I have worked with churches in a wide variety of settings and a wide range of relative states of health. From these experiences, a conceptual frame emerges that I have found helpful as a consultation tool, and as a way of understanding not only what is happening in a given congregation, but what steps might be taken to improve the situation. Here is a simple illustration of what I call the four environments that define a congregation:
These four environments exist in every congregation, each in dynamic tension with the others, however one always predominates. The predominant environment impacts and colors the other three, and in so doing comes to define the “personality” of the congregation. Let me offer a thumbnail description of each.
The vertical axis indicates the relative level of passion, energy, and engagement of individuals in the congregation. Where people care deeply, the energy and passion is high. When people are not overly concerned with anything more than what they get out of the congregational experience, there is apathy and a low-level of engagement. Some measure of intensity is a good thing.
The horizontal axis indicates the overall quality of relationships and commitment to building community. Where people form strong relationships, the energy and commitment is positive; where people form poor relationships (or where relationships simply aren’t important) the energy and commitment is low or negative.
Where the passion is low and the relationships are poor, people are relatively disengaged and the environment is resigned. It is very easy for people to “check-out,” to simply walk away and go to another church or just stay home. People drift to inactivity when the commitment and connection is low. Most of our inactive members or members who leave during a time of conflict comprise the resigned environment within the congregation.
Where people hold deep, strong feelings and are committed to their own opinions and agenda, but where the relationships are weak, the environment is generally corrosive and often toxic. Here, the needs of the individual always eclipse the good of the whole group. Passions run high, and every disagreement is turned into a win/lose struggle. Individuals are committed to getting their own way, regardless of the cost to the community of faith. This environment is perpetually engaged in some conflict, and there is an abundance of finger-pointing, blaming, hurt feelings, gossip, rumor, innuendo, and back-stabbing. This environment only requires a few participants to impact (negatively) the entire congregation. The destructive potential of allowing this environment to dominate is immeasurable.
At the other extreme, relationships are great and people generally feel very good about the fellowship and goodwill within the whole congregation. Groups form strong bonds with each other, but the passions for engagement in ministry and service are slight. “Church” is the place we go to feel good, to worship and praise, to be with like-minded people, and to be wrapped in the warm embrace of God’s love. “Church” is not the place where we are challenged, changed or burdened. This is a comfortable environment — high regard, low demand. In this environment, people come to church for what they can get out of it, and mostly the receive the good feeling that comes from a friendly and pleasant fellowship. Often a comfortable environment is mistaken for a healthy environment — the absence of conflict, stress and tension lulls us into believing that things couldn’t possibly be better. However, all it takes is a dividing issue to arise and we find that our comfortable environment turns corrosive in an instant.
The truly healthy, creative, productive environment comes when we can blend the energy and passions of the whole group with a strong concern and regard for healthy relationships. When the “We” supersedes the “Me” in a congregation, the effect is transformative. Where “all of us together” is more important than any one individual (other than God), congregational health is truly possible. The image from scripture for this productive environment is “body of Christ.” The body image is so appropriate — all parts working together for the common good, when one suffers all suffer, when one succeeds, it is to the good of all. What is missing from most of our churches is this sense of the whole being more important than the individual parts.
Those environments that work against healthy, creative productivity — resigned, corrosive, and comfortable — are all “entitlement” environments. These environments are created and sustained by the singular question, “What’s in it for me?” The dominant mindset here is that the church is a service-provider, existing to make people happy and meet each individual’s needs. This might be what we have allowed the understanding of “church” to become, but it is not what church was intended to be in any meaningful or legitimate way. These environments continue to exist due to poor leadership and unchallenged assumptions and expectations on the part of those who understand the nature of the church the least. Each entitlement environment presents unique challenges to a healthy, thriving, productive congregational environment. As I said before, every church is an amalgam of all four environments, with one predominant. My research into congregational vitality indicated that about 47% of United Methodist congregations are predominantly comfortable, 27% are predominantly resigned, 14% are predominantly corrosive, and 12% are predominantly productive. Remember, every church has all four environments existing in dynamic tension — there is productivity and creativity in even the most resigned, comfortable, or corrosive congregation.
Most church leaders, when faced by these four environments automatically think that the worst, most damaging, and most difficult is the corrosive environment. After all, conflict causes damage, it is destructive and it raises the stress level to sometimes intolerable heights. Virtually no one enjoys conflict. What is interesting is that the most destructive of the four environments isn’t corrosive, but comfortable. Think of it this way: a corrosive environment might be like fighting a dragon — fierce, terrifying, violent, and destructive. But a comfortable congregation isn’t a pussy cat — it is a sleeping dragon… and when you awaken a sleeping dragon, it wakes up pissed. The comfortable congregation is not a healthy congregation — the absence of the negative does not automatically prove the positive. Comfortable congregations are not contributing anything of real value to the kingdom-building work of the realm of God. It is not inviting transformation — merely inertia. The comfortable congregation is the champion and guardian of the status quo. It is the environment that freezes us in place.
This makes the challenge of congregational leadership really tricky. It means that authentic leadership in the church is disruptive and counter-cultural. We exist to arrest and remove corrosion, refuse to accept resignation, and to stir up and maintain a healthy discontent. Congregational leaders are the raspberry seed stuck in the teeth of the community of faith. Transformation cannot occur through complacency, and it rarely emerges from destructive conflict. Building healthy relationships that honor and respect the individual while continuously connecting every person to a vision of God’s will for the whole community is the primary work of congregational leadership. Avoiding conflict is no solution. We must learn to navigate the difficulties of differing values and opinions while creating healthy, productive, creative congregational environments. This is hard work. This is slow work. And this is the only work that promises to turn our church around.