirational leadership that actually wants partners in ministry instead of clients.

    • There are so many contributing factors to clergy-killing — it doesn’t all fall on the laity who expect too much. Most of our clergy are not adequately equipped to self-manage and self-care before they hit their first appointment. Many clergy are workaholics to begin with, and there are so many Pleaser-introverts in the ranks that they set very poor boundaries — trying to keep everyone happy, but not taking adequate steps to “recharge” their own batteries. Too many clergy want to abuse themselves then find a pill or a program that will rescue them. And it isn’t new. One of the men who recommended me into ministry died of an overdose of doctor-prescribed amphetimines in his attempt to work Herculean hours. At his funeral, so many people marvelled at how deeply committed he was, how he worked seven days a week, and was always available. No one seemed to connect the dots that the toxic environment and approach to ministry helped put him in an early grave. For me, it ultimately boils down to values, and I feel like our current pursuit of worldly values is doing us long-term harm.

  5. I wonder what our affect on the world might be if instead of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, which we don’t do so well, our mission was to live as disciples of Christ?


    • Okay, it’s strong, but I feel like these things are unnecessarily bad. It’s one thing to throw up our hands in despair about things that are beyond our control — BUT THESE ARE THINGS WE CAN CHANGE — and no one seems that interested. Part of what predicated the rant was word I received that two of the most creative, innovative, spiritually grounded young pastors I have ever met — ages 31 & 35 — made the decision to leave our denomination because of the negative impact it has had on their lives — emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. There conference offered them no support, they found resistance to changing the system, they experienced a shocking lack of leadership, and they despair the fact that we seemingly have sold our soul to marketing and secular values. We (denominationally) keep bitching and moaning about our future, then we maintain a system that drives young people away and hope to reclaim them “throughy the web.” Give me a break. Are there any systems-thinkers in our church? I am not all that smart, but I am not stupid either. There have to be others in leadership who feel some of these things… or maybe I’m just wrong. That isn’t beyond the realm of possibility!

      • We need to build a network of pastors and laity who see these things and want them to change. It needs to be outside the ‘official’ leadership of the denomination.

        I sense that many pastors rather than leaving as the two you mention “go career” or otherwise figure out ways to protect themselves from a harmful system.

        In systems thinking terms, can we create a system within the system and somehow help each other “de-triangle” from the harmful relationships in the denomination that sap spirit, energy, and passion?

        I’ve only read Friedman once – and without the benefit of a more knowledgeable other to lead me through it – but one point he hits over and over again is that the system is built for homeostasis. No amount of banging on it will change it, right? It has come up with means to see the ship sinking all around it and explain it away or respond in ways that do not change the basic relationships.

        Indeed, chasing out “trouble-makers” like your two young pastors is what the system has to do to maintain itself.

        How can we build networks of support that help those who have passion, creativity, and energy remain in the system in a way that will eventually change the overall dynamic?

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