so your faith community is unhealthy? now what?

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors.  His books are a mix of masterful story-telling and fascinating sociological insights.  The man makes everything interesting.  

(Case in point, this TED Talk about spaghetti sauce.  I kid you not.  Spaghetti sauce.  Watch and be amazed.  That's your bonus gift from me today.)

A few years ago, Gladwell wrote a book called Blink, exploring the power of intuition.  

But, oops, I've used a word Gladwell doesn't like:

"You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in Blink. Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings–thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking–its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In Blink I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better? ...

"One of the stories I tell in Blink is about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. That’s the big public hospital in Chicago, and a few years ago they changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: they encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain–like blood pressure and the ECG–while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. And what happened? Cook County is now one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain.

"Not surprisingly, it was really hard to convince the physicians at Cook County to go along with the plan, because, like all of us, they were committed to the idea that more information is always better. But I describe lots of cases in Blink where that simply isn’t true. There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology–”the power of thin slicing”–which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience."

I'm referencing Gladwell here partly just because he just makes my brain happy.  But mostly because my last post was about feeding our good judgment, improving our "powers of rapid cognition," when it comes to deciding if a faith community (or family, organization, or friendship) is healthy or unhealthy.  

We don't need to hang around for years and have a bunch of terrible things proven in a court of law.  

Last time I talked about the work of Dr. Diane Langberg.  Langberg finds that abuse victims are routinely silenced, isolated, and made to feel helpless.

I think our faith communities should be the exact reverse.   

A healthy community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.  

And I think, like Malcolm Gladwell might say, that we can make a good decision about the health of a community pretty quickly, with just that thin slice of of experience.  

photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

Just to review:

Voice means that everybody is invited to speak and be heard.  

We don't get our own way all the time, because that would probably mean we're bullying others, but we get to speak, we listen to others, and we cooperate together.  That's how voice works in  a healthy community.

  • Adults attend to the needs of children.
  • Spouses value the opinions and input of each other.
  • A pastor is open with and accountable to parishioners.
  • The system for feedback is transparent, easy to navigate, and open to all.
  • People with varying opinions and ideas are welcomed and encouraged to share.

Value means that we are invited to be in honest relationship. 

  • We don't have to pretend.
  • We can be ourselves.
  • We can tell the truth about what we think and feel and want and need.
  • Our story will be respected.
  • We will find strength to help in time of need.

Vitality means that I am invited to be a powerful, contributing person in the community.

  • I contribute according to my gifts, not according to arbitrary rules and regulations.
  • I can have ideas and be celebrated for bringing new life to the community.
  • I'm encouraged to grow and mature.
  • I feel hopeful, motivated, and energized in my community.
  • When I am worn out and discouraged, I know where to turn for help, and I'll actually get help.

So, what if we are NOT experiencing voice, value, and vitality in our faith communities?

What if our community is a place of silence, isolation, and helplessness? 

I'd say the first step is this:  give it a whirl.  We need to be responsible, and do our part.  So try a quick experiment.  

Try speaking up.  Try being really honest.  Try offering to contribute, according to your gifts.

See what happens.  

Community health probably falls on a spectrum, rather than into a simple dichotomy.  Perhaps your system just needs some healthy people to speak up and jolt some life into the thing.  Maybe you could help make it normal and safe to speak up, to be real, to exercise your gifts and grow into maturity.  Communities can grow in health, and it's exciting when that happens.  By all means, try!

But, if you try out your voice and you get silenced, if you tell your story honestly and get isolated, if you try to contribute and are told "no thanks"--then let me pass along the advice a wise friend gave me years ago.

When you find yourself in an unhealthy system, you have three options, and three options only.

  1. Stay and conform.  Be a part of the unhealthy system.
  2. Stay and work for change.  Be a reformer.
  3. Leave.  Shake the dust off and move on.

Stay and conform is what we most often do.  It doesn't even seem like a choice.  We're already in the system, committed for ministry or fellowship.  We stay and conform without thinking, because if we thought about it, we'd have to do something about it.  

But conforming is a choice, and if we make that choice, let's at least make it honestly:  "I'm going to stay here in this unhealthy system and be unhealthy for a while longer."  

Maybe you can't go just yet.  I understand that life is like that sometimes.  But even being that honest about your own choices is a step toward health.

Stay and work for change seems like a good option, except that most often I have seen that circle back into conforming.  Maybe you're a great reformer.  Awesome.  Just keep a check and make sure that change is actually happening.  

Deeply unhealthy systems often work on a bait-and-switch basis.  You're offered a little piece of pacification, in the hopes that you won't notice that you're back to conforming again.  Just keep an eye on that.

Honestly, I think leave is a really good option if a faith community is unhealthy.  

To me, the point of community is that I give and I receive.  Others give and receive.  And if we're in an unhealthy faith community, how can that giving and receiving actually take place?  I don't think it can.  

An unhealthy faith community is like this.  You are working so hard to plant a beautiful garden.  But every time the seeds start to sprout, someone comes along and sprays weed killer over everything.  Eventually the soil is toxic and nothing grows any more.  It's just a barren patch of dirt.

I think we have to ask ourselves:  why are we here?  What are we accomplishing?

As for all the children trapped in unhealthy faith communities, my heart breaks.  And let me put this in capital letters, bold and italicized:


Talking to the abuser so he can "repent" is colluding with a criminal.  

Reporting it to church leaders is NOT enough.  

The report needs to be made to the police or to child protective services. 

Just this morning, I was encouraged to read that the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) has issued a strong statement about how to deal with the abuse of children.  

Let this be an example of good health to other faith communities.

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