Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

In Sickness and in Health: Wendy Dackson



Someone with two healthy legs is able to stand, walk, run and jump. But if your leg is broken, your doctor won’t tell you to act like it’s healthy. Treating a broken leg as though it’s healthy will hurt it, not help it. If the medical issue is serious enough, the patient is put in an Intensive Care Unit, where they can receive closer attention. The same goes for churches – no matter what size they are.


This is a key paragraph in a blog post I read a few days ago, which can be found here .  I am in complete agreement with the premise that a sick church cannot be treated as a healthy church, cannot be expected to do and be the things that a well-functioning spiritual community is and does, until it has recovered from whatever is wrong. However, I think there are some missing pieces in the original article that need to be explored. I was a part of some lively discussions on two or three different Facebook pages in which I made some observations and suggestions; this little essay is an attempt to distill some of that and share it more widely.


The two missing pieces are diagnosis and treatment.  Not all unhealthy churches are unhealthy in the same way.  From this, it follows that appropriate treatment is dependent on an accurate diagnosis–you don’t treat cancer the way you treat a broken bone, and you don’t treat deep-seated infighting and power struggles the way you treat an unexpected traumatic event.  There may be some overlap:  while I have been recovering from a fairly bad orthopaedic injury, some of the medications I have taken are ones cancer patients take to reduce the nausea from chemotherapy.  But I could not have made a good recovery if my fractured and dislocated patella had been mistaken for, and treated as, a bone tumor.  A similar principle, I think, applies to treating unhealthy churches.  Accurate diagnosis is the foundation of the journey to wellness.


I think the ways in which a church can become unhealthy (maybe even start its life in poor health) are very similar to the ways a person can be unwell.  I think the very good blog post needs a bit of exploration on this point, and I offer a few suggestions.  Three main ways (probably not exhaustive, however) for a person to become unhealthy are (1) injury, (2) disease, and (3) lifestyle choices.


Injury is often sudden, and beyond the control of the person who suffers it; I think churches can be injured from things that are not their fault as well.  I took a freakish fall on a rainy day in South Buffalo during our annual January thaw, and ended up turning a once-whole kneecap into two pieces (note to self:  more is not better when it comes to how many pieces of bone you have).  In like fashion, I wonder how many once-well churches were hit very hard by events beyond their control, such as the economic meltdown a few years ago, or natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy last October.  It would be interesting to see how institutionalized religion was affected—the impact on worshipping communities themselves, the wider economic/social consequences resulting from interruptions to the benefits they bring to their civic contexts, and the ways in which they have recovered (or not, as the case may be).  Injury, to an individual or church, is traumatic, and it may take a long time to recover.  2013 has been my ‘year of learning to walk again’.  The good news about injury is that it probably happened at a time of reasonable health.  This means that a state of well-being and good functioning is in relatively recent memory, and the injured person or institution is determined to return to that state.  A recognition that there will be scars—I will never be completely the same after my fracture—is healthy.  But I have learned much in my own process of healing, and this makes me stronger and more able to deal with future injuries.  I also lost about 10% of my body weight, which needed to happen for overall health.  I will work to keep that excess off, for the sake of what was injured, and for the sake of heart, lungs and blood vessels—those things that are vital to well-being.  An injured church also has a good possibility of being more healthy than it was before it was hurt. There is learning in the process toward being well, and sometimes shedding the excess helps an organization be better at what is really important.


Another way for a person to become unwell is through disease, and this is also true of churches.  Disease can arise in at least two ways, possibly more—but I think the main two are through outside infection, and through something going wrong internally.  Infection coming in from the outside is what most people and churches guard against.  Look at the sales of things like Airborne, and hand sanitizing gels, and even the prohibition against sharing the Peace and receiving wine at communion issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York during the 2010 swine flu outbreak.  In like manner to avoiding bacterial and viral infection, churches are often vigilant about external influences that may compromise their health—the current (annoying) debates about same-sex marriage are often cited as something that is going to end Christianity as we know it by more conservative churches; more progressive churches also guard against ‘wrong ways of being Christian’ with equal zeal, excluding those who are not adequately ‘inclusive’.


But it is not the external infection, I think, that is likely to be the cause of most disease in unhealthy churches.  It is the disease that is more analagous to those ailments arising from malfunction within the individual human body—organ failure, overgrowth of some cells and tissues at the expense of others—that are problematic.  In a human body, unregulated cell growth tends toward cancer, and compromises the whole; a previously well-functioning organ may either over- or under-function, throwing the whole system out of balance.  In a church, unregulated activity by one group (or domination by a particular activity or outloook) compromises the purpose of the church.  This can come from a long-time member (even the pastor), especially if s/he is a founding donor or leader of the congregation, or an over-emphasis on one good thing to the expense of others.  A congregation that focuses too heavily on children and youth (admirable as that focus is), may put inadequate resources into ministry to elders or outreach to the wider community.  While it may seem difficult to put too much emphasis on outreach, it is still necessary to budget for adequate infrastructure (including physical plant and core staff) if that outreach is to be well supported.  But if that infrastructure becomes all-consuming,again, the system is out of balance and unhealthy.


Disease in churches, I am afraid, does not arise from programs or buildings, or often even differences in theological outlook.  It arises from people who decide that their priority (and often not much more than a preference) is the only one that counts.  I visited a church a few years ago where a couple who were relatively new to the community had taken on (almost by force) significant leadership in the church, much of which was at odds with the pastor and longer-standing members of the congregation.  Their emphasis was on more modern, evangelical worship; the church was a moderately high catholic style Anglican one, with a locally important historic building.  A fair amount of coalition-building against the pastor ensued, mainly from newer members of the congregation; many of the more settled members felt resentment, and the church was largely riven into factions.  The energy could have been better spent in developing ways to work together.  My own experience and observation is that it is never healthy when a person or group (including the pastor) tries to make the church over in their own image.


A third way in which both individual humans and congregations can become unwell is through lifestyle choices.  We are bombarded with messages every day concerning how, by making choices about diet, exercise, smoking, etc., we can reduce our risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some cancers.  Lifestyle doesn’t protect us from every illness, but it prevents many, and the right choices can help us cope with, and make better recoveries from, sickness when it does occur.  We can’t control every environmental factor, or genetic predisposition, or just freak accident.  But we do have control over whether we eat a balanced diet, smoke, use alcohol to excess or take recreational drugs, spend a reasonable amount of time in physical activity each day, and how we cope with stress.


A balance of work, rest, play, fueled by good nutrition, does make the life of the individual human body better.  Why should this not also apply to faith communities as well?  Lifestyle-related illness is not the same as internally-generated disease—I think they are easier to correct, because they could be more like chiropractic adjustments than major surgery.  What does a congregation need more of, and what does it need less of?  Again, I am all for churches doing as much ministry in their civic communities as possible (however defined, and sometimes well beyond the immediate geographic area)—but if the congregation does not take time for worship, spiritual nurture and learning, and occasionally just some basic fun together, something is wrong.  But on the other side, if the only emphasis is glorious worship (again, however you choose to define that) which doesn’t lead to care for something more than the self (whether individual or corporate), that is an imbalance that needs to be addressed.  An expectation that the ordained leader does absolutely everything considered ‘ministry’ is problematic (and it can be fed by both the laity and ordained minister); when a few lay leaders are at the helm of almost all the church’s activities, this is also a problem.


How do we begin to figure out what kind of sickness a church has, so we can develop appropriate ways to get better?  A wise friend, who is a professor of general surgery, once said of his medical practice, that you can learn more from taking a complete history than you can by probing and proddingMy guess is that this is as true of sick churches as it is of the unhealthy GI tracts on which my friend operates.  Asking the right questions of a church (and asking them from as many members as you can manage) is probably going to aid in the diagnosis, and help develop a treatment plan with the best chance of achieving the goal of getting back to health.  What are some questions we might be asking?  Here are a few of my thoughts.


How do you spend most of your time as a congregation?  I think there needs to be a balance of stuff that is internal to the assembly (worship, administration, Christian learning) with things that are directed more outwardly, such as outreach ministries, ecumenical cooperation, civic witness.  But in an unhealthy congregation, the balance may be more inwardly directed.  A struggling church may have to spend more time together dealing with its problems, and less on its public presence.


Who are the ‘leaders’?  I would expect the ordained ministers to head the list, but I also want to know what lay people are doing which tasks.  If the same five names in a congregation of 100 or more are in charge of the Sunday school, altar guild, the church’s turn at the local soup kitchen, the healing ministry, visitation to the sick, all of the major fundraising events, hospitality, etc.—and they all sing in the choir and sit on the governing body as well, this is something to watch.


How long have your leaders held their positions?  Long standing membership/leadership of a particular group within the church may mean that one person, or a small group, holds a lot of power (altar guilds are notorious for this); sometimes a denomination’s canons require that people serve limited terms (often a vestry member of an Episcopal church cannot serve more than 3 years without taking at least a year break between terms).  But it is also a red flag if a very new member suddenly is at the helm of four or five ministries in the congregation.  It is not that there isn’t a good reason.  If a new hire to the faculty of a local theological seminary joins your congregation, it makes sense for him/her to be an important part of adult education, or to take a place on a preaching rota; a new accountant or attorney in the church may be particularly useful to the governing board or on the finance committee.  But reasons for the meteoric rise to leadership of a new member need to be clear and reasonable.


My own experience shows that the choir is often a good place to look for people who have very extensive ministry obligations in the congregation.  I have rarely been in, or observed, a church where the choir did not have significant overlap with other activities in the church.  A church’s choir often has members of its vestry, finance committee, liturgy guild, outreach groups, building committee, etc.  It is probably the hub for a lot of activity, and a place where new members first get a toe in to deeper involvement, and make connections to those who have other ministry responsibilities.  See how many hours a week your choir members are obligated to the church—it may reveal some surprises, and suggest some ways toward a healthier congregation.


Why have people left doing particular jobs in the church?  Again, sometimes there are perfectly benign reasons—birth of a child or an increase in other family or work obligations, or a term has expired.  But if an architect in your congregation has left the building committee, it may be wise to ask a few gentle questions.


This is a starter-list of questions, and I am sure that I will think of more as soon as this is posted to the blog.  A final consideration is who is the right person to work with a sick congregation?  I wish to say something which some people may consider alarming.  I think the work of helping sick churches back to health would best be supervised by a lay person without strong ties to the congregation(s) in question.  A person who is also the ordained pastoral/liturgical leader has a role more of the supportive home-care nurse rather than the specialist or consultant.  The work of diagnosis, prescribing and monitoring the treatment is, I think, best done by someone whose relationship to the congregation is more detached; the reasons for this are the same as the medical ethics principles that advise against a physician treating his or her own critically ill relative.  As well, a lay consultant will not be expected to step in on a day by day basis to fix things that the congregation must work on for itself.  Finally, the ordained leader in a congregation is (like it or not) a part of the unhealthy state, and it is important to have some outside advice concerning whether the ordained leader and congregation can move forward together in healthy ways, or if there needs to be a surgical excision that allows them to move toward health separately.


As well, it a congregational health-check could be developed, and each church work with a consultant to do a biennial (at least) self-assessment.  This could help identify problems before they became insurmountable, damaging the vitality of congregations and the well-being of their ordained leaders.  A lay person, with good theological qualifications, on the senior staff of every diocese or other denominational adjudicatory, to do this kind of work, would be a good investment in helping to keep churches healthy and move unhealthy churches to a place of greater well-being.


Note by editor: The illustration (courtesy of Wikimedia) depicts a very literally sick church in that it is closed and kept locked. But I thought the row of chairs in the congregation, each isolated from the others, was also a good metaphor for another problem of church sickness.

8 comments on this post:

Joyce Hackney said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and wide-ranging analogy of sickness in the Body of Christ, Wendy.
If you’ve had time to explore online churches while you’ve been incapacitated,have you noticed any additional lesions arising there that are not found in B and M churches ?

Wendy Dackson said...

Joyce, I hesitate to use the term B and M, because that indicates an emphasis on the building that I prefer to avoid. Usually, a sick building is not the problem itself, but an indication of an unhealthy congregation. I also think the first effort really has to be on flesh-and-blood assemblies of people–my intuition is that is where denominational adjudicatories are going to put more effort, rather than with online churches.

For various reasons, I’ve not been attracted to online churches, so I can’t really say very much about them. I suppose it would be an interesting study, but probably one that would require a bit more of a sympathetic hearing than I could probably give. And I do think there needs to be some affinity with the object of study before one can do a particularly good job.

01 November 2013 13:36
01 November 2013 09:34
Karl Vaters said...

This was a very well-written and thoughtful article, Wendy. As the author of the original post that sparked this, I’m thrilled that it has spurred conversation on this important topic. I completely agree with you that “Not all unhealthy churches are unhealthy in the same way.” Just as my piece nudged you to write this, that phrase may inspre me to write more on the subject in the future. Thank you.

Wendy Dackson, PhD said...

Karl, welcome to Lay Anglicana! Have a nosey around–Laura Sykes, who runs the show, has a number of good contributors, puts together wonderful intercessions and reflections each week, and generall runs a very fine operation. I am pleased that she welcomes my offerings.

I am pleased that you are ‘thrilled’ your essay sparked some good reflection. Someone asked me about it earlier in the week on my Facebook page, and I had seen it on someone else’s, and also in a group. This is a distillation of some of the thoughts I expressed in those varied conversations. More could be said, and I am happy to be a part of the continuing conversation.

01 November 2013 14:25
01 November 2013 13:58
Joyce said...

Wendy, before I came across the term ‘Band M’ I used to say ‘corproreal’ which I suppose fits better in this context. I have not been a regular attender at any one particular place of worship for fifteen years.This is for practival and logistical reasons, mainly that I’m the one with the sick and injured body,physically speaking. You’ve had a taste of that and know what it’s like.
I prefer taking part in online ministries to having home visits from clergy. I may offer my experiences of being a webpew-filler on here as a post one day,but that’s another story and I haven’t even asked Linda yet. I do get taken sometimes to other people’s services and church events which gives me perhaps the chance to be more of a spectator who sees the game than I used to be,and I found the article very interesting.
In the online congregations with whom I’m acquainted there are those who are shift-workers, or are housebound or in hospital and use online worship and fellowship as their main form of Church and there are those who ‘attend’ or explore online ministries temporarily while incapacitated.
Interestingly,there are those whose corporeal church is sick or dull and they use online fellowship to give a boost to what’s available in RL. Some use it as a refuge or filling-station to give them strength to keep going in their corproreal congregation. Generally,however, it seems to me that there are people who like being online who like to belong to more than one church, including many who are called to that kind of ministry.
The first official online ‘parish’ set up by the Church of England,i-church, contained at one point when I counted,a good half-dozen priests that I knew of, some of whom had active corporeal ministries of their own. Russell, the third web pastor, was half-time in charge of i-church and half-time priest-in-charge of a parish church in Oxford. Pam, the present web pastor who comments here,was if my memory serves me rightly,when she joined i-church a curate and a chaplain at a prison before she became our priest-in-charge. The inverted commas around ‘parish’ are there because that’s what the BBC originally called it.I think there are about eight with active coproreal ministries now in i-church but not all priests and not all CofE. That’s just my estimate. As for the Second Life Anglican Cathedral, I’ve lost count but I know that in addition to the two official bishops there are army and navy chaplains, curates, vicars, lay ministers and people like me who just turn up.
I sometimes wonder what it’s like trying to hold an online church together and keep it healthy when members of its congregation and leadership team belong to other churches elsewhere, whether as ministers or plain members,especially if it has active participants from all over the globe. It occurs to me that online churches may have sickness and health issues too and I wonder what the similarities and differences are. I suspect there are more of the former than the latter but I’d be interested to hear from someone who knows. It’s a pity you don’t feel drawn to look into it, Wendy. I like to read what you present and analyse. But – only 24 hours in a day and all that, and if the very idea of something turns us off,you’re right,we can’t do it justice.
There are numerous studies of online churches, but none that I’ve seen from this angle. It seems very fashionable to write about them for degrees and doctorates and I’ve filled in so many questionairres I’ve wriiten a document I send as an attachment to the students. The studies all seem to be about the advantages and disadvantages for the individual. I’ve not come across one that asks about online churches as bodies,let alone one that asks about their afflictions and pleasures.

03 November 2013 16:31
Wendy Dackson, PhD said...

Joyce, I will take it as a compliment that you think it is a pity that *I* personally am not drawn to i-church research. Perhaps in the future. For a couple of years, I did observer/participant research with corporeal (good term!) churches, so my connections to congregations were light (to say the least). I really think that you can’t have the right balance of sympathy for the general enterprise, but objective distance, if you are a regular member of the congregation. Much less so if you are the person most responsible for pastoral and liturgical leadership.

For reasons I prefer not to detail, I was lightly connected (if at all) to a local parish at the time I hurt myself. And for the first six weeks or so of my convalescence, I did not have internet access, so contact with i-church was something not really possible. (I kept in touch with people by phone and text message). Even through the seasons of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, I found that going it alone had, at this point in my personal journey, some real advantages and blessings above what “community” could offer. I feel that it has been a time of intense spiritual activity for me–much of it as painful as the injury to the body (because I have also been coping with some church-inflicted injury to the soul), but in the end making me better than if I had not gone it alone at least for this time.

I can see, from non-church online “communities” in which I have participated (everything from fashion to knitting to allergy-friendly cooking to Bell’s Palsy), and even interactions on my own Facebook page and LinkedIn account, there are some very different issues (although the online venue might exacerbate them). From other “Christians”, there are some real problems. If there is a difference of opinion, either the ‘agree to disagree’ clause comes out (and it is almost always a means to shut down discussion, rather than actually move to deeper understanding), or the lack of face-to-face contact allows for a level of bullying that would not be tolerated if we had to look each other in the eye. I was told to ‘enjoy hell’ (on my own FB page) when I said I was less interested in whether I went to heaven after I died, than I am in making earth a little closer to heaven while I lived. I suppose care for others is not something that wins you any divine brownie points, but only a selfish need to avoid eternal punishment is acceptable. Hmmph. I can do without that.

I also wonder about leadership, participation, accountability. The BEST online community of any sort I have been involved with is . In some ways, *that* group is what church should aspire to.

03 November 2013 17:21
Joyce said...

Wendy,before there was i-church and Second Life I spent a lot of time hunting all over the internet for churches and Christian groups. I found only one that was reasonable. Cranks and crazies abounded. The amount of negativity was beyond belief. I recognise the sort of thing you mention. I came across cartloads of sheer stupidity. I hesitate to use the term ‘ill-educated’ to describe anyone who lives in a country where everybody goes to school, but I have difficulty thinking of a substitute.
I tend not to mind going it alone for most things in life, including the religious aspects. Truth to tell, I rather prefer it at times. However, I don’t want to go without the ability to communicate with other Christians altogether and I crave good theological teaching when I don’t have access to it.
When I was able to get out and about more I was fortunate enough to have been able to attend local classes given by Dr Margaret Barker and to have attended churches where the clergy assumed the congregation expected to come away from a service or house-group meeting having learned something.
I expected to find a wide choice of teaching online and was surprised when for the first few years it just wasn’t there. The best online group I ever found for intelligent and worthwhile conversation was nothing to do with religion,although it did come up, was founded to talk about Frasier. Any others that were good forbade the very mention of religion or politics on pain of expulsion. I ran a group for Inspector Lynley fans which was also rather nice.
Why ‘Christian’ groups in particular thrived on rubbish,nonsense, poppycock.codswallop, misinformation,rudeness,intimidation,unkindness and hard-heartedness I have no idea. I’ve not encountered them for a long time but it sounds from what you say that they are still around.

06 November 2013 15:25

[…] an example of how to do this well, Wendy Dackson wrote a post entitled In Sickness and In Health, on a few months ago. Her post was a response to my article, Unhealthy Churches […]

17 February 2014 20:56

Leave a Reply

We rely on donations to keep this website running.