What is congregational health? It has little if anything to do with the size of the congregation. Churches of any size can be vibrant communities. Long ago, I worshiped several times in a tiny Methodist church in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California. You knew as soon as you walked in the door that this was a community with a lot of life in it. The pastor never preached longer than six minutes, and it was always good. The choir of six sang enthusiastically. People seemed happy to be there.
Here are nine indicators of a healthy congregation:
- Mature leaders, clergy and lay, who know who they are and what they are about in their lives and ministry.
- Leaders who can articulate their vision and direction.
- The ability to tolerate difference.
- Leaders who can take a stand with people (staff or church members) who are not functioning well.
- The ability to take the long view. (Most things of value in church take time to happen.)
- An appreciation for the past without being bound by it.
- A lightness of spirit – people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
- Resilience – the congregation can recover from setbacks.
- Genuine spiritual maturity, growing out of the prayer and worship practices of the leadership and congregation.
One of my favorite books, Ron Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church, tells parallel stories of two churches who deal with a practical crisis, a flooded basement, in startlingly different ways. It isn’t always the lofty matters that highlight our health and maturity, but the everyday challenges. (Note: if you didn’t hear my recent interview with Ron on church polarization, e-mail me at Margaret@margaretmarcuson.com for the recording.
Congregational health is not an either-or matter. All churches are more or less healthy, and any church can get better if the key leaders are motivated. The pastor’s leadership is critical, but no pastor can make a church healthy. Lay leaders are essential, but individual leaders can’t bring life by themselves. Together, leaders might assess themselves and their church, simply asking: what do we notice? And what do we want for our community?
Still, all leaders, no matter what their position, and no matter what others do, can start with themselves. Your own emotional and spiritual health depends on you. Ask yourself, what is God calling me to do in this place? How is God calling me to grow, and grow up? That’s a real contribution to any community.