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To Flourish, Congregations must be Emotionally Healthy

The other day, I found myself hearing yet another story of a congregational development effort that had gone wrong. My colleague had done everything right, according to a well-tested program, but somehow things still went badly wrong. Looking back, he said, "I should have noticed that all their previous pastors had been ousted under odd circumstances." In the end, that's exactly what happened to him too.

At least my colleague is not alone. Situations like this happen all the time in church-land: a good program fails when it's brought face to face with the actual, real-life people of a congregation.

There are thousands of programs to make a congregation awesome, so why is it that some congregations are able to flourish, while others, despite all the best programs and intentions in the world, simply don't?

This is not only a Church question. Over the past decade or so, the Harvard Business School Press has published a lot of books on the theme of "why are some organizations so creative and adaptable and others aren't?" The answer? It seems that Edwin Friedman was right (Generation to Generation, 1985): there are underlying emotional dynamics that affect everything that happens in any given community - a business, a corporation, or even a congregation. Now, Friedman's intellectual successors (like Ron Heifetz & Marty Linsky) are giving us new insights and resources to understand organizations better

When emotional dynamics are healthy, organizations are vibrant, creative, risk-taking and highly adaptable, being able to meet any challenge with ease while retaining the essence of their identity. When the emotional dynamics are poor, organizations are rigid and reactive, trying to ignore or dismiss the need for change, and unable to cope with conflict.

We've all seen this in congregational life. Some congregations are places of incredible creativity, adaptability and risk-taking in service of the Gospel. Other congregations fracture over disproportionately small issues. I heard once of a church that lost 20 families because the Sanctuary was given a new coat of paint in the same colour. The situation didn't get any better once those people had left: the toxic emotional dynamic underlay the entire congregation.

This gives us an additional set of diagnostic tools for understanding congregational vitality. Whether a congregation has 20 or 2,000 parishioners, we can ask: are there small issues that are blown out of proportion? (Teacups seem to be a contentious focal point in many Anglican parishes!). Are there repeated negative patterns in the congregation's history, particularly moments of fracture? How has the congregation dealt with major change before? Has the congregation been able to compromise to heal a conflict?

More than average Sunday attendance and the state of the balance sheet, these diagnostic tools help us understand a congregation's vitality. They'll affect whether a new program will work, whether people will leave because of conflict, whether the congregation can adapt to whatever changes will come its way in the future. In order to flourish, congregations must be emotionally healthy.

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