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Home > 2014 > August Online Only > The Koinonia Way

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 ...

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Posted: August 5, 2014

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Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments

Tim Aagard

August 06, 2014  5:52pm

You are so right about “authoritarian leadership” but you seem to only refer to controlling leaders. “Elders who rule” and “obey your leaders” are bogus translations in view of Jesus words “exercising authority”…”not so among you”. I’m guessing you did not point that out because 99% of pastors want some authority at some point to push someone around and appear godly about it. Nice people do ugly things when they they think Jesus gave them an office and a title and a pay check. I know you give yourself permission to push hot buttons on the laity when you preach. I hope I have permission to push hot buttons for the clergy in two-way communication on this blog. There is so much interwoven deception in the system that must be unwound interactively. Will you join in the conversation in the koinonia way? I'm your brother. I'm not trying to be rude.

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Tim Aagard

August 06, 2014  5:46pm

In “Broadening vocation” you give basis for marketplace work as sacred, not secular. You could also have shown how Paul worked to “meet his own needs” Acts 20 so he could minister “free of charge” 1 Cor. 9:15 setting an “example to follow” 2 Thes. 3 so he could “reach more and more” people and be “all things to all people” 1 Cor. 9 and not be a “burden” on God’s people 2 Cor. 12 and on and on. But you didn’t. This is God’s call to you to get a marketplace job yourself. It’s sacred work and with huge ministry benefits that don’t cause burn out. You won’t be a “muzzled ox”. God’s people are all muzzled in the worship hour as one man lectures. Heb 10 tells us that in the “new and living way” paid for by the death of Jesus. Believers can “ spur one another on to love and good works” and “encourage one another”. This is “the habit of meeting” we are “not to forsake”. Instead we forsake it every time they line up in pews. Lecture feeding will always push koinonia to the rear burner.

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Tim Aagard

August 06, 2014  5:40pm

Brother Smith, you are so right about pastoral burn out and many other issues you list but I fear your solutions change little about what is done and mostly about how we talk. The consumerism of church as you know it will not change until believers learn to do church in a manner that does not consume 86% of the giving on average. This percentage is mostly driven by two items - special buildings for crowd gathering and hiring a Bible lecturer (dominant responsibility) called a pastor. No matter how believers talk, if they continue to assume they must consume 86% of their “giving”, their hearts are chained to consumer assumptions that go with that. A simple reality. There is a simple alternative where 100% of believers giving goes beyond pooling for mostly themselves.

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