Twenty years ago our congregation adopted five core values. The one which speaks to our internal relationships says, “In relationships…Family.” Our church covenant expands this core value:
As a group of gathered believers, we understand ourselves to be a part of a family of faith. Therefore, we shall love, forgive, admonish, encourage, serve, and pray for one another—always in the spirit of being sisters and brothers in Christ.
Therefore, our goal is to model healthy family dynamics on a larger scale. We take what we know about strong family systems and apply them to the congregation. In two decades of experience, we have learned these lessons.
Communication is essential. Families in crisis often complain of communication problems. Church families are no different. No one likes to be left out of the loop; those who missed information may feel estranged. For instance, it is embarrassing to be the only person who did not receive notice of meeting time change. We have learned we must tell something sixteen times in order to communicate it broadly within the church family. If we have an event that people didn’t know about, we often look at each other and say, “Sixteen times,” as an admission we failed to disseminate fully what people needed to know. We tend to overestimate how much attention people give to communication from the church and we underestimate how often we need to give it. Sixteen times may seem like too much, but experience bears out the number.
Listen, too. Of course, listening is an important part of communication. People want to be heard. For our most critical decisions, we build in discussion times and listening sessions. These sessions must be genuine and not a pretense. Nothing is more insulting that to say feedback is important, then to discount it in a public meeting. Discussion leaders have to communicate clear acceptance of input by controlling what they say and by eliminating nonverbal signs of impatience. Members of the church family know whether or not you are serious if you ask, “Are there any more questions?” The wrong inflection at the end of the question implies, “Of course not,” cutting off conversation before people were ready to stop. It takes time to create a culture of open discussion and honest feedback, but it is what healthy families do.
Go toward the problem. Dysfunctional families let resentments and anger build, until they reach an explosive point. Members of these families would rather pretend everything is in order to avoid responsibility for tier part of a problem or possible conflict. Healthy families, however, deal with differences and misunderstandings as they arise. In a church setting, it is a rare mistake or misunderstanding that becomes easier to address as time goes by. The best time to confront an issue is immediately. Consequently, when discussing a church member who is disappointed or disengaged, our ministry staff often challenges each other with “Go toward the problem.” As uncomfortable as it may be, it will be easier today than next week.
Talk to each other, not about each other. Families with poor dynamics may find a family member attempting to gather the support of others against a single member. Psychologists speak of “triangling” when one person manipulates a second individual against a third. The instigators of triangles try to exert their will by using the pressure of numbers. They also avoid responsibility for their own opinions by getting someone else to express it for them. In healthy families, members take responsibility for their own feelings and desires. They are not afraid to say “I” and do not need to manipulate others in order to say “we” for added pressure. Our staff has a covenant that if a church member complains about one of us to another member of the church staff, the minister receiving the complaint will tell the church member to speak directly to the other minister. The same principle holds true when a member of the congregation wants a minister to confront another church member about a problem. It is a rare situation where we need to solve a problem between two other people.
Thus, what makes for health in family relationships makes for health in church relationships, too. Dysfunctional patterns at home are equally as dysfunctional at church. Build a culture of health by modeling positive behaviors yourself. If you serve in a multi-staff congregation, agree with other ministers how you expect each other to act and then hold each other accountable. Do the same for the entire church. Health will breed more health. The culture of the church will begin to work in favor of strong relationships and stand against dysfunctional attempts to hijack the congregation for purposes other than serving Christ.