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. Dan, et.all,

    All this seems to be a rather over-the-top [perhaps even unkind) way of revealing that the problems faced by local churches are adaptive ones rather than technical ones.

    How is the tone of this discussion not an extension of the ‘scapegoat syndrome?’

    …just trying to follow Jesus,

    • I think that youhave missed the point Michael. What Dan is talking about is the simple fact that we are always looking for someone else to fix things, instead of looking in the mirror and realizing that we, each and everyone of us, is responsible. If we all take charge of doing everything in our power, using our own gifts and talents to build God’s kingdom than we don’t need a scapegoat.

      In many Churches, including my own, too much reposnsibility is heaped onto the pastor for making the congregation vital. What Dan is pointing out is that this is the lazy way out. It becomes the what has the Church done for me attitude as opposed to what can I do to make the Church a vital sustainable part of God’s Kingdom.

  2. Much of the “church restoration” literature is in the mode of “here’s what I did in a unique situation with the help of some key (unnamed) lay people.” The problem is that the solutions aren’t easily reproducible out of that context. It’s certainly easier to grow a church of a thousand into a church of 5000 than it is to move an aging congregation of 50 to the 200 mark. However, I’ve found the key ingredients are in being faithful to core doctrines, making sure all who are willing to learn know them enough to lead a discussion group, and that the church becomes more concerned about winning the lost than taking sight-seeing trips in the fall.

  3. There’s always so much talk about change, but very little change. I have worked in a lot of organizations and I have never seen something move as slow as a Methodist church. The roof could be on fire — and metaphorically, it very well may be — and what we’ll do is study the fire, think about the fire, write about the fire, blog about the fire, research examples of good and bad fire, have meetings on the implications of fire and form committees to report back on the consensus approach to fire.

    Action. One half-baked idea energetically implemented TODAY is worth one hundred perfect ideas backed up with plans, responsibilities, budgets and complete communication packages sometime in the 4th quarter.

    It drives me crazy. The answer to risk is not more thorough planning or education. The answer to risk is speed. If one UM church could launch 10 projects, 5 of which are horrible failures, in the same amount of time it takes another church to launch 1, which one is transforming and which one is avoiding the issue?

  4. Dan, I hesitate to ask, but your note and the responses make me think about “core process.” Have you seen churches making a decision to attend to the core process and experiencing change in a healthy manner? I do not mean to question the process, but I do wonder about the experiences of a local church having a focus on those 5 aspects as opposed to a focus on something else. Peace,larry

    • Larry, I actually believe that most of our churches are working the core process — whether they fully realize it or not! But there is a deeply rooted misunderstanding of the core process that undermines many of our best efforts. Because we break the process down into phases, it is easy to divide our efforts into programmatic silos, so what happens with many churches is that they organize something like:
      1. reach out, receive, and welcome — evangelism, faith sharing, hospitality
      2. relate to God — worship, confirmation
      3. nurture and strengthen people in their faith — Sunday school, Bible study, accountability small groups, formation groups, membership
      4. send out to live transformed and transforming lives — missions, satellite churches, outreach projects
      5. continuing to work the process — Church council, pastoral leadership, staff

      Such a structure completely misses the point. A core process is five aspects of one integrated whole — unless you are doing all five you aren’t doing the core process. Too many United Methodist Churches focus most of their efforts on #2 & #3, thinking that if they are effective developing a strong program inside the church, it will take care of #1 & #4. So church leadership focuses an inordinate amount of attention on getting new people into the church, rather than equipping all people to engage in all aspects of the core process. The United Methodist mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is realized as each person reaches, invites, and receives new people, to help them relate to God, encouraging them and nurturing their spiritual development, manifest in living their discipleship in the world — evidenced by reaching out and receiving people, relating them to God, etc. This is a cycle of continuous growth and improvement, and it has no end point. Just as a cake isn’t really serving its purpose until you gather the ingredients, mix the ingredients, heat/bake the ingredients, add the finishing touches, and serve the cake for consumption, you don’t really have a disciple until all the phases occur. No baker prides herself on how well she mixes and bakes, without adequate concern for gathering the right ingredients and serving the finished product. No church should pride itself on how well it does worship and Christian education if its evangelism and missional service is poor. The churches that get this are very healthy, indeed. It is the churches that don’t understand “process” that get poor results.

  5. Dan:

    Nice post. Good points. Look for a letter from me. I am sending you something that has been a vision of mine for some time. Let me know what you think. Sent to the conference office. Thanks.

    Jim C.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s