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 so much for this. I cannot take another Adam Hamilton, Michael Slaughter travesty. They are such {a**h****} and I cannot stand anything else from them or any other “look at me and how great I am” egos. They have done great things, but they are not great men. They got lucky, and the idea that they have anything to teach other people is laughable. I got sent to Church of the Resurrection for training. It was worthless and arrogant. There were some people from the national church from Nashville there, and they were even worse. Thank you so much for telling the truth. We cannot look to these losers for our answers. We need help finding our own answers.

    • I think we can gain some value from folks from across the whole spectrum of our denomination. I agree with you that the examples of many “successful” pastors are disingenuous, but I don’t want to take anything away from their success. Together we are better off than we are alone. I hope we can learn from everyone, no matter how “popular” and explotitative they are.

  2. “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.” AMEN to that!

  3. Mike Slaughter led a workshop at the 2009 Congress on Evangelism. He was asked by a small church pastor how to translate Slaughter’s message into the context of that small church. Slaughter’s response? “I can’t answer that question.”

    We are at our best when we celebrate the success of Slaughter and Hamilton, but not when we attempt to emulate them.

  4. And YOUR answer is????

    COR is not a “typical” megachurch. Instead, the expectations for members are high and the “privileges” are low. I would think that is an example to emulate.

    I wish pastoral talent and aptitude were democratically distributed, but they are not. Instead of coddling those who are ill-suited for the pulpit, we should be helping them to transition out. We need to accept that there are not 36,000 outstanding pastors to present a message each week at each of our local churches. I think that a number of them would be better off to let Hamilton, Slaughter, Tyrone Gordon or another of our best preachers be livestreamed to the congregation.

    • Starting at the end and working back. If our preachers are the most important part of worship, then live streaming could be an answer. If the pastoral leader needs to know the community of faith and is any kind of true leader, then this would be unfortunate and destructive in the long-term. Worship needs to be about more than performance. Worship emerges from the people; it isn’t delivered to people by an expert.

      When I visited COR a number of year’s ago, I found a “vital” church of about 400 surrounded by thousands of people there for the benefits. Many were quite clear that their commitment was first to Adam Hamilton, second to Jesus Christ, and third to COR. I can’t tell you the number of people who freely admitted that they will leave COR when Hamilton does. This, to me, isn’t a healthy situation and not one to lift up as a model (see the Gracepoint incident as evidence).

      My answer remains the same — don’t copy and call it innovative leadership. Don’t plagiarize and pretend it is creativity. Don’t follow formulas and call it leadership. Leaders aren’t following others — they’re leading. Learn process not practices. Even if you follow a successful model to the letter, you will get different results. For every one person who successfully adopts someone else’s plan, there are a dozen who fail. We have tried this process of copycatting the few at the top for about 40 years and for forty years we have seen poor results. Continuing to do what we know is worthless smacks of insanity at best, desperation at worst.

    • Creed,

      I’ve wrestled a lot with the live streaming issue.

      On the one hand, it was not uncommon practice at one time in the church for preachers to read sermons written by others. This is a kind of low-tech live streaming.

      On the other hand, my own preaching experience is that the actual bodily presence of a congregation and a preacher creates a kind of interaction and connection that you just don’t get watching TV together. There is also something that rubs up hard against incarnational theology here for me.

      I have no doubt we do not have 36,000 outstanding preachers. Of course, God might be able to do good work with earthen vessels.

      • Before we go too far down a dead end street, I am not suggesting that we should all livestream Rev. X. Lyle Schaller talked a while ago about the possibilities for churches that couldn’t afford a full-time pastor to use videotape to get the benefit of strong preaching. There would still be a need for leadership in the congregation. This would likely be a desirable option for only a subset of our congregations. But, it would allow small communities of faith to continue. We need to realize that it is unlikely that those people would move to other UM congregations (at all, much less immediately) if we moved to close them “just because” they are small.

        Rev. Hamilton describes only ten percent of his congregation as being at the highest level of discipleship. But, that is 400 to 600 really strong disciples! A lot of us would be dancing like David to “just” have 40!! They are working to expand beyond COR. I would think we would celebrate it and try to take those things that are replicable and spread them as far and wide as we can.

        The Episcopalians are doing an even better job than us of shedding members, but I don’t believe anyone would describe them as growing more disciples.

  5. I think these books and training seminars are, in part, a way to try to band-aid the bigger problem – we have pastors who aren’t leading well! There are good vital churches being served by ineffective pastors and it does matter because it seems as if no one is holding these ‘seasoned’ pastors accountable.

    And so our DS’s, conference staff, and even lay people try to find a fix – praying that SOMETHING, anything, will help him/her see the light.

    I think years of leadership negligence has left an un-informed and under-empowered laity who don’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for the direction of the church – for too long they have heard how important it is to have an ordained pastor lead them and so they have let the hired guns take charge…and then they wonder why things are a mess and the younger folk without denominational ties leave in frustration.

    What do you suggest as an alternative?

    • The alternative I promote is to trust that the community of faith contains its own wisdom and solutions. So many of the pastors we turn to for their wisdom offer simplistic and formulaic processes to follow (complete with DVD!) but if you talk to them about their own journey to greatness, they will tell you that they got where they are without following anyone else’s path or formula. Most will adamantly proclaim that they could never have gotten where they are following someone else’s plan — all the while publishing their own plans for others to follow. My alternative begins with prayer, open discussion, reflection on scripture, clarifying gifts, passion, knowledge, experience, abilities, skills, opportunities, honest appraisal of limitations, and patience. Follow the energy. Vision will emerge. Planning is easier when relationships are strong, vision is clear, and commitment is high. We often take for granted that we are all on the same page and jump into planning when people are feeling disconnected and confused. Context is so powerful. Much of what the Slaughters and Hamiltons have done so brilliantly is they know their setting and they act appropriately. They understand thoroughly the who, the where, the why, and the what they serve — then they put in place the how to make it all work. We don’t need to know their how, we need to know the skills and competencies that make us mindful and fully aware, so that we might lead appropriately in our context.

  6. Dan,

    Is this a correct way to conceptualize the issue?

    1) I look and see that having a guitar and drum band is very popular up the street, so I go rustle up some young kids who can play and develop a new band. This is copying or adopting someone else’s model.

    2) Conversely, I examine the way music contributes to the overall worship of my congregation – I do this in a broader context of looking at worship itself – and try to construct a plan to develop and incorporate music resources that create a worship that achieves the larger aims of worship itself. This might be any range of musical styles. This is developing a process.

    It feels like you get into a Russian doll game. If we want to talk about worship music, we need to look at worship overall, which means we need to look at the place of worship in the life of the church, which means we need to look at the overall purpose and mission of the congregation, and so on.

    Is it better to start these conversations from the biggest ring and work in toward the smaller ones or start with the particular (music) and let that lead you outward?

    Or is there some better, other way?

    • I think we look inward to figure out how to reach outward. I truly and honestly believe that every congregation contains its own answers. I believe the best answers we can discover to lead us to God’s will are those we already possess. Who we are called to be as a community of faith is unique. I cannot find out my gifts by looking at others. I cannot find my true voice as a singer by imitating someone else, and I will never develop my athletic skills by trying to be like a popular player. It starts within, and builds from there for both individuals and groups. Following the Russian doll analogy, we need to peel off a whole lot of layers to get down to the core, but once building from the core, each new layer will have more integrity. I feel that working from the core is best — but getting there can be a challenge.

  7. Of course, God might be able to do good work with earthen vessels.
    Thanks be to God for that! And thanks also for generous teachers and preachers, from whom we can learn principles which will help us in our situation, with our people, doing what God has called US to do (not the next-door church or the congregation across the country). Another “sin-drome” might be there is only one right answer for all time, rather than see that our churches/congregations continually evolve, just as our world and situations change. While basic human needs don’t change, some of the ways we meet those needs will be affected by all sorts of things — technology, economic conditions, transportation, structure of society, education, etc.

    • Becky,

      Basic human needs don’t change. God does not change. And yet there are so many, many ways to do ministry.

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