The concept of “sin” actually means “to miss the mark.” It doesn’t matter if you miss by an inch or miss by a mile — a miss is a miss is a miss. And there are four “sins” — ways we are “missing the mark” — prevalent in our congregational systems today. You decide whether we are missing a little or missing a lot. The four “sin” dromes (syndromes) are: Founder Syndrome, Savior Syndrome, Scapegoat Syndrome, and the Quick-Fix Syndrome.
Founder Syndrome — when a church’s success is fundamentally dependent upon the charisma and vision of the founding pastor, you don’t have a healthy, vital church — you have a problem. Don’t make this church a model, don’t let it become a poster child for “successful” churches, and please, please don’t let the pastor publish a book. You don’t have a winning formula — you have dysfunction. This in no way disparages the fantastic results some founding pastors are able to produce in new starts — they deserve all the praise and accolades they receive. But they should not be lifted up as examples for others to follow. What they do can’t be replicated, no matter how many books they write that indicate otherwise. And it is in NO WAY healthy when the long-term success of the congregation is dependent on their leadership. Founders are great, but they are greatest when they make themselves irrelevant. Way too many of our congregations flourish under the leadership of the founder, then fail when leadership changes. This should be the true indication of a fantastic founder — that he or she creates a community that does better after they leave than it ever did when he or she was there!
Savior Syndrome — like the Founder Syndrome, Savior Syndrome looks with fawning adoration at the woman or man who comes into a difficult situation and turns water into wine. Turn-around churches are even more difficult than successful new church starts. The problem with saviors is that they are few and far between and they create false expectations. A highly motivated, entrepreneurial, charismatic leader can work a miracle in a struggling church, but often the church’s revitalization is dependent on the person, not a shared vision. This isn’t sustainable or effective in the long-term. We don’t need saviors, we need saints. We need a community of gifted laity who can rise to the challenges of ministry and service, empowered and enabled by pastoral leaders to be strong and successful in spite of the pastor rather than because of him or her. When we create a culture where church members look for a savior to bail them out and ensure the success of the ministry, we create a deeply flawed and fragile system. The only Savior we can count on is Jesus, and when we look to charismatic human leaders to save us, it leads us to…
Scapegoat Syndrome — interesting how many churches chew up and spit out an almost endless run of pastors who “don’t measure up.” Congregations looks to the pastor to be the savior, and when they fail to turn the church around, they are offered up as sacrificial farm animals, and accused of failing in ministry. This is a horribly toxic and unfair situation — that we have created for ourselves and endorse constantly by bowing down in worship to the few successful entrepreneurs growing unstable and unhealthy churches. Congregational members of our communities of faith have the ultimate responsibility for the health and vitality of the local church. When we depend on the leadership of the appointed pastoral leader for our success, we guarantee we will fail. Our failure then is attributed to the failure of the appointed pastor — a truly toxic and dysfunctional system. The antithesis of perfection! When we make our appointed pastoral leader the scapegoat for our failure, we reveal the fallacy that we look to her or him to be our savior. Good luck with that. It is a lot harder for a pastor to save us than it is for her or him to totally screw us up, but that doesn’t mean that if we’re screwed up, it is the pastor’s fault. Many of our congregations have turned “screwed up” into an art form. It isn’t fair to then turn around and blame the pastoral leader for the mess the congregation creates.
Quick-fix Syndrome — well, if we can only find the magic bullet, the simple solution, the universal principle, everything will be fine. Let’s look at what a big growing church is doing. Let’s read the latest book from the pastor of the hot, growing church. Let’s attend a leadership institute held by this week’s popular XYZ UMC. Let’s pretend that other people know more than we do about how to be the church. The Quick-Fix Syndrome has done more to kill the church than anything else. We think that copying something that someone else has already done is “leadership.” We read popular books, look to popular pastors, and attend innocuous trainings with the hope we can turn things around. We go to churches that discovered that no one else could help them become effective teach us how to be effective and see no idiocy in the act. We deny the truth that no one else has OUR answer, and we run from resource to resource, training to training, expert to expert to discover that fact. There is no “quick-fix” to any problem we have. There is only a good, appropriate, context-specific answer that we have to discover for ourselves. Looking for someone else to solve our problems is simplistic and silly.
These syndromes (sin-dromes) miss the mark. No Church of the Resurrection, no Leadership Institute, no new appointment is the key to transformation. Oh, you might stumble upon a rare savior-type. You might luck into an entrepreneur that can do everything for you. You might stumble on the one-in-a-million resource that sparks an amazing transformation, but I wouldn’t count on it. Don’t spend lots of money to travel to a “teaching church.” Don’t buy lots of “church growth” resources (that bear more than a passing resemblance to diet books. They only have a future to the extent that they DON’T work today…) or invest in a bunch of fancy DVDs. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Avoid the “sin-dromes”. Do the hard work that makes it work. Know your context. Know your people. And know that the key to a truly effective, successful church is already yours — in the gifts, passions, and deep faith of your own community of faith.