Churches today face a deep health crisis. No, I'm not referring to the rising cost of healthcare, or the obesity epidemic (though both are troubling). I have in mind the problem of pastoral burnout, and the congregational cultures that foster this disease.
The symptoms of pastoral burnout have been well-documented over the last 25 years: ministerial dropout rates approaching 50 percent, rising use of antidepressants, obesity, hypertension, and more. While programs like Duke Divinity School's Clergy Health Initiative and the Lily Endowment's National Clergy Renewal Program have emerged over the last 15 years to raise awareness and work to foster healthier clergy, there seems to be less effort focused on addressing the other side of the equation—promoting healthier congregational cultures that do not burn out their clergy, leaders, and members.
Fred Lehr's book Clergy Burnout is a helpful resource for thinking about how the culture of a congregation contributes to the health of a church. Lehr uses the pointed language of codependency to describe the conditions that contribute to pastoral burnout. Congregations that expect their pastors to over-perform are often enabled to do less work than we have been called to do as members of Christ's body. Lehr suggests that the journey from unhealthy congregations to healthy ones is marked by a shift in the clergy/laity relationship from codependency to interdependence.
In our recent book Slow Church, John Pattison and I offered a vision of what it means for churches to mature as healthy, interdependent communities. Recognizing the ways that our brokenness as individuals, churches, and societies manifest in congregations, we believe in God's transforming power—and in the possibility of cultivating congregations that are healthier for pastors and laity.
I believe that changing how we understand and function together as local church communities might set us on a journey toward healthier, interdependent congregations.
The language of fellowship
First, let's examine the sort of language and images we use to describe our life in the local church. The language of "going to church" (versus "being the church" or "belonging to a church") inclines us to think of church as a religious community where the clergy are professionals who do the work and churchgoers are basically consumers of religious goods and services. It's not difficult to see how this consumerist notion of church feeds into codependency and burnout.
In addition to language of being and belonging, the New Testament word koinonia is a term used to describe healthy, interdependent congregations. Although typically translated into English as "fellowship" (and reduced from there into images of chit-chat over a meal or coffee), this word had a much richer definition in the New Testament world. Perhaps it could be better translated in our age as "sharing in common."
If indeed God is calling us as churches into a deeper life of sharing, then how do we talk about and organize our life together in ways that orient us out of a faith defined largely by passive consumption and toward a faith marked by engaged participation in the koinonia of the local church? How can we foster communities that share in common?