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1002 UUU - The Marks of a Healthy Congregation
Governance for Congregations, Leadership Development

Prepared for by Jone Johnson Lewis, reporter; Margy Levine Young, editor

Speaker: Peter L. Steinke

Dr. Peter L. Steinke continued his topic of "Congregation as Emotional Systems," begun in his opening keynote, in the first workshop in the Congregational Leadership Track for UU University participants.

Steinke began by defining health for congregations as balance. The concept of health applies only to living organisms, and like other living organisms, the congregation's "immune system" is activated when challenged. The "mind affects molecules" in human health, and we've learned that thoughts and feelings are important to health. Health is enhanced when the congregational community functions well; "poorly functioning congregations don't attract people."

Steinke then outlined the characteristics of health congregations:

  • Healthy congregations focus on mission. This, he pointed out, does not mean merely that the congregation has a mission statement, but that it uses that mission statement to organize its activities. A good mission statement, Steinke noted, is no longer than a sentence, with no more than one comma, "can be understood by a 12-year-old and can be repeated at gunpoint." Mission helps mobilize the energy of the community; if the congregation isn't focused on mission, it will focus on its past, its budget, problems or something else.
  • Healthy congregations focus on challenge. Most congregations, Steinke pointed out, go under-challenged, but are like people who feel better when they exercise. Congregations sometimes need to create small challenges, and meet them with successes and good outcomes.
  • Healthy congregations focus on strengths. Congregations need to stop trying to recover old strengths they no longer have, but to focus on those they do have. This means building up options; feeling trapped without options builds anxiety.
  • Healthy congregations manage conflict. It is almost impossible, Steinke told the leaders, to change without crisis. In one study Steinke cited, those congregations that were able to change had strong pastoral leadership, laity with a high level of education and/or a willingness to learn, and were willing to bear conflict. Where change did not occur, there was always an aversion to conflict. Healthy leaders, he added, have a greater toleration of pain in themselves and others.
  • Healthy congregations see clarity. These congregations have clear boundaries, have defined what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and are willing to confront when needed.

Steinke continued with ten principles of healthy congregations. A version of this list is also in his book, Healthy Congregations.

  • Health is not a static condition. Health is defined in a context and that may change.
  • It is okay to be sick and to have some anxiety. Both sickness and health are adaptations to changing environments.
  • Medicines and physicians themselves do not heal. That which helps during sickness is that which gets the patient's own powers going.
  • Agents of disease are not the causes of disease. Diseases need host cells and environments which allow them to thrive. Steinke pointed out that he doesn't like the book Clergy Killers for this reason; the whole congregation empowers "clergy killers" and focusing on the agents is not adequate. Silence can say "go for it" and is not helpful in stopping problems.
  • All illness is biopsychosocial. Beliefs are part of an interlocking system, and everything is connected. A congregation, like a person, can be depressed: there is no joy, no spirit. A healthy congregation needs elements of joy and good spirit.
  • Pay attention to small conditions before they grow. Delaying action does not mean that the problem is managed. Steinke later clarified that delay is distinguished from slow process; the latter means that communication is happening; the former is when you're operating as if there's no problem.
  • Every body is different.
  • To solve problems, you can't just get rid of "bad blood" (an old medical myth). The body needs to increase blood flow to ailing parts of the body; so too congregations need feedback loops for health. The human body has incredible communication avenues, and so should the congregation. "You can't overinform" in the church, said Steinke.
  • Health requires proper breathing and tone, which Steinke likened to "good spirit" in the congregation.
  • The brain is an incredible pharmacy, more than a computer. In a congregation, leadership directs so much. Leadership has to function well for a body or congregation to function well; good leadership is not reactive, not anxious, and not afraid.

In the question period, Dr. Steinke responded to several questions on lay/clergy authority issues, pointing out that actually such tension is "pretty ecumenical." Pastors and congregations, he added, don't spend a lot of time defining how leadership and authority will play out.

Steinke also spoke to issues of differentiation for congregation or board presidents. Clarity that the role is being assumed for a limited period of time is helpful, and it's important to stay connected and to be a leader.

He also spoke to issues of democracy. Groups that are Episcopal want to be more congregational and congregational groups want to have bishops; there are built-in tensions. What's important, said Steinke, is to gain and implement clarity, and not violate principles.

Several questions were about how to deal with individuals who'd helped congregations stay together by over-functioning, and now that over-functioning was getting in the way. Steinke pointed out that we can't take care of people's feelings, if they continue to feel dismissed.

In answer to other questions about time, urgency, and those individuals who see the need for change early, Steinke noted that resistance and rejection are part of the process, and it's not possible to avoid misery. Leaders will attract bullets. A congregation has to ask whether the anxiety of those whose tendency is to nay-say (usually about 16%) is going to determine the congregation's future. And if one or a few have a vision, and can find others with the same vision, they should begin to take action. If their vision's not accepted, they may not be re-elected - but that's the risk of leadership. He added that change missionaries need to mobilize change agents to foster the change; this has the advantage of delegating the anxiety and "sharing the bullets."