Church Leadership
4 Proven Strategies for the Care and Treatment of an Unhealthy Church
Unhealthy churches aren’t like healthy ones. Acting as though they are doesn’t help them, it hurts them.

There are a lot of books and articles about how a healthy church should behave.

That’s appropriate. We should always have a picture of our desired future in our hearts and minds.

But what does a pastor do with an unhealthy church?

I’m going to propose a radical idea that shouldn’t be considered radical at all.

Unhealthy churches should be pastored differently than healthy churches.

Because unhealthy churches aren’t like healthy ones. And acting as though they are doesn’t help them, it hurts them.

Some Churches Need a Spiritual ICU

Someone with two healthy legs is able to stand, walk and jump. But treating a broken leg as if it’s not broken will hurt it, not help it. If the medical issue is serious enough, the patient is put in an Intensive Care Unit to get closer attention.

The same goes for churches. Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy ones if they have any hope of recovery.

Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy ones if they have any hope of recovery.

Some of them need a spiritual ICU. But we don’t usually do that.

Too often, we tell hurting, broken, unhealthy churches to start acting like their strong, healthy siblings. Or we tell them how to get bigger, assuming that bigger equals healthier. Then we can’t understand why so many of them stay unhealthy or get sicker.

Some Good Ideas Don’t Work – At Least Not Yet

Here are some characteristics of a healthy church:

  • The people have been trained to do the work of ministry
  • There’s a focus on the people who aren’t there, not just the people who are there
  • More time, energy and money is spent on ministry than maintenance
  • There’s less hand-holding from the pastor

Those are great ideas. If the church is already healthy.

But implementing those principles too quickly in an unhealthy church is like trying to run on a broken leg. They’ll harm it more than help it.

Some pastoral leadership books and blog posts should come with a warning label: DO NOT ATTEMPT IF YOUR CHURCH IS NOT HEALTHY! It would save many pastors from a lot of unnecessary grief.

So what are some of the ways in which an unhealthy church should be treated differently than a healthy one?

1. Do More Hands-On Pastoral Care

So much of the current advice about pastoring seems to be about how to pastor less, not more.

That might make sense in a big and/or healthy church. But in small churches it can cause distance and distrust. And in an unhealthy church it can kill the patient – or the doctor (sometimes both). An ICU has more doctors per patient than a standard hospital room. It’s only when the patient becomes healthier that they receive less attention from health care professionals.

Before a pastor steps back from hands-on pastoral care, we need to ask a very important question. “Is the patient healthy enough for this yet?”

I was a very hands-on pastor for many years. And I don’t regret it. Because I had inherited a very unhealthy, broken church and they needed a lot of attention for those first years.

Now I’m far less hands-on. Because part of the work I did during the hands-on season was to train others to do the work of ministry. Now the patient is healthy and does a much better job taking care of herself.

2. Make Fewer Demands on the Congregation

Too many pastors think the answer for a broken church is to push them to do more. That may be the quickest way to kill an ailing congregation.

There are a lot of very busy, very ill churches. As I mentioned in How to De-Clutter Your Church for More Effective Ministry, it’s foolhardy to add more ministries to a church that’s struggling with their current ministries.

It’s foolhardy to add more ministries to a church that’s struggling with their current ministries.

No, don’t coddle the church. But there are seasons when churches need rest more than they need exercise.

That happened in the first few years at my current church. They’d been through five pastors in ten years, each of which brought new ideas and a new set of activities to go with them. The church was worn out from trying to please each pastor.

So I gave them a rest. For a couple years, we worshiped, taught scripture and hung out at picnics and potlucks. After a while, the patient got stronger and started standing, then walking on her own.

Today, I’m thrilled to pastor one of the strongest, most innovative and healthiest churches I know. But we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t slowed down for those years of much-needed, purposeful rest.

3. Alternate Short Bursts of Activity With Long Periods of Rest

Once a church starts getting healthy, a wise pastor will protect them from the temptation to do too much, too soon.

A church recovering from ill-health and brokenness needs to be challenged. Then they need to rest. This helps them assess, heal and prepare for the next challenge.

As I mentioned in Bungee Cord Leadership: Leveraging Tension to Lead a Church Through Change, we have to help people stretch beyond their own comfort, but not so far that it will break them.

Knowing just how far that is before giving them a break is another reason congregations need more hands-on pastoral care during these seasons.

4. Fill Them Up Before Emptying Them Out

Of the five marks of a healthy church, some fill us up, others empty us out.

Fill up with:

  • Worship
  • Fellowship
  • Discipleship

Empty out with:

  • Discipleship
  • Ministry
  • Evangelism

Yes, Discipleship is on both lists. It’s the bridge that fills us up with knowledge and training, then it empties us out when we put it into practice.

A healthy church maintains an even balance of filling themselves up and emptying themselves out.

A healthy church maintains an even balance of filling themselves up and emptying themselves out. But an unhealthy church tends to lean heavily, sometimes exclusively towards one list, neglecting the other.

Some churches are filling stations. They spend all their time inside the church walls, singing, having potlucks and the like. They may even get filled up with tons of Bible teaching, giving them a false sense of healthfulness.

Other churches are so obsessed with working that they burn people out with activities, without giving them adequate time to get re-filled.

But let’s face it, 90 percent of unhealthy churches aren’t dealing with the problem of giving too much. They’re stuck on the first list. Because of that, many pastors make the mistake of trying to fix their church by moving them off the fill-up list and getting them busy with outward-facing activities almost exclusively. This is very dangerous. (See point #2, above).

A church that is emptying themselves in ministry may think they’re healthy, because they’re busy. But, unless they’re also filling up with teaching, worship and fellowship, they’re as unhealthy as the church that keeps to themselves. We need to follow the example of Jesus who regularly pulled away from doing ministry to get re-filled.

A healthy human body needs to fill up through nutrition and empty out through exercise. So does a healthy church.

In the meantime, an unhealthy church may need a little more filling up before they have something to empty out.

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