Sleeping Dragon

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.

22 replies

  1. I see this situation greatly exacerbated working in a church that is trying to offer two paradigms of worship approach-classic and contemporary- My observation is within the church I work for,one of three things will happen-everyone will embrace the DNA and become part of it and you will see a strong church or; everyone will go into their corners and be a church divided with constant conflict or focuses will be thrown out, the church will shrink in programs, staff and attendance and they will become an organization that used to be something of this and something of that and now they are neither. Sobering, but true. I’ve seen it twice, once slowly by agendas and once quickly by scandal. My fear is our dragon has been awakened.

    • Dave, your comment points out the deep danger as well of trying to pull off two different kinds of services in congregations less than 350 in average attendance. Slide 39 in the Congregational Vitality Presentation (part of the Call to Action Report) shows very clearly that the benefits of this sort of strategy ONLY accrue for congregations 350 and up. Between 100 and 350 there is no measurable effect on vitality (that is, some have it, some don’t). But for those less than 100 (which is 72% of all UM congregations!) trying to do this is mostly associated with REDUCED vitality. Add it all up, and this strategy is only clearly beneficial for 6% of all UM congregations– that’s right there in the report and our denominational stats (congregations by size)– yet it’s being bandied about by some as a sure-fire way to drive vitality. The report may be somewhat accurate– I’m glad it offers this strongly disclaiming slide! But news and interpretation of it, I’m afraid, often fail to make this vital distinction.

      I don’t think this phenomenon has much to do with dragons or comfort, though. It think it has more to do with capacity. Worship services of any type require substantial people power. Contemporary services require perhaps at least twice as many people as “traditional” may, when you add in the number of musicians, and the folks running sound, lights, and computers, not to mention those creating what’s on those computers. It’s difficult to pull off a traditional service with much pizazz under 100 in attendance (though it can be done!). Add the stress of a contemporary one to that, or even just try to do a contemporary one INSTEAD of that (and do it well) and you may find yourselves stretched well beyond your limits and burning out fast.

  2. Interesting. You have just put into words why 60 percent of the United Methodist Churches in the United States have 60 people or less in them on Sunday morning, and why we are going to lose at least a third of them over the next 20 years.

  3. Just a thought on the use of the sleeping dragon metaphor. I should first note that if I’m starting with a congregation as a pastor, having one that is comfortable is a great foundation to work from.

    If you toss a glass of cold water on anyone (dragon or not) they’ll wake up with a bad attitude. For me, waking a sleeping dragon has a meaning of being able to accomplish amazing things when woken. I realize that this metaphor has been traditionally used to describe the outcome of righteous anger, but the potential for great works is still there irregardless of the way its woken.

  4. I don’t have a better metaphor, but the “dragon” image strikes me as counterproductive in one way – it suggests the congregation must be dealt with as one creature. It undercuts your point about each congregation having all four elements present.

    A leader probably can create a situation in which the entire congregation acts in unity to eat the pastor, but isn’t the problem more often a dispersal of energy and focus?

    Maybe I’m being pedantic, but the questions are meant to clarify.

    • All metaphors are limited and break down. Do whatever translation works for you. For me, working in hundreds of different congregations, I guess I am so scorched and scale-abraded that dragons seems completely reasonable!

  5. One of my most vivid church experiences was about 14 years ago. After being a member for a couple of years, I finally walked out of the largest church I ever attended regularly. I’d been frustrated for a while, but it took some time to put my finger on it. That November, in my “young singles” class in Sunday School, the leader suggested that we tackle a service project in December.

    I was excited, raised my hand, suggested spending an afternoon at a particular local soup kitchen. The room of about forty people fell dead silent. They looked at me.

    After what felt like eternity, someone else said, “Maybe we should host a Christmas Tea for the church.” The enthusiasm level in the room rose dramatically, and I sat back, bemused. Turns out, that was “service” because it was “serving the church.”

    Now, I’m no holier-than-thou type. I’m more flawed than most people, and I’m certainly nowhere near the most sacrificial of my circle of friends. But come *on*. If you’re going to host an event for your wealthy church, please have the dignity not to call it “service.” To be honest, I’m sure this is an extreme and certainly egregious example… but I’ve found that this mentality is common.

    Just a few years ago, when I was a news editor for the small local weekly newspaper, I offered to put my church’s Vacation Bible School in our “weekly events” column. They specifically asked me *not* to include it because the advertising might bring in too many people–specifically, the parents who used summer VBSes as babysitting services and sent their kids to all the area programs. It was all very rational.

    I’m pretty sure the gospel isn’t very rational.

    • Your “Christmas Tea” story seems to me to illustrate Dan’s response above regarding programs and productivity.

  6. I disagree with this whole premise. I believe that most of our churches are very productive and healthy. I have been pastor of 4 different churches in the last 6 years and all of them were both comfortable and productive. We had plenty of suppers and fellowship events for the church and community, we had great Sunday school and VBS, and we had great worship. Very active, very busy, very happy, very comfortable AND very productive. I think you over rate the ammount of corrosive churches, and every church has people who fit the resigned category, but for the most part our churches are very prodcutve and healthy.

    • Tom, where we may disagree — and I say “may” — is in the definition of productive. I think there are a whole lot of busy, active churches that aren’t actually producing much of anything that fulfills the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Many of our most comfortable churches are our most active churches — but not all of our active churches are productive churches. How we are changing lives, building Christian community, witnessing to God’s love in the world — these are better measures of productivity than dinners and programs.

      • First, glad to read you back again! As someone said earlier, don’t let your work get you unhealthy….

        As for this topic, “Yes!” to your reply to Tom that church activity and productivity do not necessarily mean the same thing. Somehow or another, we need to learn the needs of our larger community and move out faithing into those needs. Especially in this (new) political climate, ISTM there will be a need for congregations to be advocates in the larger society as well as dispensers of charity and friendliness.

      • I would disagree with Tom Wilson. If most of our churches were productive and healthy, we would not have 60 percent of our chruches with 60 people our less on Sunday morning. We would not be facing the closure of anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of those churches in the next 20 years, and we would not be looking at the problems the United Methodist Church is facing across the board. Proof is in the pudding, and we have waaaaay too many comfortable churches just waiting to breath fire on anyone attempting to change them.

  7. OMG – you just nailed my church and put into words what I have felt for the past four years but could never quite express. We are a sleeping dragon and almost all the pressure that is put on me is to not rock the boat or make anyone feel uncomfortable. I am like the troll at the mouth of the dragon’s cave doing everything I can to keep it from waking up! Every time I try to change anything, everyone pushes to keep things like they already are. So, okay, I am part of the problem, but what do I do about it? I am feeling very frustrated by your article.

    • Two things come to mind: first, don’t tackle the dragon alone. Take back-up. If there is a change or a direction the church needs to go, rally some support before you make any big changes or take any drastic steps. Second, make sure the reason you are waking the dragon up is worth it. Don’t bring about change for the sake of change, and be very clear about which battles are truly worth fighting. It is easy to get people stirred up over inconsequential things; be crafty and strategic. If you were planning to awaken a real dragon, you would probably plan quite carefully how you wanted to go about it. It is almost impossible to move people from comfort to productivity without the path leading through some corrosive territory. If this is true, the forewarned is forearmed. This may feel like an incredibly inadequate response, but the sad reality is that the only way to lead change is to slay the dragon.

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