Four Sin-Dromes

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.

25 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this Dan, and I can see this making sense in your reply to comment #4. This actually happened in my church about 18 years ago when we had a very popular pastor at the time who took an appointment in the Bay Area, then lost a considerable number of people in our congregation because they could not fathom her not being our pastor anymore. And to some, we never recovered even though we have been through three appointments since. To me, it tells me that people are worshiping the pastor instead of God when they leave because a pastor left, as God should be the focus of the church regardless of who the pastor is.

    I also almost fell into the fallacy of following the models of others, particularly with music and worship (similar to what John mentions in comment 6). When I first came back as music director almost five years ago (after leaving a highly toxic situation in an ELCA congregation I joined in the brief time away from the UMC), I was charged by our pastor with trying to put together a praise and worship band, even though I played keyboard and we had one guitar player who also wears many other hats in the congregation. I had been involved in a couple ELCA worship bands and loved it, but also learned some important lessons in trying to organize one. The intent was that it was a way to draw younger people in and grow the church by leaps and bounds (as well as adding the video system a couple years ago), but honestly, it did not work in our congregation. I was excited about it at first and figured I could make it work, but that excitement was only short lived and definitely got knocked down a few pegs. We did the P&W on the third Sunday of each month for a few months and was very quickly criticized by many older folk because we were singing stuff people don’t know. Instead, we went back to having just the choir and a guitar here and there, but no band and learned that just because something works in one congregation doesn’t mean it will work in another.

    I get so much pressure from both sides that we have to do something to grow the church and bring in young people and bring them to worship, but I’m at a total loss as to how (considering I’m still young myself at 29 years old) and it’s easy to get caught in these syndromes when trying to figure it out. We have several people who think that a pastoral change would be the easy answer. I’m mixed on it, but at the same time, could anyone do any better? I personally think that it’s up to all of us to focus on what we have and not dwell on what we don’t have in trying to decide what church God wants us to become. However, I would like to ask how we try to get others to work together, through their differences (generational/theological) to become a vital and healthy congregation without falling into any of these four syndromes?

    • One thing that is within our control is to spend a little time clarifying why we want what we want. The 20th century for the mainline Protestant churches in the United States may have been one of the most damaging periods of all time. Our hunger for growth changed our character. There is nothing wrong with growth — as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Most of our churches are simply too large to be true “communities” of faith. The healthiest churches in my experience are those where a very high percentage of participants are active, engaged, connected, and aware of what the whole is doing. Decisions about ministries are a direct reflection of the gifts, passions, and values of the existing congregation. In almost every case where a church struggles to grow, it has less to do with their programs and projects than it does with the disconnection and misunderstanding around values, gifts, passion, and vision. I am a strong advocate for prayer, discernment, and open conversations to build awareness and understanding. When people “own” the emerging ideas and understand that the work of the church must be the work of the WHOLE church, new ministries have a much higher chance of success, and growth occurs out of strength, not behavior modification or “7 Steps to…, 12 Keys to…, 40 Days to…” quick-fix campaigns. It requires the hard pre-work, and many congregations are too busy and too big to build (rebuild) this kind of community.

      The other factor which is beyond our control is the wildcard variable of chemistry. The right people in the right place at the right time with the right vision sometimes cannot be created or controlled. Look at the number of hotshot preachers who succeed beyond belief in one place and time, who never come close to replicating their early success. It is one of the reasons we leave them alone. Chemistry is rare and almost impossible to replicate.

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