January is a typical month for giving attention to one’s body after the gluttony of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The airwaves are full of advertisements for the latest nutrition, exercise or medicinal program for losing weight, regaining physical strength or feeling well. Metrics of bodily health abound with physical examinations involving blood tests, stress tests and scans for advanced diseases.
An annual checkup for congregational health is also a worthy practice, but the question remains, “How do we know how healthy our church is?”
When it comes to the complexities of congregational life, health may vary among individual churches based on their year of founding, age of the membership, socioeconomic status, life cycle of their history, location, community context and a host of other variables.
In spite of this variety of congregational life, there are descriptors church leaders can apply to conduct a health checkup for their church. Here are seven core areas to assess congregational health:
1. Visionary commitment
I have been working with congregations in a variety of ways for more than 50 years now. The most common malady of “dis-ease” or “anxiety” in the church is the tendency to assess where we are in the present in terms of the past.
It is such a temptation to evaluate the current state of the church in terms of a more glorious past. The older we are and the longer we have been involved in a local church, the more likely we will succumb to this temptation to judge our present by the way we used to be.
Healthy congregations live in excitement with possibility. However, it only happens when there is a basic commitment among the participants to the reign of God in their midst. Vision for the church must come from beyond itself.
Only as the Spirit of God works within the lives of members of the community of faith will it have true vitality and health. The sign of the Spirit’s presence is the future anticipation of God’s people.
2. Clarity of identity
An ability to answer the question, “Who are we?” is life-giving and motivating for excellence. Identity is clarity of mission, a common understanding of our core values and what we do to make them central to all we undertake together.
I worked with a congregation recently torn apart by division. Their conflict was rooted in the reality that they were two congregations with conflicting core values.
In another congregation, there was as much diversity of perspectives as one could imagine, yet the church was unified by a clear vision of who they were and a commitment to a set of core values that affirmed their acceptance of each other in spite of their differences.
Tolerance is an essential sign of health.
3. Balance of functions
Healthy congregations seek to maintain balance in the essential functions of a congregation.
These include dynamic worship, a creative education environment where participants are growing in their understanding of faith, a relational interaction among the members where care and concern are shown, and effective connection in mission to the community of which they are a part.
4. Symmetry of structures
Unhealthy congregations tend to get sidetracked into the support functions where their attention and energy are more focused on building, staff issues and anxiety about finances.
These support functions can be in their proper place if there is a thoughtful and creative implementation of ministry plans that are embodied in available structures.
Resources and visions connect. Staff fit the tradition and ethos of the church. Facilities fit the size and generosity of the church.
5. Synergy of love and generosity
Congregational health is a product of loving relationships. The church is one of the few places in our society where genuine care and intimacy can be experienced between people and staff and among the participants in the congregation.
The synergy of love produces the practice of true generosity of time in caring and serving; of money for the mission of the church; engaged participation in worship, learning, hospitality toward others; and connecting with the community of the church.
6. Attention to emotional toxicity
Even the healthiest of churches have toxic feelings and practices evident within them.
The challenge is to monitor the emotional anxiety within the relational life of the church to ensure that feelings and actions of anger, criticism and sabotage of ministries follow the biblical principles of direct communication with individuals, open communication of differences with respect of others, forgiveness toward one another, and acceptance of diverse perspectives (see Matthew 18:15-22, 2 Corinthians 4, Galatians 5:22-26, Philippians 4:1-9 and a host of other passages).
7. Move from diagnosis to prescription
Bodily health is more than a diagnosis of disease. Every diagnosis requires the prescription of exercise, nutrition, medication or advanced treatments.
Likewise, congregations need external resources of diagnosis and intentional attention to those practices that build the body of the congregation with care, ministry and visionary strategies for new futures.
Larry McSwain is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Congregations. He is a retired professor of leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared in The Center for Healthy Churches’ blog and is used with permission.