Ten Tips for Having a Healthy Church

Abraham Lincoln once said that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. And the same is true for churches–most are about as healthy as they make up their minds to be.

Over the years, I’ve come across some astonishingly healthy churches, and in every case that has been the result of very deliberate decisions. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for ways your church can become healthier, offered in no particular order.

1. Decide to be healthy

My first suggestion is implicit in my comments above. Specifically, your church has to want to be healthy and recognize the value of health in every sense. That includes spiritual, emotional, relational, financial, and operational health.

Of course, the call to live as healthy community of faith is inherent in the baptismal covenant. If we indeed seek to “respect the dignity of every human being,” we must recognize what our Quaker brothers and sisters refer to as the “inner light,” the essence of the divine in every human being. It is this respect for each other and the church itself that draws us towards health and wholeness.

2. Don’t panic if your church is not healthy

The reality is that churches, like most communities, typically go through phases of growth and decline, health and unhealth. If it seems that your church isn’t healthy, just know your not alone, and things can be fixed. Just read some of Paul’s letters if you need a reminder that issues have been afoot since the first days of the church.

3. Assume good intent

Years ago, working for AT&T during a turbulent time for the company, I took a course in conflict resolution. One of the key ideas was to assume good intent.

At first, that seemed improbable. After all, there were plenty of people in the mix who were clearly malicious. But as I settled into the paradigm, I realized that it indeed worked. Even in cases where someone is deliberately behaving badly, it’s usually because they’ve learned unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict or stress.

In other cases, we may be misreading the other person’s motives or actions.

Of course,  in some cases, we may be flat-out wrong, and the other person is malevolent, pure and simple. But even then, “There are worse things than to be thought a fool,” as my supervisor used to point out. Plus, taking the high road is essential to peace, for a tit-for-tat approach will simply engender additional conflict.

4. Consider outside help

Remember the old adage about where you sit depends on where you stand? So it is with churches. When we are too close to the issues at hand, it can be difficult to assess them with clarity.

The good news is that there is help for almost every issue. Denominational insurance carriers, for example, often have access to training materials on topics ranging from physical plant safety, to sexual misconduct prevention training, to financial planning and management.

Outside facilitators also can be quite useful in helping identify the root causes of ill-health and working towards resolution. Sometimes, all it takes is someone to step in who was no goal or objective except helping your church become healthy.

5. Avoid unnecessary power bases/cliques

Much as we hate to admit it, many of our church groups and meetings are unnecessary. They tire people out, diminish our enjoyment of church and each other, and often serve only to rehash issues that have already received adequate attention. At their worst, groups like finance committees and altar guilds can  become power bases that diminish the health of the church.

So, if possible, stick to your vestry or board, and leave it at that. That’ll still leave plenty to talk about, and free people up to do what’s really important, which is to love God and one another.

For groups that are essential, like the altar guild, clergy and vestry members alike should make clear that service is an honor and privilege, not a right, and is conditioned on maintaining a welcoming, healthy environment. And don’t assume that such are essential. Many a church, faced with a power block that “knows best” in the altar guild or other group, has discovered that the sexton, for example, is perfectly capable of setting the altar.

7. Don’t announce who’s officiating at services

If you’re lucky enough to be a church with multiple clergy, at some point in time you’ve probably heard people say that they prefer one clergyperson over another. But whether we like our clergy, or their sermons, or their clothes, or anything else is irrelevant. We’re there to grow, learn, and explore, so it may be best to focus on what’s important, versus inconsequentia. Besides, if there’s change in schedules, no one will be the wiser!

8. Embrace differences

My experience is that many churches that pride themselves on being welcoming, open, or affirming are exactly that–but only up to a point. For instance, your church might be fine with LGBT persons, but have a very mixed reaction if, for example, a crossdresser attends services. Or what about the homeless person who smells bad and spits when he talks? Or the obviously mentally ill person? Or the quasi-official church curmudgeon?

No one’s saying you have to like these persons, agree with them, or hang out with them socially. But church of all places should be a place where all are equal in the eyes of God. And absent criminal activity or a restraining order, all should be welcome.

Besides, who are we to judge any of these people? God’s perfectly capable of handing these issues without our help, and last I checked, hadn’t asked for our help.

9. Challenge bad actors

One reason churches often slip into ill-health is that people are afraid to challenge bullies and other bad actors. Granted, it’s not always comfortable, but it has to be done.

To do this successfully, make sure you have a witness present. Bring up your concern, focusing on “I” statements–“I saw you talking with other members of the altar guild, and you seemed to be very loud. Can you help me understand what was going on?”

Once you understand the problem, it’s important to set expectations — “I am not comfortable with church members yelling at each other.” Then, ask what it would take for the person to act appropriately, “What would you need in order to feel that you could discuss the matter without yelling?”

Of course, old habits are hard to unlearn, and you may need outside help, or to return to the fray repeatedly

Also, be alert to the possibility that there may be an innocent explanation. One older altar guild member, famous for raising her voice, solved her problem quickly when she got hearing aids. She simply didn’t realize how loud she’d become over the years.

10. Stay committed to each other

As one friend of mine noted following a disciplinary matter resulting in the departure of her priest, “clergy come and go, but we’re still here for each other.” That’s a healthy attitude, even in the worst of cases.

In one situation I know, a downtown church, once a bastion of wealthy area residents, closed after the area around it ceased to be residential. That was traumatic, particularly after more than 125 years as a vibrant church. The logistics were painful too–disinterring ashes from the columbarium, selling off beautiful stained glass windows given in memory of loved ones, and more. But to this day, former members of that church stay in touch and share a common bond, based not on the now-gone building, but on their love for one another.

About Eric Bonetti

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids’ cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I’m also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.

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